The music of the spheres


Every day at 2pm during the exhibition of Peter Blake’s illustrations for Under Milk Wood at the National Museum, Cardiff, the usual hush of the gallery was filled with “The sounds of the spheres”. Instead of the classic Richard Burton recordings of the work, the gallery chose a 1988 production by pop music producer George Martin to soundtrack Blake’s vibrant, affectionate and dazzling works.

On Sunday 24th January 1954 the final recordings of the BBC’s first production of Under Milk Wood were made at Broadcasting House  having accommodated Richard Burton’s hectic acting schedule. The director Douglas Cleverdon had already gone to Laugharne to record children reading “Gwennie kiss the boys” and the song “Johnnie Crack and Flossie Snail” as well as location sounds. Technically the recording used what might now be regarded as crude techniques – reel to reel analogue tape and manual editing (that is a razor blade and sticky tape!). That this production is still one of the defining recordings of the work is perhaps due to the fact that “though technically straightforward, the original 1954 broadcast of Under Milk Wood still seemed most wonderful. It was a different world”.

Walford Davies’ introduction to this version soundly places the work in the context of a heard experience: “our reading is richer if it also hears (his emphasis) the work, as a “play for voices’.”  The original recording took place at a time when radio was still an important medium and for Dylan Thomas “this, to me, unbelievable lack of wires” was key to the delivery of his words. Radio also was – and still is – “by its very nature synchronic, in the strict sense of everything coinciding in time but not in place”. [ibid] This allows the writer and production director limitless – except by the technology – capabilities.

There was little music in the BBC 1954 production. The record producer George Martin for his 1988 ‘celebrity recording’ as Davies describes it, was able to envisage sound worlds quite impossible to create 35 years earlier. Digital recording, where sound is directly recorded as data, omitting the analogue stage of covering sound into waveforms, was the new boy on the block. Equipment allowed recording of 32 separate tracks, all synchronous but not mixed together until the end. Stereo recordings meant that individual voices and sounds could be ‘moved’, placed in context to each and the listener. This is a clearer, more direct, and potentially more dramatic way of delivering a reading. Already the doyen of the industry (producing most of the Beatles’ output for example) George Martin wanted a recording that stretched the technology as well as his directorial skills and imagination. This presented issues, for example with sound effects. In 1988 there were extensive ‘libraries’ of stock sounds eg children’s voices, clocks, bells, waves but these were all analogue recordings that would jar in an all digital one. So even the simplest thing – the silence of Laugharne – had to be specially recorded using digital recorders. The children of Laugharne got another outing.

As well as  all-Welsh actor voices – with the exception of Alan Bennett reading the ‘Tourist Guide’ – Martin wanted music. This meant actors who could sing, or at least work with music, for example a masterly Freddie Jones as Captain Cat, and singers who could represent the very best of traditional Welsh music and act, such as Mary Hopkin. Sir Geraint Evans could of course easily carry Eli Jenkins’ morning prayer with the music of Troyes’ Chant, but could he act as well? Well, as an opera star of great distinction, of course he could.

Other key musical voices were Bonnie Tyler singing Polly Garter’s “I loved a man” with music by Elton John, and the ever popular Tom Jones with a rollicking pop number in “Waldo’s song”.

There is an introductory musical soundscape too and music used as ‘under beds’, heightening the drama at a few significant points. Although Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads (1940) is considered one of the first concept albums, consisting of semi-autobiographical songs about the hardships of American migrant labourers during the 1930s, it is only in the late 1960s that producers/directors/musicians developed the idea of a record album – or two in this case – being a continuous narrative. Martin’s Under Milk Wood was a musical interpretation of a radio drama, or play for voices, or a concept album. Whatever.

The critical test of Martin’s production is twofold for me: does it achieve Dylan’s desire to be a ‘wire-less’ transmission of his characters, their story and ideas; does the directorial intervention add to the listener’s enjoyment and appreciation of the work?

To be tested after 35 years, particularly in the context of Peter Blake’s visualisation of the same work – and to which similar tests might be applied I feel – is a hard one. I selected 12 tracks, mostly musical, and linked them for a radio – yes radio – piece which you can now hear online as a podcast (see note about voice quality). In my view the recording has aged well: well, perhaps not the europop writing of “Waldo’s song” so very well, but Tom Jones of course carries it off. Does it develop, deepen, enhance the words of Dylan Thomas? Undeniably. For me, Freddie Jones and Mary Hopkin are the definitive rendering of his love song. As for the actors: peerless even compared with the BBC original.

It is then perhaps no surprise that every day for the duration of its exhibition, National Gallery Wales has given us this George Martin version of Under Milk Wood in preference to others. An inspired choice.

My track selection:

1 Main Theme: Under Milk Wood – A Play For Voices

2 First voice Anthony Hopkins:  “To begin at the beginning” ___ to “sleeping now”

3  Captain Cat to “Oh my dead dears” 2:14

4 Guide Book: Alan Bennett

5 Song: Johnnie Crack And Flossie Snail

6 “The sound of the spheres” and Second voice: to “primrose grows”. 0:39

7 Song: Polly Garter, Bonnie Tyler – ‘I Loved A Man’ edit 2:19

8 Now when Farmers Boys edit to “Donkey Down” 2:04

9 Song: Rosie Probert And Captain Cat – “Love Duet”

10 Song: Morning Prayer Eli Jenkins

11 Song: Waldo’s song edit 2:54

12 Song: ‘But I Always Think As We Tumble In To Bed…’

Hear podcast of my radio piece at:


Why I will not be renewing my subscriptions to the iPad versions of The Western Mail and the S W Echo

The technical stuff

The editions for iPad use a standard PDF (portable document format) presentation and not a specially designed one for an on line edition, like the award winning Guardian iPad edition. The pdf simply reproduces each page as it is printed. There is no additional editorial or design intervention to present the information in a tablet/iPhone format. After page one, the pages are presented in a two-page spread: on an iPad you can read the headlines, but little else. To read an individual story the text has to be expanded – often very slowly rendered to be readable – and the text of the story will not be isolated from other text around it. If a story runs from say page one page to page four there is no dynamic link – you have to scroll through the pages

There is a mini-page view – so you can skip sport for example – and there is also a completely useless text page listing. There are no:

  • ways to search the edition
  • ways to search across editions or to link related stories
  • ways to save, bookmark or print an individual article
  • no way to tweet or send a link to an individual story. To achieve all these things you have to access the (still very poor to navigate) WalesOnline website.

Issues often arrive a long time after I would expect to read them ie with my tea at 7 AM. Even with high-speed broadband, downloading takes a significant time and is not carried out in the background automatically – as with other publications.

The application itself is buggy, the simplest action e.g. zooming or scrolling page, can cause a complete crash.

Technically this is an outdated and very poor implementation of the new technologies. Although none are perfect, there are plenty of high standard iPad newspapers to copy from!

The editorial stuff

iPad edition front pages The Western Mail

iPad edition front pages The Western Mail

The major editorial problem for these online editions is the way in which they allow the reader to make quick comparative judgements which are not so easy with the printed editions, even if you put them on a table side-by-side. As such it gives the reader the technology to understand just how poor the editorial content of both newspapers is.

SW Echo iPad

The iPad edition front pages of the SW Echo

The “homogenisation” of TrinityMirror Newspapers editorial is painfully plain to see in the digital editions. Although supposedly “the national newspaper of Wales” lead news stories in both newspapers can be same. In any pair of editions it is easy to find near identical stories reproduced with little or no regard to what should be differentiated readers. This is as true of national coverage as local.

In terms of assessing editorial quality and readability the digital editions make scanning articles oh so simple – on average I have seldom read more than two or three complete articles in any edition of either newspaper. Skimming takes longer with printed pages but it doesn’t mean that the editorial quality is any greater. Because the iPad edition is simply a rendering of a newspaper editorial choices become even more vivid and pronounced: take the B-list, personality-led, front pages of the Western Mail for examples. Or the massive second-coming headlines (usually followed by less than a paragraph of copy) front page screamers on the Echo. Neither approach is suitable for new media presentation.

In summary, and sadness, then

Perversely perhaps, one months digital editions have simply proved to highlight all the worst (rather than best, there must be some!) of the two newspapers. Yes, digital presentation is content, content, content. And here these newspapers show up very badly. But there is also sufficient experience now to know that simply delivering photographs of the print edition is not a digital edition. The Guardian and the Daily Mail have massive online presence in their web and in tablet versions because of the interaction of readers and the additional value that these editions can have over the printed page..

Sadly, online editions of tThe western Mail and SW Echo will do nothing to stave off the relentless decline of newspapers in Wales, and even more importantly, good reporting of life in this country.

If this was an end of first term report it would barely rate 3/10.

Sunday supplement, BBC Wales, 10 March 2012

  1. Share
  2. Click on the orange arrow to play the edited clip from the show. 
  3. Forgetting who your customers are – first blood to Tesco, then Golman Sachs’ muppet clients; why parents make the best parents and the absurdity of honours and honorific titles.

    You can catch the others stories and here the programme (we are the last fifteen mins or so) here

A Welsh High Tea

This was written following a glorious September day. Sadly, it is now finished. You can either read it, or hear it.

A Welsh High Tea

A sunshine filled September day,
the dining room doors framing a view of a few fields
leading us to the expanse of sea that is Rhossili Bay.
The room filled to overflowing: standing on the deck, the grass,
against the field fence where the ponies graze.
Families – the sisters, nieces, aunts and uncles,
the friends from a lifetime of 80 years to the day.
Gathered for High Tea.

A much extended table laid with precision.
Competing aunties’ Bara Brith and Welsh cakes.
Tiny shells filled with lemon cream atop with raspberry, singular.
Sandwiches, definitely for an occasion,
narrowly cut, stuffed to overflowing,
trimmed of crust and neatly laid.
Remembered recipes of jam dipped sponge squares,
coated with coconut shreds,
finished with cherry jam and a cream blob.
Scones, by competitive sisters this time:
small and perfectly stuffed;
or ready to break yourself and indulgently fill,
with more cream and home made jam.
And, more, too much to see, too much to eat.
Celebration for every sense.

In the centre the cake, the birthday cake.
With the champagne, the wishes
“Penblwydd Hapus” by most,
plain “Happy Birthday” the rest.
But the “iechyd da” felt hollow even as our glasses met.
No shared joy blotted out unsaid thoughts.
We knew: no tea would ever be as bitter sweet,
however bountiful or lovingly made.
The sun would never fall on her so radiantly.
The wake, too soon it was to be,
would be no match for her High Tea.

Doreen Page 12 September 1930 – 5 November 2010

©Peter D Cox 2010 all rights reserved

Rapid Fire presenting

Peter Cox at Cardiff PechaKutcha

Peter Cox talks about changing Cardiff at PechaKucha Photograph: Hannah Waldram/

I got my blooding at the PechaKutcha in Cardiff on 27th May when the Guardian kindly blogged:

Peter Cox from Cardiff Civic Society gave a compelling insight to how Cardiff is changing and what elements have been lost along its development. He said:
“Cardiff’s growth has been both sudden and exponential. The city of 1891 is barely recognisable as apparently unstoppable expansion consumes whole communities.”
Cox praised the design of Chapter Arts Centre, where the event took place, for being inclusive, community focused and putting society at the heart of the building.

On that occasion it was 20 slides and 6mins 20 secs to complete – a pretty rapid fire.

But last week’s IGNITE#5, part of the Swn Festival, held at Chapter Arts was down to 15 secs a slide – and no messing, they advance relentlessly. Unlike the PechaKutcha, Ignite had a theme – Music not surprisingly. A good opportunity I thought to extoll the virtues of hospital radio, and of course, Radio Glamorgan in particular. The other presenters were amazingly diverse: a bluffers guide to Bollywood, rock t-shirts, my first heavy metal festival. Great fun and entertaining. Well I was off first (partly because of the inevitably complicated presentation, but I wanted to include sound and video – off course). But all was well in the end.

Snippets included some of my interviewees (click to hear the full length interviews on my web site): Tim Rhys Evans (Only Men Aloud) Joan Armatrading, James Dean Bradfield, Kevin Brennan MP (in his guise as part of MP4) and Rebecca Evans. All ace.

Technically for the nerds: the video comprises the original slide show with a soundtrack taken from a live recording (using an Edirol R-09 miniature digital recorder with integral mic) mixed to sound tracks that were used on the slides. I used Amadeus for the sound editing, QuicktimePro (v7) to slip the tracks and merge the new sound track and exported to YouTube as Mpeg-4.

The nonsense of the NOS ‘sex’ survey

In that parallel universe of Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph readers there was a mass explosion of relief this morning. Curtains will have twitched across the nation as the worst fears of many were assuaged with the Daily Mail’s social affairs correspondent (sic) categorically assuring the threatened masses that they were not surrounded by a huge percentage of gay neighbours: it’s official, only one man in 10 is gay and less than a whole woman is a lesbian. What relief then.

Daily Mail story

Today's Daily Mail reassurance to its readers Credit:

I’ll quickly pass by the unquestioning, slovenly and uncritical journalism of the Mail since that is what we must expect, sadly. A more considered appraisal of the National Office of Statistics survey is in the Guardian. But, even there, the report needs to be taken with a massive dose of common sense and comments (I didn’t dare look at the DM’s) raise many of the issues that concern this report.
As someone who has commissioned and helped design some pretty groundbreaking market research in my time, I hesitate to tell the NOS how to do its work. This survey is, as many point out, deeply flawed. I have no issue – albeit by a government paid-for quango –seeking to go where others fear to tread, indeed that maybe their role. But given that every homophobic newspaper would glibly misinterpret unquestioningly its results, it really should have been more careful.
When teaching questionnaire design I always proposed two rules:

  • only seek answers that you can do something with (useful, not just ‘interesting’);
  • only ask questions to which there is a definitive answer and that can actually be answered.

I am not at all sure what purposes the NOS is intending to use its data for: predicting levels of ‘hate crime’ perhaps; managing growth of same sex households and their demands for schools? Mmm.
The question itself is perhaps more interesting: is there a valid answer to the question “What is your sexual group?” Given a list (and the methodology employed by NOS seems to me wholly flawed – why didn’t they use self-administered computer based trade-offs, for example?) first of all assumes that people accept the idea of a group definition. Many would not, yet they might engage in behaviour that is a characteristic, supposedly, of such a defined group (all ‘gay’ men like “Mama Mia”). The behaviour itself simply defines an action at a particular time: so a man who marries a women and has children, then lives with a male partner is what? Depends when you ‘measure’ what behaviour – the relationship, having children, sex with a man or a women. And at what point does the behaviour characterise the person as being part of a ‘sexual group’?
In such complex circumstances people will always moderate their answer to the most favourable light – as they see it – at that particular moment: doctors have rules of thumb for what people say their smoking/drinking/sex habits are. They may also have personal qualifiers that shape their answers: some men who have sex with other men who are the ‘active partner’ do not regard themselves as homosexual at all, but regard their sexual partner as such. That may be a valid description for that person but it wouldn’t have helped in this survey to arrive at a useful, valid answer.
The safest, most reliable way of getting data is to ask about actual events that can be reliably recalled. When did you last have sex with another person? What gender was that person? Do you have sex regularly (monogamously even) with that person? Are you in a long-term relationship? What sex is that person? And so on, building a volume of behavioural information that is more likely to be accurately recalled – but not necessarily truthfully told unless the methodology is secure. Take a group of answers together and you might, only might, be able to lump them into a group behavioural description: gay, bisexual, lesbian, whatever. I’m not going to even attempt to do that!
So, while this survey is interesting, it’s far from useful and probably not valid. If it gives comfort to homophobes then perhaps that can’t be bad. But watch out. Whatever the DM and Telegraph might tell you, the chances are you have a gay, lesbian, transgendered – or just plain heterosexual kinky – neighbour. Keep twitching those curtains.

End of the Maskrey’s era

The iconic furniture store that was Maskreys, Cardiff

It was the new social barometer Twitter that gave the first indication of the storm that hit the iconic south Wales furniture stores Maskreys. The immediate reaction from Tweeps was sadness. Maskreys, after all, is – until the end of November – more than just a furniture shop. Since 1898 the Maskrey family have been delivering, to a very particular south Wales market, an aspirational lifestyle that can only be hinted at by Cardiff upstarts like John Lewis, and the can-hardly-mention-in-the-same-breath, IKEA.

Others have remarked today that if Maskreys had adapted their buying policies then maybe it could have survived the competition from the comfortably upmarket John Lewis and the aggressively do it yourself IKEA. That seems to me to entirely miss the point! The three stores were always designed to be the bastions of a certain kind of taste (not always so obviously ‘good’): something that bordered on bling, but was rescued from crassness by craftsmanship and, yes, mostly unattainable for the likes of us, pricing. It meant the comfort of having bought something that would last for ever, reinforced by a feeling of painful expense, and the knowledge that everyone would admire your purchase.

I am sure there was another kind of customer as well: the moneyed for whom price guaranteed peergroup (The Jones next door) approval, even if sometimes the objects were themselves of doubtful taste.

Does it matter then that Maskreys is to disappear?

Robert Maskrey (executive chairman) and Samantha Maskrey

I think so. Firstly, there is the cost to the people involved. I have known Sam Maskrey, and her husband and executive chairman Robert through our common interests in the arts. Of course, they are entitled to retire and their orderly closure of the business, the wanting to do the best for their customers and their staff, is more than anyone can reasonably expect in a slash and burn recession.

The Cardiff store has been on Whitchurch Road since 1913. This is not the most suitable location for such an enterprise but it must be an important draw for many of the other businesses that now exist in the area. (The other most important attraction locally is Cathays cemetery!). There will undoubtedly be a knock-on, recessionary effect on those businesses. The Cardiff building is attractive of its kind but will almost certainly fall into a developer’s hands and an unsympathetic, unsuitable replacement is par for the course in Cardiff’s current planning–free–for–all.

And apart from the Maskreys business, there is equally significant potential loss of Sam and Robert Maskrey and their roles in the cultural life of Wales. The company itself sponsors the Hay Festival of Literature and the Welsh National Opera. Robert Maskrey has chaired the Lower Machen Festival for five years. Sam Maskrey is a director of the Hay Festival of Literature, deputy chair of Arts and Business Cymru and is on the board at Chapter Arts Centre. Sam and I met at Chapter when she joined the board and I managed to persuade her to take very active role in fundraising for the recently completed £3.5 million redevelopment. Without her enthusiasm and arm bending it is unlikely that Cardiff would have the benefit of the new Chapter.

It isn’t impossible, I imagine, for individuals to set up and run and businesses like Maskreys. But as a recent report on the homogenising of our high streets has warned, it is increasingly difficult when companies like Tesco regard land banking and the saturation of communities with their multiple outlets as the way to generate the highest return to shareholders. The idea of a business that delivers a particular range of products in an individualistic way for a carefully focused market depends on the market existing and being able to accurately deliver what they need. Fashion, times and financial ability are all fickle.

There is everything to commend in the manner of Maskreys departure. But many of us will notice the absence of the store and the qualities that Sam and Robert bring to life in Cardiff. For the past 12 years they have sponsored an annual Christmas carol concert held in the Norwegian Church, Cardiff Bay. That alone has raised £150,000 for Shelter Cymru. It’s not just the rich furnishing their eye-wateringly expensive flash pads, it’s the homeless who will miss them too.