Words Kirk Truman
Photography Astrid Schulz
“When I do come to Fitzrovia, bang do go my plans in a horrid alcoholic explosion that scatters all my good intentions like bits of limbs and into the saloon bars of the tawdriest pubs in London.”
– Dylan Thomas, 1936
On a bomb-damage map of our region there is a circular stain from the bottom of a beer glass over what is widely considered to be the epicentre of Fitzrovia, our Fitzroy Square. No, it is not the panache of drunks come again, wailing and moaning through their teeth, but the stamp of a new local project titled ‘Dylan Thomas in Fitzrovia’. The grinning actor, Mr. Jason Morell, seems somewhat occupied with what his friend, Griff Rhys Jones, has recently succeeded to persuade him to undertake; the enormous task of becoming the director and organiser of the Dylan Thomas festival. Jason gives me an insight into the organising of the festival, the events which will unfold in October this year and indeed Dylan Thomas himself.
Jason, who began acting school as young boy, has appeared in numerous films to date, including Mrs. Brown (1997) and Wilde (1997), he is also a familiar face in the Royal Shakespeare Company. Considering this, what baffles me so much is how it comes be that such a diverse, classically trained actor has found himself directing a literary festival. Ironically, it turns out that he became involved in the festival through the very thing he’s familiar with; stage acting. Just over four years ago Jason was playing Mr. Sowerberry on Drury Lane in “Oliver!”, the musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ famous novel. In the dressing room next to him at the time, playing Fagin, was Griff Rhys Jones. Working together over a period of 6 months led to them to almost inevitably become friends. Last year they met again and soon the topic on the table was far removed from the stage: “We were having lunch together last year when Griff was explaining to me about a production he was putting together about the final week in the life of Dylan Thomas (‘A Poet in New York’, aired 18/05/14, BBC TWO). He was also talking to me about Fitzrovia. If I remember correctly he said to me ‘what we need is a festival to celebrate Dylan Thomas’ rich and rollicking life in Fitzrovia!’ I, perhaps unwisely, said it was a good idea…’ laughs Jason.
Early last year he began to carry out research for the project and looking into initial sources of funding. Since last October he has been working on it almost full-time, 7-days a week most weeks – in running my own project, I can relate to how tiring yet thrilling this can be. After this period, Jason realised that, from a funding front, it would be better for him to register the festival as a charity. He describes the whole process as a sleepless one that involved a lot of chasing people, though in balance he speaks of what a wonderful opportunity it is for him to be heading an event of this scale. “Excitingly and stressfully we’ve now gotten to the stage where we’ve got a lot of agreements in place, although many of these need to be pinned down. Much of the funding is now promised, but there is still much that needs to be crystallised,” he explains. Jason bravely states that it will be conclusively proven that Dylan Thomas is the father of hip hop. A personal favourite of mine, I am left doubtful as to what the ensemble of N.W.A. would say on the matter. Nonetheless, we shall see indeed whether hip hop came ‘straight outta Wales…”
The project is fast progressing, with numerous events and appearances carefully being pieced together to form a complete festival. The London Welsh Chorale is set to sing at the Eastcastle Street Welsh Chapel on the corner of Conway Street and Warren Street’s Welsh Dairy will feature poetry – not to forget cake! Remarkably, even Dylan’s writing shed will travel from Laugharne in Wales to Store Street. There are many events that will be included in the festival, including a screening room at the Saatchi & Saatchi building on Charlotte Street, I am humoured to discover that, in true Welsh spirit, there will be sheep right here in Fitzrovia! “We’ve got a gala concert organised on the eve of Dylan’s birth at the Dominion Theatre,” I’m told, “we’re currently looking for headline acts for that. Griff will be doing something hopefully along with our patrons.” I look in awe as Jason shows to me a sample of a never before seen series of photographs of Dylan Thomas, taken by Nora Summers, which will be exhibited during the festival. Welsh art will be on display in galleries and shops throughout Fitzrovia.
Other than Griff and Jason, high-profile patrons of the festival include Sir Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation, X-Men series), Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill, The Amazing Spider-Man), Sian Phillips CBE (Clash of the Titans), Jonathan Pryce CBE (Tomorrow Never Dies, Pirates of the Caribbean series) and Owen Sheers (Welsh poet & author). This collection of big named stars will be lending their honourable support and, for some of them, may even feature in the festival. “The committee; Hannah Ellis (Dylan’s Granddaughter); Griff Rhys Jones; myself; Alasdair Graham; Colin Tweedy; and Bronwen Price from literature Wales are the drivers behind the project,” Jason stresses, highlighting the collaborative efforts involved.
Arguably one of the greatest poets and writers to have come out of Wales, Dylan Thomas’ work is still widely appreciated today – being both read and performed for an international audience. This year marks the centenary of the birth of this infamous poet who was at one time, somewhat ironically, banned from just about every pub in Fitzrovia. ‘Dylan Thomas in Fitzrovia’ is just one of many high-profile and innovative events that will be staged across the world for celebration of his 100th Year and it will be a festival to celebrate every aspect of the bohemia in which the poet thrived. On a whole, the event will focus in on the late poet, though it will also bring the area, and many small local businesses, together in a way never before seen. The ambition here is to involve as much of Fitzrovia as possible in some way, shape or form. Jason Morell – I salute you sir. The festival runs 25th – 26th October 2014 right across Fitzrovia, for what is sure to be a landmark event for the area. See you there!