Obituary: Raymond Edwards

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The Independent Culture
THE FLUCTUATING fortunes of professional theatre in post-war Wales have produced none so staunch and articulate in his views as Raymond Edwards, from 1959 the first Principal of the Welsh College of Music and Drama. For more than 30 years he was at the centre of things, whether as administrator, producer, adjudicator or member of the myriad committees on which Wales's cultural life depends. He was a pillar of common sense and a passionate advocate of all that was best in the Welsh tradition, but always ready to assimilate whatever the world had to offer.

The traditional amateur base of Welsh theatre began to give way to a new professionalism during the 1960s, but the magnet for many actors remained Hollywood and the London stage: Richard Burton, Rachel Roberts, Emlyn Williams, Meredith Edwards and Hugh Griffith were among those who made their names in America and Elstree. Foremost among those pressing for a professional home-based theatre with adequate resources and a programme of works by native talent was Raymond Edwards, who became Head of the Drama Department at the Cardiff College of Music and Drama in 1951 and was appointed Principal when it won national status eight years later.

In the long-running battle for a Welsh National Theatre, which has still not been resolved, Edwards took the side of those in favour, but refused to be caught up in the bitter inter-necine rows between the camps led by the great Welsh-language dramatist Saunders Lewis and Professor Gwyn Jones, who as Chairman of the Drama Panel of the Welsh Committee of the Arts Council, was resolutely against the creation of such an institution. Even as late as 1977, when Edwards became an influential member of the Welsh Arts Council, it was an issue close to his heart. Michael Bogdanov has recently revived the idea.

Although a gifted actor and producer of plays for the stage, Edwards put his prodigious talents into the development of the college which will be his permanent memorial. When he joined its staff in 1959 it was housed in rather cramped quarters amid the mock-medieval splendours of Cardiff Castle, but so single-minded was his commitment that in a land short of surnames he was soon known as "Raymond y Castell", to distinguish him from several others with the same name.

Under his direction the college grew from small beginnings and not only parried all attempts to have it incorporated into the Cardiff Institute of Higher Education but moved into splendid purpose-built premises in nearby Cathays Park, thanks mainly to the Principal's diplomacy and driving force. He was an inspired teacher, popular with colleagues and students alike. Among his most famous former students are Anthony Hopkins, Victor Spinetti, Peter Gill, Anthony O'Donnell, Iris Williams, Jane Freeman and Victoria Wicks.

Edwards was born, a collier's son, in 1919 in Rhosllannerchrugog, a large Welsh-speaking industrial village in Denbighshire famous for its male- voice choirs, which in his day had an amateur opera company, an orchestra, a drama company and the communal ties more commonly associated with the mining valleys of south Wales. He found the place grim and unprepossessing. "It was not the kind of village which attracts sightseers," he wrote in Artists in Wales (1973, a collection of essays I edited), "and if any came to Rhos, it was because they had gone off course on the main Ruabon- Wrexham Road".

Nevertheless, he was proud of his people's heritage, an amalgam of radical politics, nonconformist religion and a respect for education typical of working-class Wales. Above all, the people of Rhos were great talkers and public speakers. Edwards, who had a deeply resonant voice, was fond of saying that he had inherited his father's way of speaking and that what came naturally to the miner - breathing deeply, with nostrils dilated and chest distended - was something that as an actor he had never had to learn. His voice served him well as a broadcaster in both Welsh and English, as an adjudicator of competitions sponsored by the British Theatre Association and as an after-dinner speaker much in demand.

After training as a teacher at Bangor Normal College, and lecturing at Wrexham Technical College, Edwards took his first private lessons in stage technique at the Liverpool Repertory School. From the start, and unusually for a Welshman, he was determined to acquire his skills as an actor by dint of discipline, economy and the control or emotion. Thus he learned how to avoid "the huffing and puffing" of the Welsh pulpit and to cultivate a nonchalance which I once found highly effective in his master-class of Saunders Lewis's verse-play Siwan, a tale of adultery and political intrigue set in medieval Wales. "Above all," he wrote, "I was taught to be on guard against becoming a conjuror's apprentice, against acquiring a set of tricks which I could pass off as art and which I could at some future date teach to others in the same way."

So it was, as a teacher at the College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, he encouraged his students to aim for technical confidence combined with an unruffled, straightforward acting style that had only a hint of personal involvement. It is said that Anthony Hopkins learned something of his chillingly malevolent part in the 1990 film Silence of the Lambs from his old teacher.

Outside the College of Music and Drama, Raymond Edwards enjoyed wearing many hats. He was a director of Harlech Television, President of the Drama Association of Wales, Chairman of the Welsh National Theatre Company (1971- 76), a board member of the Welsh National Opera Company (1971-77), an examiner in Drama to the Universities of Wales, Bristol and Birmingham (1975-81), a member of the Court of University College, Cardiff, and the Council of the National Museum of Wales, and a magistrate of the City of Cardiff.

For this public work he was awarded the honorary degree of LLD by the University of Wales and, for forging links with the State University of New York, a Doctorate in Fine Arts from that institution. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, of Trinity College of Music (London), of the London College of Music, and of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

The last 10 years of his life were beset by poor health, which he faced with stoicism and humour, and by major operations which confined him to a wheelchair. But his genial spirit and interest in the affairs of others, particularly those younger people making their names in a Wales where theatre and television had been transformed since his retirement in 1984, remained undiminished. He was pleased to learn, shortly before his death, that the Old College is to be renamed the Raymond Edwards Building and the Mews, part of the new complex opened this year, after Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Meic Stephens

Thomas Raymond Edwards, drama teacher: born Rhosllannerchrugog, Denbighshire 15 April 1919; Principal, Welsh College of Music and Drama 1959-84; OBE 1977; married 1952 June Griffiths (one daughter); died Cardiff 18 June 1999.