11 May 2008 7 comments. tbs.pm/2317
“The difficulty in Wales is that you can’t afford to specialise in one thing if you want to earn a living… so you have to try everything. The great danger is that the standard is going to drop. If you can keep the standard up, then the problem doesn’t arise.”
-(Ryan Davies, television interview)
Ryan Davies certainly tried everything in the field of entertainment. Here was a comedy actor and writer, a mimic, a songwriter, musician and singer; and he never let the standard slip – he excelled in all of them. In doing so, he became the first true superstar of Welsh television; one, moreover, whose reach also extended beyond the boundary of his homeland to the greater Britain beyond. And what is more remarkable still is that he achieved all this in scarcely more than a decade of work.
He was born in the village of Glanaman on the western edge of the South Wales coalfield on 22 January 1937, the only child of William and Nance Davies. His mother ran nursing homes, which meant that parts of his childhood were spent in Llanelli and the mid-Wales town of Llanfyllin, in addition to summers spent with his grandmother on the edge of the Black Mountain:
“Mamgu had a ranch beside the Black Mountain…Yes, she did! A ranch!…Well, it was a farm really….Alright, it was a smallholding….A cow and a sow!”
There’s a Welsh phrase, ‘Y Pethe’. Taken literally, it simply means ‘The Things’, but used as an idiom it denotes those elements which were (and still are) central to a cultured upbringing in a Welsh-speaking community: poetry, music, recitation, performing. These attributes Ryan imbibed with his mother’s milk and they fired his desire to entertain.
That he had such a desire was obvious from an early age. Even as a small boy, he wrote tunes at the family piano and entertained in the lounge of the Angel pub in Glanaman. A childhood friend recalled how the young Ryan would act out things he had seen, such as Charlie Chaplin routines.
After leaving school, and after National Service in the RAF (where he claimed to have spent the whole two years underground), he went to Bangor to train to be a teacher. A year at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London followed, after which he began work at a school in Croydon. The actor and screen polemicist Kenneth Griffith remembered him “…running here, running there; doing this, doing that; without any tyranny at all”. Being ‘in exile’, however, didn’t mean that the connection with home had been lost; Ryan Davies was a regular performer in the National Eisteddfod with the London Welsh, which was where his first big move towards fame beckoned.
The BBC’s dedicated television service for Wales had started in February 1964, and the first head of Light Entertainment in Cardiff was the folk-music historian and singer Meredydd Evans. “It became very clear to me in a short space of time”, said Evans, “that we had to have a kernel of people who could live full-time on this business if we were to develop entertainment properly. And it was also completely obvious to me with whom I should discuss this first, because I had seen Ryan performing many times […] and had worked with him myself on more than one television programme. So one knew perfectly well that this was the man to start the whole thing off. He could dance, he could sing, he could create comedy characters, he could move easily”.
Another performer/producer, Mari Griffith, confirms the fortuitous turn of events which led to stardom: “He was a child of his time, somehow. That is, BBC Wales television had started […] and Ryan had started on his career about the same time. And he mastered his medium. That is, he understood television”.
The work started to come in regularly, for both television – BBC and the commercial channel TWW – and radio, and by 1966 it was clear that Ryan Davies would have to abandon his teaching career and become a full-time performer. It wasn’t long before a whole new avenue appeared for his work.
In 1967, he was booked for a series alongside Johnny Tudor, Gillian Thomas and a struggling actor from Cefneithin in the Gwendraeth valley (a couple of valleys along from his own) called Ronnie Williams, who had been working as a BBC Wales announcer. After a short while, it became obvious that Davies and Williams had something special going in the way they played off one another. It was a given, therefore, given the paucity of talent available – at least in numerical terms – that the two would team up on a more permanent basis.
Just as there was little history of comedy in Welsh broadcasting (Welsh Rarebit starring the inimitable Gladys Morgan a decade and a half before had been the only real antecedent, and that had been in English), there was no history of double acts – least of all on television. Meredydd Evans again: “No-one had done it in the way that these boys did it, because the point was that we wanted the kind of comedy which would compare entirely favourably with English comedy. And it worked. It worked”.
Three successful television series in Welsh followed. Although there was no yardstick of precedence by which the quality of the shows could easily be measured, Evans’ ambitions for the show seemed to be realised. Indeed, perhaps the most remarkable thing was that the shows were enjoyed every bit as much by those who had no knowledge of the language at all. Ryan’s manager Mike Evans recalled, “The countless people who said to me that they enjoyed watching his Welsh language output, yet could not understand a single word, was quite remarkable”.
That this should be so was almost certainly down to Ryan Davies’ remarkable talent for physical comedy. His innate skill was allied with a physiognomy and a physique which were made for humour. He was wiry, agile, and had a head which was almost Roman in profile; full on, however, he had a thin, angular, but highly expressive face which could look pugnacious, seedy, lascivious or mad in turn. He was, in short, a comic actor, able to create characters which were utterly convincing; so much so that Ronnie Williams said many years later, “When I’d be ‘interviewing’ him […] I’d look into his eyes, and it wasn’t Ryan there at all”.
His characterisations were minutely observed and assembled, be it the dubious piano tuner Rachmaninov Evans (who turned up at a couple’s house, played their fake-teak upright – complete with a sly, Liberace-like simper straight to camera – then confided to his hosts, “That there’s out of tune!”); or the seediest-looking Russian folk singer who ever existed, fronting (and very nearly corpsing) a whole choir with his rendition of Kalinka; or his array of variations on the theme of ‘valleys housewife’.
It wasn’t just the physical comedy, though. Davies and Williams wrote nearly all of their material themselves in those days, and they demonstrated – in whichever language they were working – both a love of words and that subversive groundling spirit which is often to be found at the core of nations or societies which have found themselves on the thick end of the truncheon of history. From the simple guying of noted figures – greeting the dramatist Gwenlyn Parry (who was, in fact, a personal friend) as ‘Gwendolyn’ to his face, and referring to the nation’s towering, almost Papal, cultural figure of Saunders Lewis as ‘Sandra Lewis’ – to more nuanced, cosmopolitan references – parodies not only of Steptoe And Son but even Rowan and Martin at the height of Laugh-In’s popularity on the BBC. For these two men were not confined to their own native culture, but had a thorough knowledge of Anglo-American entertainment as well. Ryan’s peripatetic upbringing and young adulthood also provided him with a variety of accents upon which he could draw to great effect.
It was this combination of talents which Bill Cotton picked up on when he attended a recording of their Welsh-language show, and the man who was to make BBC1 the natural home of top-class comedy in the 1970s promptly signed them up to do three series in English for network consumption. This meant working in London, and they had to face down the inevitable accusation – at a time of great cultural and political upheaval and sensitivity in Wales – of ‘selling out’. They brushed this off, Davies saying that he always felt more comfortable working in Welsh – especially with Ronnie – and the stage was set for the duo to go to the next level.
In their English series, the same styles could be seen at work, but now on a broader canvas (such as the parodies I mentioned earlier). In some ways they also played to – and sent up – metropolitan stereotypes of the Welsh. This reached its zenith in the regular Our House sketch, where a family of Valleys grotesques faced a new crisis every week. Ryan Davies played ‘Mam’ like a sort of deranged Rachel Thomas, clad in pinny and headscarf, holding the loaf of bread as if breast-feeding it as she cut the most uneven slices off with the bread-knife. Ronnie played Wil, the ineffectual paterfamilias, whose closing line was always a pained, “I doan’ know what to say!”. Bryn Williams played Nigel Wyn, the miscreant schoolboy who was the apple of his mother’s eye (although she was not averse to upbraiding him for his disrespect with a cry of “Don’t call Wil on yewr father!”); and Myfanwy Talog played the very modern daughter Phyllis Doris, who was in a constant state of contemptuous despair at her family being stuck in a time-warp, and who was regularly and roundly condemned by ‘Mam’ as “Yew brazen ‘ussy!”.
That the Our House segment left a profound impression on the audience can be demonstrated by the fact that not only is it the best-remembered part of the English series but that, a decade after the last of those shows was recorded, another musician/actor/comedian Dewi ‘Pws’ Morris featured a regular sketch in the middle of his HTV/S4C series Torri Gwynt (“Breaking Wind”) called 66 Chemical Gardens which was both a homage to Our House and a surreal send-up of it.
Comparisons with English double acts of the period are, I suppose, inevitable but prone to being deeply unhelpful. Unlike Morecambe and Wise, for example, Ryan and Ronnie were character actors who wrote their own material – including the songs. Unlike The Two Ronnies, they were largely in the standard “funny man/straight man” mould, and could also sing superbly. Unlike Mike and Bernie Winters (to name but two), they were funny.
Alongside the television series, Ryan and Ronnie also featured in at least one run in Blackpool, and they played record-breaking pantomime seasons (‘record-breaking’ in that they would run from Boxing Day almost to Easter) in the Grand Theatre in Swansea year after year – performances which are still talked about nearly four decades on by those who witnessed them. There were also regular cabaret shows in the small clubs of the valleys towns and elsewhere.
It was obvious that Ryan Davies was driven by a deep need to perform. Gwenlyn Parry described him as “…like quicksilver, never able to sit still. A man burning to entertain”. Such dedication can, however, easily slip over into an obsessive pursuit of perfection. Meredydd Evans said, “I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anyone who prepared so thoroughly for whatever he was doing”. That this, after about seven years, would cause a serious strain in the partnership was inevitable, although Ryan and Ronnie maintained to the end a deep mutual affection and respect. However, it was not the hyperactive clown who suffered most, but the apparently more laid-back ‘straight man’. Ronnie Williams was known for drinking heavily, but this turned out merely to be masking something far deeper, and in 1975 he was ordered to stop working completely after being diagnosed with severe depression. The partnership ended on stage at the Double Diamond club in Caerffili.
“The more successful you are,” said Williams twenty years later, “the more strain there is. The idea that you’re only as good as your last show worried us all the time […] I didn’t want to leave Ryan & Ronnie, but I was ill at the time because we were working too hard, and we knew we were”. Williams left showbusiness completely for about fifteen years and, although he made desultory comebacks in film and on television in the 1990s, his final years were sad ones unbefitting someone who had made such a contribution to the jollity of the world, and he took his own life shortly after Christmas 1997. He was 58.
Ryan Davies was left to go it alone, but this would hold no fears for him in any of his fields of work. As a comedian he had performed solo with great success before. He had also acted, having rubbed shoulders with Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O’Toole as Second Voice in the film version of Under Milk Wood (an experience he described as being in “seventh heaven”). He had done solo cabaret to acclaim: his live album Ryan At The Rank Volume 1 (in which he even manages to rescue that tired old mare Myfanwy from her customary fate with a performance of carefully-marshalled emotion and power) was a best-seller for years.
His own songs, too, continued to be popular. These were written in the ‘evergreen’ style. The singer and actress Margaret Williams said, “I think, as a composer, Ryan contributed substantially to light entertainment music in Wales”. Ryan’s son Arwyn (who has become a noted actor and musician in his own right, having played the part of the waster Mark in the soap Pobol Y Cwm for the last fifteen years, and having provided the music for Aaargh! Animation’s glorious Gogs) said, “Dad […] had a special knack for writing something which was so easy to remember and so beautiful”. One could easily imagine Pan Fo’r Nos Yn Hir (“When The Night Is Long”) or Blodwen A Mary being sung by such as Matt Monro or many of the other popular singers of the age.
(I can ruefully attest to Arwyn Davies’ assessment of his father’s work, by the way: for the whole time I was putting this article together – a period of some six weeks – the two songs I mentioned above became real ‘earworms’)
So, Ryan plunged himself headlong into a variety of projects. There was a new television series which, although containing many of the elements so familiar from his work with Ronnie, also featured more music-orientated material; there were further episodes of the situation comedy, Fo a Fe (“Him and Him”) which pitted Ryan’s character of Twm Twm, the valleys ex-miner, drinker and layabout against his daughter’s father-in-law Ephraim (played by Guto Roberts), a teetotal, old-Liberal, chapel-going ex-quarryman from Gwynedd who had come down to Caerffili to live with his son and his wife…and, of course, her father. With Davies and Roberts playing superbly off each other in Rhydderch Jones and Gwenlyn Parry’s scripts, another comedy classic was assured.
The writer and broadcaster Lionel Fanthorpe described how hard Ryan worked. “One Saturday, he presented a morning radio programme. He then went downstairs in Broadcasting House at the BBC, and recorded a children’s programme between 9 and 12. He then drove to Swansea for a matinee in the afternoon. He stayed on and did an evening performance between 7.30 and 10. He then drove to Caerphilly to appear in the Double Diamond Club. That’s dedication …”
Some would call it foolhardiness as well, and it was only a matter of time before it began to take its toll. In December 1975, he was ordered to rest after suffering a severe asthma attack. This seemed to slow him down only temporarily, however, and he was soon to be seen displaying his virtuosity again. The satirical How Green Was My Father was written for television by the radical poet Harri Webb, broadcast on St David’s Day 1976, and told the tale of an American, Jenkin Jenkins, coming to the valleys to trace his ancestry. Ryan played the stetson-hatted, camera- and cigar-toting visitor…and the haughty, sesquipedalian schoolmaster…and the sly, obsequious station master…and a dithering old chapel preacher…and, in fact, most of the rest of the cast. It was a tour de force.
The work kept coming (among other things, it was rumoured that he had been lined up to replace Bill Owen in Last Of The Summer Wine) and he kept doing it and kept planning even more, but in 1977 he was prevailed upon to take his wife Irene and their young children Bethan and Arwyn on holiday to visit some friends in the United States. They were in the city of Buffalo in upstate New York on 22 April, and Ryan was helping with a barbecue when, possibly triggered by the fluctuating temperatures and humidity in the area, he collapsed with another severe attack of asthma which caused his heart to stop. Although paramedics managed to get it started again, Ryan suffered a further cardiac arrest and died at the city’s Mercy Hospital.
He was just forty years old.
When the news reached home, it struck with the force of a thunderbolt. It was impossible to take in the fact that someone who was so full of talent and so full of life should have died at all, let alone at so young an age. The nation went into mourning.
I don’t think it an exaggeration in any way to say that – even after the passing of more than thirty years – Ryan Davies has never been replaced. There have been good comedy actors, good singers, and capable all-round entertainers; but no-one has had the combination of talents that he had, to the degree he had them, and with the same commitment to developing them to the limit.
Shortly before his own passing, Ronnie Williams said of his former partner, “Humour is very difficult to explain […] It was just in him”.
Meredydd Evans summed up Ryan Davies’ significance: “He was an artist, he was a performer, but he was also a friend, and having all that together is something that’s pretty rare. This, to me, is the glory of the whole thing: that we had in this man one who could stand as tall as anyone else in entertainment, and he did it in Welsh.”
This article originally said J.O. Roberts partnered Davies in Fo a Fe; this has since been corrected to say Guto Roberts.