A Child’s Christmas in Wales
7th December 2022
On a suitably frosty night we came in from the cold to join a full room of people at the Ipswich Institute. Brian Theodore Ralph, whose mother was from the Rhondda Valley, a snowball’s throw from Dylan Thomas country, was about to perform Thomas’s classic poem of Christmas past, A Child’s Christmas in Wales.
Keith Jones began by asking about Brian’s acting career and about his connection to this piece. He said, among other things, that his own aunt, Mary Hannah, always reminded him of Auntie Hannah in the poem. The room went silent and watchful as we entered the spell of long-ago Christmases.
Brian performed wonderfully well, standing at a lectern, no microphone needed, his rich voice delighting in Dylan Thomas’s language – rolling the r’s of the ‘rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves’ and plunging into the tale of Mrs Prothero and the firemen, and the uncles, for, of course, ‘there are always uncles at Christmas’.
The characters in the piece came across really clearly, especially the small boy asking questions about the useful and the useless presents, and the older Dylan Thomas reliving past Christmases and sprinkling them with the icing sugar of nostalgia. The audience laughed often, and we had space too, I felt, to relive our own memories of childhood Christmases as we listened to Brian’s mellifluous reading. After he had finished with ‘the close and holy darkness,’ there was an interesting Q and A, with questions and comments from Keith and from the audience too, about Dylan Thomas and acting.
Keith asked how Brian’s acting career began. Brian described how, at his boy’s school, he progressed eventually to playing Hamlet. But his father didn’t think being an actor was good enough for a grammar school boy, and wanted Brian to ‘do something’ with his education. Brian had to learn the part of Hamlet in a field, out of his father’s reach. However, his father reluctantly supported his bid to go to drama school when he found out that an education at RADA would allow Brian to teach. But Brian made a career from his acting, and it wasn’t until twenty-five years later that he became a teacher. He feels that younger actors don’t learn enough about the voice. ‘They have to have some matinees off,’ he said. ‘We wouldn’t have had that in our day’. He also said that today’s visual effects often mean that scripts and words aren’t given the importance they were given in Dylan Thomas’s time.
Brian showed us his precious, small, orange booklet of A Child’s Christmas in Wales, published by J. W. Dent and Sons and illustrated with woodcuts by Ellen Raskin. I still have this too, given to me as a stocking present when I was a child. Brian remarked that we can find new delights every time we return to it, and that it’s best read aloud. So the next day I performed it to my cat, Ripley, promising that I did not agree with throwing snowballs at cats, and he curled up and slept all the way through, showing that cats are indeed very wise. I’m sure that if Brian had been reading, Ripley would have been sitting up and listening until the very end.