Genius with words and a troubled legacy on celluloid

Dylan Thomas and Caitlin.
Dylan Thomas and Caitlin.
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Reports that the life – or, more accurately, the death – of Dylan Thomas is to be made into a film, possibly with Toby Jones as the tortured Welsh genius, 
are to be treated with caution.

The news broke last weekend as I was planning a trip to south Wales for a screening of Andrew Sinclair’s 1972 movie of Thomas’s “play for voices” Under Milk Wood, the project Thomas premiered in America shortly before he died on November 9, 1953.

The film is the brainchild 
of scriptwriter Andrew Davies who, having done his research and ploughed through countless accounts of Thomas’s final days, has come to the same conclusion as the rest of us: he was a genius, a fool and a heavyweight drunk.

He was also a braggart. Legend has it that his last words before lapsing into a coma were: “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record.” Davies disputes that, putting it down to Thomas’s own knack for myth-making.

What is not disputed is his parlous financial, emotional and mental state. Thomas had had to go to the United States to earn money to pay off the Inland Revenue.

Prior to leaving he spoke to Richard Burton, asking for a £200 loan “for the education of my children.”

Burton didn’t have it and so Thomas sailed for New York and his date with destiny. The death of a philandering drunk should not be of dramatic value. But Dylan Thomas was no ordinary drunk. The tales of his final days have become fogged by obfuscation and the passage of time. Often Thomas was a solitary drinker, alone with his thoughts and fears. Too many minutes and hours cannot be accounted for. Yet we are fascinated by our heroes’ ends.

Another quasi biopic, 2008’s The Edge of Love, looked at his early years in a love triangle 
with wife Caitlin and Vera Phillips but didn’t amount 
to much.

It starred Matthew Rhys as a saturnine Thomas with – gasp – Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller as his lady loves. Talk about miscasting.

A better but very different portrait came courtesy of Bob Kingdom in his one-man theatre show Return Journey, which I once saw and was 
very impressed by.

It was later turned into a stagey film directed by Anthony Hopkins who himself might once have played Thomas. He had all the right tools for the job.

As for Richard Burton, he never seemed to want to tackle the ghost of his old friend. Maybe he saw too much of himself in Dylan Thomas.

To see a glimpse of the real Thomas we must go back to 1978 and a TV movie, entitled Dylan, starring Ronald Lacey to mark the 25th anniversary of his death. Once again it focused on those final short few days on the rampage in New York.

I would pay to see Toby Jones as Dylan Thomas. But I yearn to hear his words, spoken in those grandiloquent tones with a fag hanging out of the side of the mouth – effortless poetic excellence by a man who thought his soul was rotten and doubted how good he really was.