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:


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.

Alice in Wonderland hole digging

I thought a primary rule of politics was to stop digging when you are in a hole: not Cardiff’s leadership apparently.

There’s been good advice given since Ocober 2008 that Cardiff’s Local Development Plan wasn’t any good. Amongst others, Cardiff Civic Society (disclaimer, I am it’s chair and have worked with the team who produced the society’s LDP submission) identified that the recession (and global warming) would blow a hole in any estimates made previously.

CCS executive member David Eggleton told them at a ‘stakeholders meeting’ at County Hall on the 22nd October 2008,”regrettably, it seems to me that there is an elephant in the room that we are studiously ignoring. We are entering a financial crisis, the worst for a century and an environmental situation that could require drastic action; would it not be appropriate to have a contingency plan in the event that the LDP is not found sustainable by the inspectors”. The council’s answer to this? “We carry on to produce the LDP, no contingency plans”. This objection amongst many others was re-voiced in June last year in CCS’s coruscating submission. Now the council is claiming global events have taken them unawares.

What is sad is that the press is taking the Lib Dem/Plaid party excuses, hook line and sinker. Here’s yesterday’s Wales Online:

“Cardiff council is set to admit defeat in its long-running battle to save some of the city’s last remaining unprotected areas of green open space.”

– just untrue. The council’s policy – which has widespread support, of maintaining green spaces – is only threatened because the LDP was so badly constructed that it failed to present viable, sustainable plans to support the policy. Neither the Inspectors (who have to be neutral about what is proposed as policy), nor the Assembly, are opposed to the policy: but they are saying the plan doesn’t support those policies. The failure is Cardiff Council’s alone. That’s bad enough, but to seek to blame others for that failing is shameful.

Assertion two: “In the papers, officers blame the worldwide recession for scuttling their previous hopes of catering for the expected growth of the city largely through building flats in areas like Cardiff Bay and Butetown with small-scale in-fill development throughout the city.”

– devious diversion. Again, there’s nothing wrong with flats on brownfield sites if they are part of a bigger plan to meet the needs of a holistic policy that includes family and low-cost housing. Until recently it was easy (‘cos they made money) to persuade developers to throw up jerry built apartments and boxy houses for tiny families. As above, the recession was flagged 18 months ago but the steamroller city process rolled on regardless. What was lacking was policy to encourage house building of the right kinds, in the right places. Again, blame anything, and any one, rather than the guilty party.

The final paragraph of the Wales on Line article is breathtaking: it’s not a quote, doesn’t seem to have come from the officers’ report, so one guesses it is inspired investigative journalism, the writer’s own conclusions, or – just maybe – a planted official line from the council: “Asking inspectors to withdraw the plan means the city will be spared a costly and probably futile legal battle in which the council would face widespread opposition from developers and business leaders in a hearing presided over by Assembly planning inspectors who have already indicated they agree with the business community’s concerns.”

– by legal battle, this might mean the public hearings: yes, (see previous) this would have been futile. More importantly, the paucity of the council’s approach and the shallowness of its evidence would had been forensically exposed. Embarrassing, or what?

And again, the blatantly misleading assertion that the Inspectors have ganged up with developers. Actually, if you read the Inspectors’ notes they present obstacles to the get-rich-quick developers. What they do is simply demolish the evidence the council has produced: an LDP, for all our sakes, has to be based on consensual policies, and a viable, sustainable plan to deliver them. It’s neither rocket science, nor too difficult.

But hey, what’s reality around here, this is Cardiff. Let’s keep digging, its saves thinking about how we have failed the citizens of the capital city. And, while we’re at it, let’s throw the mud at others, it might stick and we might hang on to power just a little bit longer.

Pendenis goes public

I always wondered why my middle name only had one ‘n’: now I know, it was to help us sell our house and save thousands of pounds.
When we were restoring our very nice mid-terrace Victorian house in Pontcanna a couple of years ago, the cleaning of the Bath stone revealed a name “Pendenis House”. Now we didn’t even know we had a name, or, it later transpired, that our street had changed its name either, but that’s another story. So when we decided to take on the estate agents and try to sell our house without their expensive help we decided to market it under the name And this week we’ve gone public and already have got a top Google ranking.
gavin-with-house-signWe actually launched the site late in August to avoid the dreadfully stupid HIPs scheme and had a few hits. But getting the last few pictures done took longer than we thought so we didn’t want to encourage an avalanche of enquiries ‘till now. If you need a nice house in this most fashionable of places then go see.
As well as saving money we also wanted to show the estate agents how to do it. You would have thought that for six or seven thousand pounds (top whack, cheap skates would do it for less) that you would get a web presence of some style and magnitude. Since we’re also trying to buy a house – even more difficult – we’ve had a stiff learning curve on what agents do – and don’t do.
Take pictures: in this age of digital technology you’d think they be doing movies by now. Oh no. (But then we haven’t either, thought it would be tooooo tacky!!) Four stills if you’re lucky. And don’t bother to tidy up or even make the beds (how gross can you get?) we’ll just take what’s there. And don’t worry about deception, they can’t have heard of Photoshop.
As for words: well it’s always been a source of fun to read estate agents’ particulars, but with so much legal stuff now they have become very, very boring. The measurements of rooms are laser accurate to a millimetre: “but we didn’t tell you about the motorway at the end of the garden?” Oops.
Spend so far? Nothing for the domain name ‘cos work buys so many (a perk a last); free web hosting ‘cos we have an iMac account; no expensive designer ‘cos we used iWeb (not great but ok for the job); £50 for a board; £135 for a house web site aggregator (backing all our options) at The Little House Company; and a few quid for the shop window posters. Say £200 max. The savings will buy a nice holiday.
PS No, I haven’t got hair suddenly, that’s himself, not me, posing as a sign pole.

Wales needs a national newspaper

Commenting on this blog I made my position clear

The problem is not just about having a conversation about Wales’ status it’s also about where! Just look at that front page and compare it an average day in the life of the Western Mail.
First the name – The Scotsman (forget gender issues for a second) identifies with a person in a place and recognisably gives both value: The Western Mail refers to a bit of Britain tacked onto the west hand side – it could as easily be in Cornwall or Devon.
Then the coverage – the top masthead is about one of the largest cultural festivals in the world: where was the Esisteddfod last week – treated like some language centric oddity..
Finally, the quote: ok so copied and cribbed (JFK I think) but name me a Welsh politician who could have written that, let alone said it with passion and conviction – where’s the hwyl?
So, as well as politicians, we need media, and something more serious that the tiny circulation, public sector job-ads dependent travesty of the WM.