John Hefin: Film-maker whose work celebrated Wales and its people

 

For as long as rugby is the Welsh national game the film that celebrates it most memorably will be Grand Slam, made for BBC Wales in 1978 by the distinguished director John Hefin. It stars the Oscar-winning Hugh Griffith as Caradog Lloyd-Evans, a lugubrious, lecherous undertaker leading a group of innocents on a trip to Paris, ostensibly to see an international between Wales and France but actually to rekindle the ardour of former days in the arms of the woman with whom he had a fling during last months of the war. His priapic son Glyn is played by the comic genius Dewi Morris, the camp boutique-owner Maldwyn Novello-Pugh by Siôn Probert, the gorgeous Odette, daughter of Caradog's "little butterfly", by Sharon Morgan, and the hapless Mog Jones by Windsor Davies. John Hefin encouraged them all to ad-lib, often with hilarious consequences.

Mog's cry of "Wa-ales! Wa-ales!"through the bars of his cell where he has been locked up by gendarmes for causing an affray, thus missing the game, is enough to bring tears to the eyes. Eventually released by his mystified jailers, he staggers through the crowded Paris streets in his red vest and boxer shorts and into an empty Parc des Princes echoing with the roar of the long-departed crowd.

Although John Hefin was always a self-effacing man, he could not resist the temptation of emulating his hero Alfred Hitchcock by appearing briefly in his own film: the attentive viewer will see him emerging from a pissoir and shaking his leg as he leaves. It is one of the many delicious details that give the film its evergreen appeal.

Hefin, who wrote the script of Grand Slam with Gwenlyn Parry, first in Welsh and then in English, made the film into one of the iconic images of Welsh life by training a knowing but affectionate eye on the feverish sensibilities of his countrymen whenever the national side is called upon to defend the honour of Wales.

His name will be forever linked with the laughter and pathos of the event, especially after Wales lose the match and the crestfallen fans make their way home. He made defeat seem sweet to a people who have learned, over the centuries, to make the most of it, and the film was taken to his compatriots' hearts as the funniest film made about rugby.

It was said wives wouldn't let their husbands go on trips to Paris after Grand Slam. Dewi Morris's mother would not go to chapel in Treboeth after seeing him cavorting with a naked Odette (albeit with one eye on the match on a TV set in her bedroom) until the minister informed her it was one of the funniest things he'd seen on television in years, after which she basked in his overnight fame.

The film was not Hefin's only achievement. In September 1974 he devised a soap-opera for the BBC, Pobol y Cwm (People of the valley). It was intended to run for 10 episodes but it was an immediate hit with Welsh audiences and is now the longest-running soap on British television.

Set in the village of Cwmderi, somewhere between Carmarthen and Llanelli – although now filmed in purpose-built studios in Cardiff Bay– the series, seen nightly on S4C, has had a huge effect on television ratings in Wales, as most successful soaps do, and is now a cornerstone of the service. Subtitle attract English-speaking viewers who are among the show's most enthusiastic fans.

It has also played an important role in providing actors, writers and camera crews with opportunities for earning a living through the medium of the Welsh language, which has proved flexible and capacious enough to accommodate the new technology.

Hefin made a deliberate attempt from the outset to appeal to the whole of Wales by creating characters from all parts of the country. His vision and determination to lay the foundations of popular broadcasting in Welsh, his first language to which he was zealously committed, cannot be over-emphasised.

During his time as Head of Drama at the BBC, a role in which he preferred original plays to adaptations, he produced and directed some of the finest home-grown programmes seen in Wales. They include Bus to Bosworth, in which the quirky Kenneth Griffith takes a busload of schoolchildren to visit the scene of Henry Tudor's victory over Richard III in 1485, Tough Trade, starring Anthony Hopkins, OM, about the great patriot OM Edwards, and Mr Lollipop MA, in which Flora Robson had a part. He once told me the Bosworth film, which he scripted, was a tribute to his father who, as headmaster at the village school in Tre Taliesin, used to organise bus-trips to places of historical interest.

His most controversial production was The Mimosa Boys (1985), which challenged the official version of the bombing of the Sir Galahad and the loss of Welsh soldiers in the Falklands campaign. Based on interviews with survivors, Ewart Alexander's script focused on the lives of four young men immediately before embarkation and was a creditable attempt to provide an unblinkered account of the tragedy. But opinion was divided: was the film a radical critique of military tactics that left men unprotected or a homage to their courage under fire?

His other major achievement was The Life and Times of Lloyd George, in which the statesman was played by Philip Madoc. The script was by Elaine Morgan and the series had haunting theme music by Ennio Morricone, whose "Chi Mai" sequence became a surprise hit in the UK. charts.

Hefin went into semi-retirement in the 1990s but joined the staff of the University College of Wales to create a course in film and television studies, where he proved to be an inspirational Teaching Fellow. He was also a Fellow of the Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff.

A man of great charm and broad culture, he was prepared to roll up his sleeves in the interests of broadcasting in Wales. He played a leading role in setting up the Wales Film Commission and the Celtic Film Festival and was Chairman of Cyfrwng, the body that promotes inter-disciplinary debate about the media in Wales. He was awarded an MBE and admitted to the prestigious Gorsedd of Bards.

Although never politically active, it was he, with his lifelong friend David Meredith, later Head of Press and Public Relations with HTV and S4C, who in 1962 painted the word "Elis" on a large boulder near the Pumlumon road that leads down to Aberystwyth, as publicity for Islwyn Ffowc Elis, the Plaid Cymru candidate at a forthcoming bye-election. Days later it was changed by an unknown hand to "Elvis", and "the Elvis Rock" became a landmark that went on amusing motorists for years thereafter. John savoured the joke as much as anyone.

John Hefin Evans, film-maker: born Aberystwyth 14 August 1941; married firstly Non Watkin Jones (marriage dissolved; one son, one daughter), secondly Elin Williams (one daughter); died Borth, Ceredigion 19 November 2012.

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