Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Cyfres y Ceirw II: Vincent Price
Now as always, Wales dominates the ham section of the acting profession. Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton, Ray Milland, Richard Coyle - they all had to come from somewhere, I'm afraid, and that somewhere was Vincent Price.
Price's career as an actor, cook, art-collector and TV gobshite is all too well-known, but his humble background, political activism and sheer Welshness are not.
Born Fychan ap Rhys in Bethesda to Rhys and Falmai ap Rhys, Price spent his childhood training to follow his father into the sin-eating business. This prepared him well for his later role in The Witchfinder General and various adverts.
A defining moment, however, came during his preparations for the Bethesda Cwyniad - the local Welsh-language freestyle toasting and dissing sessions. He used the hwntw expression "chimod" to rhyme with "Ichabod" during a bravura dismissal of Archdruid Cynan, and was booed off the chapel benches by the local Gog separatists.
Although there is no proof of this, Cynan incited the local bigots to drive Price away from the well where his family had dwelt for generations - partly in jealousy over the young man's courtship of Dolgellau harp diva and ankle-model Telynores Dwyryd, or so it's said.
This made Price a doughty champion of Welsh national unity and an opponent of racial intolerance, even when it was entirely justified.
He fled south to the easygoing port city of Tenby, where he eked out a living as a crwth-player with a street jazz combo and developed his interest in cookery by slapping Welsh cakes for the demimondaines at Maison Griff's all-night speakeasy - the only place you could get a drink in Pembrokeshire in those days, even a cup of tea.
Fate grabbed Price by the danglers once again when the US Fleet steamed into harbour, heralding Wales’s entry into the Second World War on the Allied side.
A group of Calvinist street toughs had marked his card over the "hot" version of "Arglwydd Dyma Fi" he'd performed at a Griff jam session one crazy night, so he stowed away on a US frigate heading for Havana to pick up cigars for Mr Churchill.
Price was discovered near the Azores, but his cooking and rhyming skills, plus his ability to see U-boats underwater, soon had him shoot up the ratings. By the time the ship had docked in New York, Price was a Senior Captain - which meant he not only ran the ship itself but had the use of another when his was being mended.
A glorious naval career followed, but Price showed his principles once again by resigning his commission when President Truman refused to carry the war to its logical conclusion and free Wales from English occupation.
Instead, he sold his medals to fund a Broadway musical version of Caradog Pritchard's "Un Nos Ola Leuad" called "Mam!". Literally no one came to see it, which allowed him to recycle much of the material in a concert work for male voice choir and crwth that he toured around clubs in LA.
Michael Jackson loved the piece so much that he turned it into the hit single "Thriller". Price, ever the crusader against racism, praised Jackson for giving so many prominent parts to black people in the video, and agreed to play a cameo part. That, as they, is the measure of the man - composer, warrior, lover, short-order chef and Welsh.