Robeson remembered by Bridgend Youth Theatre

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

By Philip Irwin
in Local People

The Bridgend Youth Theatre (BYT) has finished a short tour of its production, Robeson Remembered. that paid a warm tribute to the links between Paul Robeson and Wales.

The show was performed in Porthcawl’s Grand Pavilion, Treorchy’s Parc and Dare Theatre, and at Maesteg Town Hall. There are also plans for the production, which was very warmly received, to be performed in Cardiff, in the Wales Millennium Centre.

Local historian Keith E Morgan was an interested observer of the show, and has also written about the historical events portrayed in Robeson Remembered.

He writes:

How proud Paul Robeson would have been of the Bridgend Youth Theatre if he were alive today.

Managed by It’s My Shout Productions, under the direction of Roger Burnell, the young cast of Robeson Remembered at the Grand Pavilion, Porthcawl, gave a remarkable performance and in doing so, paid an overwhelming tribute in a modern context to Paul Robeson, a great actor, singer and civil rights leader, an outstanding figure of our time, but one who is largely forgotten today.

The performance not only commemorated the 60th anniversary of the live Transatlantic telephone cable concert between Paul Robeson in New York and the South Wales Miners’ Eisteddfod at the Grand Pavilion, but the contribution that Robeson made to both the south Wales miners and the people in Wales, as well as throughout the World in general.

The performance was 1½ hours long with sign language provided throughout by Sami Thorpe. The young actors set the scene by entering from the auditorium to take their positions on a mist-shrouded stage with the props limited to a number of packing cases.

The backcloth then changed to the showing of a film by Mei Lewis which depicted Paul Robeson (played by former wales international footballer, Nathan Blake) arriving on foot with suitcase in Porthcawl. Even though Robeson visited Wales many times, he only ever visited Porthcawl in spirit.

After the film, the actors moved on to highlight many of Robeson’s activities in Wales, such the part he played in the film The Proud Valley and that event which was being celebrated by the performance, the 60th anniversary of the live Transatlantic link at the 1957 Miners’ Eisteddfod.

Singers Phoebe Lewis and Lily Mohammad contributed to this scene with the singing respectively of ‘Ar lan y mor’ and Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess.

Next it was the turn of the Porthcawl Male Voice Choir under the baton of Mair Jones who gave a fine rendering of a Welsh hymn, followed by a song made famous by Robeson, ‘Ol’ Man River’.

The young actors then returned to the stage to bring the performance to its conclusion with a massive response from the audience.

Paul Leroy Robeson, was a famous American singer, actor and civil rights activist. He was born in Princeton, New Jersey, USA on April 9, 1898. His father had been a slave on a cotton plantation until he escaped to the North where he became a Presbyterian minister.

Paul lost his mother before he was six years old, nevertheless, his childhood was a happy one and family encouragement helped him later on in life to make his mark in high school, college and university.

He distinguished himself at Rutgers University as a star football player and passed out with a law degree. The law did not match Paul’s ambitions for black equality so he turned to the stage.

It was while he was in London, in the record-breaking production of Showboat, that his long association and links with south Wales and the miners were first forged in 1928.

Listening to a group of Rhondda miners who had marched to London to voice their plight, Robeson identified a link between the miners’ harsh conditions and those of his fellow black Americans back home.

From about this point on, Paul became a civil rights activist for which he was harshly persecuted back home in his own country. For the above and other reasons, Paul earned himself a place in the history of the Welsh mining communities as an ‘honorary Welshman’.

Paul Robeson had been invited to attend the 1957 Miners’ Eisteddfod, but because his passport had been revoked, he was unable to leave the USA.

However, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), south Wales area, opted for a live link up over the recently completed Transatlantic telephone cable.

The setting up of the Transatlantic link was a remarkable achievement in itself.

The first ever Transatlantic submarine telephone cable had only been laid and brought into service the previous year in 1956.

This cable had been designed for speech communication with a standard telephone speech frequency bandwidth of about 3,000 hertz and not for the transmission of music.

All frequencies in the human voice below 400 hertz and above 3,400 hertz are eliminated by this built-in restriction.

In this sense, the quality of Paul Robeson’s broadcast was truly remarkable, which was reflected in the exceptional quality of the gramophone records (of which a number of people have approached me saying that they have copies), that were made at the time and of the re-mastered audio tapes that were marketed in 1998 and the limited edition CDs which were subsequently produced in 2007.

Arranged by the National Union of Mineworkers, south Wales area, quite a lot off effort went into setting up the telephone link between New York and the Grand Pavilion. The timing had to be booked so that circuits could be allocated between the main telephone exchanges at either end of the network.

From the Porthcawl telephone exchange, a manual operated switchboard, which was located in what are now the present Town Council offices in Victoria Avenue, a special circuit (a private wire) had to be allocated to the Grand Pavilion where all the appropriate terminal and amplifier equipment had to be installed so that it could be broadcast to the over-capacity audience that packed the venue to the gunwhales; standing room only being the standard of the day both inside the venue and outside on the pavements.

Brian Batters, who was a GPO telecommunications apprentice at the time, recalls the excitement in the telephone exchange in setting up the circuit for Paul Robeson’s call.

This was carried out at the exchange by technical officer-in-charge Neville Dan Jones and Joan Jones, the deputy switchboard supervisor, while the loudspeakers and amplifiers at the Grand Pavilion were the responsibility of local electrical and television engineer Deg Smith.

Thanks to all this effort, the concert was a great success with credit for payment of the link-up being attributed to the National Union of Mineworkers, south Wales area, and actor Harry Belafonte.

Glamorgan has long historical associations with telecommunications. Did you know that the first ever submarine telegraph cable was laid in Swansea Bay in August 1844 when Charles Wheatstone and John Dillwyn Llewelyn of Swansea transmitted electrical signals via this cable from an off-shore boat to the Mumbles lighthouse?

This exercise paved the way for the make up and laying of all subsequent submarine cables throughout the world. To put the magnitude of this event into a historical context, Wheatstone also demonstrated the operation of an electrical bell between the lodge and Llewelyn’s house in Sketty!

Such a simple operation today, but how we have moved on. Did you also know that the first ever successful radio link across water between two countries was made by Guglielmo Marconi from Lavernock Point in Wales across the Bristol Channel to Brean Down in England in 1897?

We all know what this went on to achieve with wireless, internet and wifi being taken for granted as a an everyday part of our lives today.

Further to my recent appeal in The GEM for information on the now famous live link-up, I have received a number of stories relating to Paul Robeson, one of which relates to Tom James, the gentleman shown sitting next to Tyrone O’Sullivan OBE in one of the photographs.

Tyrone is another hero of the miners having fought heart and soul to try and save Tower Colliery at Hirwaun, the last deep working pit in Wales.

Tom’s tale is that at the age of 10, he was taken with his brother by Trevor Hicks, their surrogate father, to see the filming of Proud Valley in the next village, that of Llantrisant.

During the scene where Paul Robeson and others are walking behind the band on their way to London, the lady in charge of the props realised that Paul Robeson was the only one not wearing the fashionable cloth (Dai) cap of the period and with Trevor being close at hand, he is asked if Paul can borrow his cap for the scene which he gladly hands over.

On completion of the shooting, Trevor sought to recover his cap, only to be persuaded for a small compensation, to let Paul Robeson keep the cap for the remainder of the film. Can you cap that?

There is no record of Paul Robeson ever visiting Porthcawl, but his son Paul Robeson Jnr did on at least two occasions.

The first was in June 1998, when he officially opened the Paul Robeson Room in the Grand Pavilion and the second was for the Sir Willard White Concert on October 4, 2007 celebrating the 50 anniversary of the Transatlantic telephone cable link-up.


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