Liangadock I met a strolling player, a true descendant of the harlequins
of the Middle Ages, bringing with him to the Towy Valley the glamour and
pathos of Punchinello and of Columbine, dazzling the youth from the
villages around with the glare and romance of the footlights.
indeed, was a personality, a figure 50 fascinating, flitting across the
scene for a week in so secluded and so puritanical a place as Liangadock.
That the townlet was in the midst of a feast for the eye and the mind I
had seen by a notice which announced: “The Carlton Players, the famous
dramatic repertory company,” who were to act “A Great Eastern Romance,
Allah’s Orchard— exceptionally fine pathos, great comedy;
The Life of an Actress—a fine domestic drama; Wanted—a Wife,
Orphans of the Storm, and other masterpieces of the English stage.”
sought out the players, and it was thus I met Billy Vernon, the comedian.
He was short and wiry, and quick in his movements, like an india-rubber
ball. He had a dark narrow head, and above and beneath his eyes there were
blue and black daubs of the previous night’s paint.
with a strong Lancashire accent, he told me the secrets of his profession.
Fannie’ is my gag,” he explained. “I come on and I shout, ‘Auntie
Fannie, whoop!’ ‘Auntie Fannie, whoop!’ and it goes over splendidly.
But in Wales you have to do something special to get the audience on your
side. So I sing a song called ‘Home,’ and I ask the audience what it
means, and they shout ‘Cartref! ‘ So I say, ‘I’m now going to sing
it in Yorkshire,’ and I sing:
mae’n hoff gen i gartref,
bendigedig yw cartref! It gets them every
he sang in a sweet tenor voice.
you sing in Welsh,” I said.
am Welsh, and although my stage name is Billy Vernon my real name is
Jenkins. My wife’s grandfather was Liewelyn Lloyd, Pontypridd, the old
Welsh comedian. And that reminds me of a story.”
told me how, at Briton Ferry, he had met an old man of 74 who had never
seen a play in his life. He, therefore, took the old man to see “The
Maid of Cefn Ydfa,” in which he (Billy Vernon) sang “Gwenith Gwyn.”
After the play the old man came out greatly moved, and said to the singer:
is only one man who could sing that song so well, and he was Tom Jenkins,
my father,” said the actor. The old man was amazed, and said, “Then
you are my nephew, for Tom Jenkins, Sketty, was my brother.”
actor had his connections with Wales and certainly knew the Welsh audience
well. I asked him first what he thought of the country audience, and his
reply was sharp: “They respond more to emotion than wit. In comedy they
want the really old-fashioned slapstick stuff. They cannot see a subtle
burlesque gag. In drama they don’t like seeing murders in the country,
and they prefer a poisoning. But what goes down well is singing, but
it’s got to be original because the Welsh are very critical.”
what about the colliery districts?” I asked. Billy Vernon replied,
“When you act there you must remember that the audience always has a
sense of grievance. If you voice that, you are its friend. So I sometimes
come on and I say, ‘I was walking past a colliery when I picked up a
thruppenybit. I takes it to the manager. He says to me, ‘What yer
bothering me with that for?’ and I replies, ‘Well, I thought one of
your miners had lost his weekly wage!
colliery audience is also very critical in Billy Vernon’s opinion and
will on hearing a singer say, “John Jones in our street can sing as well
as that!” He recalled an incident in a mining village when his company
was playing “The Garden of Allah,” in which a sandstorm takes place on
the stage. This is arranged by the dropping of sawdust from a barrel
behind the wings. Billy had gone to the back of the hall to observe the
scenic effects, when he heard an unemployed man, who only paid threepence
to get in, remark, “Jawks, it’s only sawdust!
comedian immediately turned to him with the shaft: “What the — do you
expect for threepence? Blinking camels?“
Welsh audience revels in pathos. After “East Lynne” one of the women
present came up to the comedian with the words, “Oh, I enjoyed it
lovely; I cried all the time.”
of the rich farmers who sometimes attend are, however, disconcerting, for
they have a habit of staring at the footwear of the actors in order to see
whether they are down at heel. But Billy Vernon is no snob. “I do not
believe in playing up to the swells who can afford to pay a shilling for
their seats,” he declared to me with dignity. “My duty is to the 150
who pay their threepennies.”
my travelling comedian is a democrat to the core, and his wit is certainly
more likely to arouse the cheers of the gallery than it is to tickle the
more delicate wit of the stalls.
a dramatic gesture my strolling player bade me adieu. I had had a glimpse
into another world, the world of the footlights, with its own philosophy,
with its old traditions going back to long before Shakespeare, with its
mixture of humour and pathos, and with its keen study of the whims of the
crowd. What a discovery in the calm beauty of the Towy Valley! And how
fitting that a real comedian should ring down the curtain over my search
for personalities in Wales!
September 16tb, 1933