St. David’s day is coming up! Yes, March 1st is the festival of the patron saint of Wales. Every year St. Patrick’s day rolls around, and all right-thinking people say “Hmm, I wonder when St. David’s day is. Gotta make those cookies,” and find out that it happened two weeks ago. Well, this year I remembered.
They aren’t telling us about it, but in the week before St. David’s day, TCM is showing two of the very few Welsh films in its repertoire [films set in Wales … not in the Welsh language]. The Corn is Green is a Bette Davis heroic-teacher story with a mostly-American cast, two of whom [not her] were nominated for Oscars. The Citadel is a King Vidor drama with Robert Donat as a doctor torn between wealth/corruption [represented by Rex Harrison] and the rewards of small-town work [and his wife, Rosalind Russell]. They also just showed Night Must Fall, the thriller written by Welsh playwright Emlyn Williams who also wrote The Corn is Green. Meanwhile the most famous Welsh film to come from Hollywood, How Green Was My Valley, isn’t even part of “31 Days of Oscar”. Maybe it didn’t deserve Best Picture, but it’s not a blot on the escutcheon of filmmaking, for goodness’ sake.
Anyway, I haven’t seen any of those movies, but I have seen 1995’s greatest Welsh film, Christopher Monger’s The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain [henceforth The Englishman, or TEWWUAHBCDAM], and it’s delightful.
My memories say he was everywhere for a couple years and then largely went away, like Orlando Bloom, but in reality the Hugh Grant phenomenon could be viewed as exactly one movie long [Four Weddings and a Funeral], or over a decade long. The whole prostitute/mugshot unpleasantness happened when he was new to our shores, before his first Hollywood vehicle [Nine Months] even opened. 1995-96 saw him in a bunch of British films [Sense and Sensibility, Restoration, An Awfully Big Adventure], just like 1992-93 had [Sirens, Bitter Moon, The Remains of the Day], with the exception that in An Awfully Big Adventure he debuts his “arrogant cad” role in place of his diffident stammerer role. Ever since then he’s been in one major romantic comedy every couple of years, with the very occasional stab at something else. Most have been hits, though only About a Boy was big with critics and Did You Hear About the Morgans? does not bode well for the future. TEWWUAHBCDAM came out in 1995, at the height of stammer-mania, and it isn’t a romcom, despite the box art implying that Tara FitzGerald is to this film what Julia Roberts is to Notting Hill.
The Englishman is a fable, a tall tale, narrated by an old man telling the story to his grandson, based on a story writer-director Monger heard from his grandfather. The main characters are Anson, played by Grant, and Morgan the Goat [Colm Meaney]. Anson and his bibulous senior colleague Garrad [Ian McNeice] represent the British Crown, arriving in spotless tweeds and a cutting-edge automobile in one of the Empire’s distant muddy outposts [just north of Cardiff] where Morgan holds the dual role of “publican who knows everything” and “lusty, fecund yokel”. Morgan seems like a roguish roustabout, but at heart he’s a bureaucratic organizer, like Bill Clinton or the young Thomas Becket. The idea behind “Morgan the Goat” is that each character is called by a combination of family name and profession [or other distinguishing feature], because Wales rivals Korea in its paltry ratio of surnames to inhabitants. See the credits for more examples. This convention doesn’t get old because Monger doesn’t resort to puns or wordplay.
The year is 1917. Anson and Garrad are ex-military men and surveyors, travelling through Wales to map its mountains on behalf of the war effort. They’re mapping a village which claims to have “the first mountain in Wales”. The narrator is quite clear: mountains are what separate Wales from England [although the Welsh and their Apache-like ability to survive in the impassable crags had pretty much been pacified during the reign of Edward I, only six centuries before the film’s events].
Is it a hill? Is it a mountain? Perhaps it wouldn’t matter anywhere else. But this is Wales. The Egyptians built pyramids. The Greeks built temples. But we did none of that, because we had mountains. Yes, the Welsh were created by mountains. Where the mountains start, there starts Wales. If this isn’t a mountain — well, if this isn’t a mountain, then Anson might just as well redraw the border and put us all in England. God forbid.
They tell the townsfolk that to be listed as a “mountain”, Ffynnon Garw has to be at least 1000 feet. They estimate it as 930 feet, they measure it as 984 feet, and they decline to stick around while the townsfolk edit the hill to be taller. Morgan the Goat and Reverend Jones [Kenneth Griffith] set aside their differences and coordinate every villager [except one] in two simultaneous efforts: to pile up dirt around a 20-foot marker, and stymie the increasingly annoyed [Garrad] or smitten [Anson] surveyors from leaving. That’s enough story for a feel-good comedy, and this one hits all its marks.
When The Englishman came out, it was compared to Local Hero [Bill Forsyth, 1983] and Whisky Galore [Alexander Mackendrick, 1949], but may not have been part of a clear subgenre. Since then, there have been scads of films set in a quaint British/Irish location where the working-class locals band together to accomplish some odd thing or other, often involving an outsider who’s charmed and frustrated by their ways. Calendar Girls , The Full Monty , Saving Grace , House! , The Matchmaker , Kinky Boots . And the movie The Englishman constantly reminded me of, with its interest in vigorous old men, its reverence for tradition, its sentimental score behind an unsentimental script, and its overwhelmingly green hilly vistas … Waking Ned Devine . Which was a comparable labor of love for its writer-director Kirk Jones.
Like Waking Ned with Ireland, this film purports to be not just about an odd little town, but about the Welsh people — to show you the romantic Welsh self-image, and display why they love living there. You’re reminded that it’s a fairy tale when the narrator talks about the rigors of coal mining, or the war, but when the action resumes all we see are hearty men and big-hearted women, clashing now and then but always with a smile close at hand. He refers to how all the men are away at war, but they don’t seem to be missing. The war only factors into the story by being responsible for Johnny Shellshocked’s state. Nevertheless:
How could we face those who survived, if they returned to find no mountain? While they fought the Germans, we had lost our mountain to the English.
What about the romance? Who is that woman taking up almost as much space as Grant on the VHS box? Well, she’s a classy woman from Cardiff, come to refurbish Morgan’s establishment, and she barely appears in the first half of the movie. Tara FitzGerald was Hugh Grant’s equally repressed wife in Sirens; here her smile inspires a more confident Grant character to give direction to his life. The romance isn’t exactly a distraction from the rest of the film, but it’s the most formulaic part of the film. In an idea much stupider than the rest of his plans, Morgan the Goat convinces Betty [FitzGerald] to charm Garrad into staying around for the unveiling of the newly augmented Ffynnon Garw. She spends about an hour of her life doing this in a slapstick fashion, Garrad doesn’t especially notice, and then she falls in love with Anson, whom she hadn’t noticed before. I suspect the romcom elements were augmented after the stratospheric success of Four Weddings and a Funeral, because they seem underwritten and sitcom-y.
What made Waking Ned satisfying is also true of The Englishman: the minor characters are all both charming and dignified. Actor/ documentarian/ activist/ philatelist/ historian Kenneth Griffith is infuriating, fiery and inspiring as Reverend Jones. He might have more scenes alone than any other actor except Grant, as he contemplates what’s best for the town. Williams the Petroleum [Robert Pugh] is torn between doing his job and fulfilling his mandate to disable Anson’s car. Johnny Shellshocked could be an irritating Christ-figure, but Ian Hart just plays him as a man who sees reminders of wartime nightmares wherever he goes. Lisa Palfrey refuses to be pitied as the small-town girl outshined by Miss Betty. And so on. Garfield Morgan [Davies the School] never makes you think he has a good reason for being such a fuddy-duddy, but that problem is solved by having everyone ignore him.
Even the car is a character with some character. Learn more about it in Shropshire Magazine.
Ealing Studios may have made more Welsh-themed comedies in the ’40s and ’50s than have been made since. I know of this one, Grand Slam  Twin Town , House! , and now Submarine , an intriguing entry from last year’s TIFF. A rave-exploitation film called Human Traffic [the Go of the UK?] is set in Cardiff but reportedly doesn’t do much with the setting. One that looks intriguing — possibly the closest thing to TEWWUAHBCDAM in the last 15 years — is The Baker [Gareth Lewis, 2007]. A small Welsh town, an Englishman stranded there, colorful locals … and a star who is in no way known for comedic roles. Will have to check it out.
Rating: 4 stammers out of 5.