Susan Penhaligon talks about the filming of Under Milk Wood

2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the completion and first performance of Dylan Thomas’s play for voices “Under Milk Wood”. First performed in 1953, shortly before the poet’s death in New York at the age of 39, the play has become a radio and theatre classic.

Written as a radio play, the BBC first recorded the work two months after Thomas’s death and made further recordings in 1963 and 2003. All three versions cast Richard Burton as ‘first voice’, the 2003 production utilising the late actor’s earlier voice recording. The play has also become a perennial stage favourite around the world with numerous productions every year.

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But while radio and theatre productions continue to appear, only one serious attempt has been made to take the work to the big screen. The 1972 film version directed by Andrew Sinclair had it’s own anniversary last year and to mark the occasion Mr Sinclair generously gifted the film’s media rights to the Welsh nation. The Milkwood Trust has been set up to administer the income generated by the film and screenplay, and will help to fund artistic and cultural projects in Wales. The director also donated his collection of memorabilia and artefacts relating to the making of the film to the film library of the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.

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The film was shot on location in Fishguard, Pembrokeshire, with a fine, mainly Welsh cast led by Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and Peter O’Toole. Sadly many of the cast are no longer with us, and 2012 saw the passing of Victor Spinetti and Angharad Rees. Amongst the younger members of the cast were David Jason who played Nogood Boyo, Ruth Madoc who played Mrs Dai Bread II, and Susan Penhaligon who played Mae Rose Cottage.

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Dylan Thomas News was lucky enough to catch up with actress Susan Penhaligon recently and asked her about her memories of the filming.

DTN How did you come to be cast in UMW?

SP My agent sent me to the casting for Under Milk Wood. I had to go to Wales, Fishguard, in the middle of winter, because they had already started filming, to meet Andrew Sinclair.

I assumed the interview would take place in an office somewhere, but it turned out I had to meet him on location, which happened to be the middle of a muddy field. I had rather foolishly decided to wear ‘hot pants’ (all the rage in the 1970s) and my pink canvas Biba high boots. I’m afraid there was much mirth as I tramped through the mud and rain, (it was always raining) getting covered in muck. But I got the part.

DTN Were you familiar with Under Milk Wood & Dylan’s other work at the time?

SP I was very familiar with Dylan Thomas’ work. He has always been a favourite poet, and I love poetry. I knew Under Milk Wood very well. I suppose being Cornish I always felt a connection with him. UMW could have been any Cornish fishing village too.

DTN Did you know any of your fellow cast members?

SP I don’t think I knew any of the cast members. I know I walked into the hotel bar on my first night before filming, and the actors were speaking Welsh. I though ‘bloody hell’ wonder it they’ll accept me when they know I’m Cornish. They were quite a clique.

DTN Did you mix with Burton and Taylor?

SP Sadly I never met the Burtons or O’Toole. It was filmed in blocks. A very large cast and we weren’t filming at the same time.

DTN What was it like filming on location in Fishguard?

SP Fishguard, was grey, wet, windy. It was February. Why they filmed in that month I’ll never know. I always pictured UMW in the sun, on a summer’s day. We did some night filming, standing on a street for hours, and I remember one of the other actresss naming the spot ‘cystitis corner’.

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DTN What other memories do you have of the filming?

SP I remember the scene when Mae Rose Cottage has to draw lipstick on her breasts. It was filmed on the side of a hill on a freezing day. I was quite shy to have the crew looking at me topless, so Andrew Sinclair had a skeleton crew film me, cameraman, sound, DP, and him.  The problem was, in the cold, the lipstick kept breaking and we had to do a number of takes. After each take the make-up man had to run up the hill to take the lipstick off which made a red splodge all over me. Andrew stood behind the camera with a megaphone shouting ‘be sexy’. Not sure he quite understood the actor’s ‘process’, Ha Ha. But he loved the words, and was obsessed with making the film, as all film makers should be.

I also remember the young David Jason, before he was known, fooling around in the bar, being very funny. I thought he’s going to be successful one day. True.

DTN What did you think of the finished film and it’s critical reception?

SP I can’t remember the reviews for the film, I don’t think they were very good. When I saw it I thought, it was written for radio and perhaps that’s where it works best.

DTN Do you ever bump into any of your fellow cast members?

SP I knew Angharad (Rees) quite well. Our son’s were the same age, and bizarrely looked similar when they were boys. It’s very sad she has gone.

DTN Do you have a favourite piece of Dylan Thomas’s work, or a favourite quotation?

SP All of it!

DTN Did you know of Dylan’s Cornish connection? (Dylan Thomas married Caitlin Macnamara in Penzance registry office in 1937).

SP I did know of the Cornish connection, in fact I wrote a poem about it.

 (Susan has very kindly agreed to her poem appearing in this blog)

 DYLAN THOMAS AND THE MERMAID OF ZENNOR

Who is it that combs her streaming hair
with dark carved lily teeth?
Only the mermaid calling melancholic from the cove,
blowing through deep water coils,
reverberating in the spongy hills.
And Dylan, unprepared,
drunkenly one day in Zennor,
up to his eyes in pinks and pathos,
heard the mermaid’s lament
full of Celtic cries and lost amour,
tangled by star fish weeds.
Lured down to the sands,
he stood bewitched before the sunken siren,
and finally,
drowned his sorrows in a sea of words.
© Susan Penhaligon

Susan has also written a novel “For The Love Of Angel”, published in 2008.

We’d like to thank Susan very much for sharing her memories of the filming.

The film is currently touring a number of  independent cinemas in 2013.

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  1. February 2013 News Round Up & Forthcoming Events | Dylan Thomas News
  2. Sixty Years of Under Milk Wood | Dylan Thomas News

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