REVIEW by Liz Jones

NWR Issue r36

John Ormond’s Organic Mosaic: Poetry, Documentary, Nation

by Kieron Smith

Dannie Abse once said of his fellow poet John Ormond, ‘However good his films are, it is primarily as a poet that he needs to be profiled.' This book runs counter to that opinion, seeking instead to profile Ormond’s more prolific yet lesser known, career as a documentary filmmaker. It also reveals how, as a producer for BBC Wales, Ormond played a pivotal role in shaping Wales’ emerging sense of nationhood during the mid twentieth century. Ormond’s ‘plain-speaking egalitarianism, an eye for irony and a love of the arts’ also happened to chime with the BBC’s nascent popularising tendency in a post-Reithian age.

At a time when the British government was propelled by the state-building energy of the post-war years, Wales responded with a nation-within-a-nation building project of its own. Part of this surge of state-supported national pride, Cardiff was declared the capital of Wales in 1955 and, two years later, the new BBC Wales Film Unit, headed by Ormond, was established. Granted overall control of the BBC’s entire film output in Wales, Ormond was to use this influential position to imprint his creative vision onto the fledgling unit.

His first film, A Sort of Welcome to Spring (1959), features a montage of life in the still-young Welsh capital over (as the title suggests) one day in early spring. Poetic, lyrical and experimental (but not avant-garde), it sets the tone for a career that was to span thirty-four years, with forty-three films and four series; all of them, with the exception of Y Gymru Bell (1962) – the four-episode Welsh-language series about Patagonia – made in English, his first language.

Applying techniques that were exploratory and open ended, Ormond’s tendency, over and above any ideological mission, was to follow where the story would lead him. His aim was create films, where film and poetry were in ‘continuous correspondence with one another’, a technique he called, with characteristic elision, ‘a kind organic mosaic’. Smith’s study dismantles this ‘organic mosaic’ then organises it into three distinct categories: cultural, historical and ethnographic.

It is in his cultural documentaries where the voice of Ormond the poet can perhaps be heard most clearly. In his series of documentary profiles of leading Welsh Anglophone poets (the likes of Vernon Watkins, Alun Lewis and the formative hero of his teenage years, Dylan Thomas) and Welsh artists (including Ceri Richards, Graham Sutherland and the ‘people’s painter’, Kyffin Williams), Ormond showcased what amounted to a canon of contemporary Welsh artists and, either consciously or otherwise, played his part in BBC’s mission of popularising the arts.   

Ormond’s historical documentaries adopted a similarly ‘safe’ tone, reflecting as they did a conventional, non-challenging view of Welsh history. A decade before the Marxist historian Gwyn Alf Williams hurled grenades at the liberal, patronisingly folksy view of Welsh history in the ITV/Channel 4 landmark series, The Dragon Has Two Tongues, Ormond commissioned another Gwyn Williams for The Land Remembers (1974). Not a historian, but a literary translator and poet, the ‘other’ Gwyn Williams was chosen to present Ormond’s lyrical archaeological exploration of Welsh history, which tellingly ended at the dawn of the industrial revolution.

In his 1979 series, Colliers’ Crusade, Ormond’s makes a less characteristic foray into urban radicalism, filming as he does a group of retired Welsh coalminers recalling their involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Consisting of a succession of head-and-shoulders interviews, the elderly men were filmed reminiscing about the fiery idealism of their youth; their words intercut with a montage of images from that period. Unsurprisingly for Ormond, the effects are lyrical and elegiac; revolution tinted with the sepia of heritage.

The rural setting of Borrowed Pasture (1960) – which profiles the lives of two Polish men who settled in Wales after the war to farm ‘a stubborn piece of land’ – proves fertile ground for Ormond’s artistic vision. The sonorous voiceover (by Richard Burton, no less) combines with Ormond’s poetic narrative and striking black-and-white cinematography to imbibe a ‘simple story’ of two men’s struggle to make a living. An apparently universal sense of grandeur in the dignity of labour is demonstrated. Despite this, the Polish farmers are presented as outsiders, doomed to never truly belong. Ormond’s Tiger Bay (1959) follows a similar narrative: outwardly a celebration of Bute Town’s multiracial tolerance, it ultimately exoticises its inhabitants as something ‘other’ than ‘truly’ Welsh [perhaps reflecting prejudices of the era].   

Although John Ormond’s Organic Mosaic is not intended as a biographical study, the lack of details on Ormond’s personal life and the generally illusive quality of his work, combine to create a strangely disconcerting effect. Yet it is the book’s absence of photographs that is most keenly felt in what is, after all, a study of a highly visual (and visually aware) artist.

But these are minor quibbles in what is a fascinating, long overdue study of Ormond’s unjustly overlooked documentary films. Perhaps most revealing of all are its insights into mid twentieth-century Welsh popular taste and attitudes, as mediated by the BBC.

Liz Jones’ biography of the romantic novelist (and wife of Caradoc Evans), Marguerite Jervis, is forthcoming from Honno.

       


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