John Roberts Williams

Longtime editor of 'Y Cymro' and a pioneer of Welsh cinema

John Roberts Williams was for 17 years editor of
Y Cymro ("The Welshman"), the weekly newspaper founded in Wrexham in 1932, which in his time was published in Oswestry and is now owned by North Wales Newspapers in Mold, Flintshire. He was its second editor and, between 1945 and 1962, made it into a popular and authoritative broadsheet reflecting life in Wales in all its aspects.

John Roberts Williams, journalist, film director and writer: born Llangybi, Caernarfonshire 24 March 1914; editor, Y Cymro, 1945-62; Head, North Wales Department, Bangor, BBC 1970-76; editor, Y Casglwr, 1976-91; married 1941 Gwendolen Pugh Roberts (died 1969; one son, and one daughter deceased); died Caernarfon, Gwynedd 28 October 2004.

John Roberts Williams was for 17 years editor of Y Cymro ("The Welshman"), the weekly newspaper founded in Wrexham in 1932, which in his time was published in Oswestry and is now owned by North Wales Newspapers in Mold, Flintshire. He was its second editor and, between 1945 and 1962, made it into a popular and authoritative broadsheet reflecting life in Wales in all its aspects.

He brought to the paper a new professionalism learned in his first job with the Herald group in Caernarfon and, in particular, a keen interest in the political scene, both in Wales and the rest of Britain, contributing a witty column that made it essential reading for all with an interest in Welsh affairs. Under his editorship the circulation of Y Cymro rose to about 28,000, the highest for any Welsh-language weekly since the golden age of the periodical press in late Victorian times.

The pseudonym he used was John Aelod Jones, and although everyone knew who the writer was (there being few secrets in the small world of the Welsh media), he enjoyed keeping up the pretence that it wasn't him. The subterfuge enabled him the better to avoid being "nobbled", as he once explained to me, by the great and the good who were anxious to be featured in his column, and sometimes not.

He was also a pioneer of the Welsh cinema. While still editor of Y Cymro, and with the paper's photographer, Geoff Charles, but pitiably few resources, he directed Yr Etifeddiaeth/ The Heritage, a feature film shot in black and white with a CineKodak camera and shown for the first time, with both Welsh and English soundtracks, in Dolgellau during the National Eisteddfod of 1949.

This was not the first Welsh- language talkie - Sir Ifan ab Owen Edwards and John Ellis Williams had made Y Chwarelwr ("The Quarryman") in 1935 - but it was the first attempt to make a film to the best possible standards of the day, and it was rapturously received by audiences throughout North Wales, whether in chapel vestries or in the cinemas of the larger towns.

The film is about the social life of Eifionydd, that district between Porthmadog and Aberdaron on the Llÿn peninsula renowned for the richness of its traditional culture, particularly its music and poetry. John Roberts Williams had been born at Llangybi, near Pwllheli, in 1914 and was a typical man of Eifionydd in his staunch local pride and deep sympathy with his people's way of life.

In his first full-length film he set out to provide documentary evidence of an essentially pre-war culture which he knew was about to disappear for ever. It is seen through the eyes of Freddie Grant, a working-class black boy from Liverpool, who had been evacuated to Llangybi during the war and had learned to speak Welsh, the everyday language of the virtually monoglot community.

Among the vignettes that were captured on camera were a hiring fair at Pwllheli, where prosperous farmers took on their labourers, an open-air sermon by the renegade preacher Tom Nefyn Williams, men working in a wool factory, the Trefor granite quarry, and farm servants living in spartan conditions in a stable loft - all scenes that would never be seen again. The film had a sonorous, if somewhat florid, commentary by Albert Evans-Jones, the veteran poet known by his bardic name Cynan, but was otherwise silent.

It ended on a cautionary note, with the newly built Butlin's holiday camp on the horizon meant to represent the threat to the indigenous culture of Eifionydd which the film first identified and which the camp subsequently proved to be.

Technically, The Heritage was remarkable for its lighting and the clarity of its images, for the freshness of its observation of everyday scenes and its avoidance of the many clichés so dear to those outsiders who make travelogues about Wales. There were no clog-dancers or women in tall black hats, no harps and no country bumpkins, only the people of Eifionydd going about their daily round in quiet harmony with their neighbours.

It was even more remarkable in that Williams and Charles had no editing machine and had to project the rushes on the wall of their office at Y Cymro, which paid them only their expenses in travelling from Oswestry to Caernarfonshire every weekend over a period of two years. Williams subsequently admitted that the film had many technical errors but remained proud of what was to become a landmark in the history of Welsh cinema.

Compared with The Heritage, his subsequent films were less distinguished. They include a dutiful short about the production of Y Cymro, a portrait of the people of Connemara entitled Tir Na Nog ("Land of the Young") and another, shot in one week, about the visit of a choir from Coedpoeth, near Wrexham, to Madrid, which concentrates more on bullfighting than on choral singing.

Williams left Y Cymro in 1962 and joined the first, short-lived Welsh television company, Teledu Cymru, as Head of News, but the venture ended within the year in financial catastrophe and amid bitter acrimony. He was then appointed to a post with BBC Wales as editor of the news-magazine Heddiw ("Today"), developing it into the first major programme of its kind in the Welsh language.

He made two more documentaries which broke new ground with their eloquent commentaries and subtle camera work. The first, shown in 1970, was Llanc o Lÿn ("Young Man from Lllÿn"), an affectionate portrait of the poet Cynan which was the first BBC Wales documentary to be shot in colour, followed by its companion piece, Llanc o Eryri ("Young Man from Snowdonia"), about the writer T.H. Parry-Williams and the influence of landscape upon him.

But by now Williams had been appointed Head of the BBC's North Wales Department in Bangor, where his administrative duties prevented him from directing any more films. He turned instead to the radio talk, a genre which was to bring him a reputation as an accomplished broadcaster noted for his sardonic wit, deadpan delivery, independent judgement and keen eye for the incongruent in Welsh and world affairs. The effect on his listeners was rather like that of Alistair Cooke writing from America.

He published seven collections of his radio talks between 1984 and 2003, as well as a collection of essays, Annwyl Gyfeillion ("Dear Friends", 1975), and a volume of short stories, Arch Noa ("Noah's Ark", 1977), which included a typically self-deprecating review he had written of his own "small but substantial" book and in which, tongue in cheek, he compared it with the novels of Dostoevsky.

The wry humour in his writing, in which some critics detected the influence of Damon Runyon, was deeply rooted in the rich language and raffish characters of the town of Caernarfon. One of them was Wil Napoleon, a real-life portrait of a lovable rogue whose one claim to wider fame was that he had "starred as an extra" in the films The Inn of the Sixth Happiness and The Vikings, both shot locally.

Pressed to say, in a television programme made about him in 2003, whether he was a member of the Labour Party or Plaid Cymru - he had been associated with both during his student days at the University College of North Wales, Bangor - Williams said he saw merit in both but had preferred to remain outside party politics so that he could be "objective" in his reporting, and this was one of the attractive aspects of all that he did. On the same occasion he admitted to having renounced his pacifism and joined the RAF in 1942 but without telling any of his friends, only to be rejected for military service on the grounds that he was deaf in one ear.

In his retirement, John Roberts Williams, a book-lover since his undergraduate days, founded Y Casglwr ("The Collector"), the magazine of Cymdeithas Bob Owen, a society for book-collectors named after the renowned genealogist and bibliophile Bob Owen of Croesor.

Williams's autobiography, Yr Eiddoch yn Gywir ("Yours Sincerely"), which appeared in 1990, is an account not so much of his own life (a shy man, he was not much given to writing about himself) but a fascinating commentary on the media in Wales, both print and electronic, over the half- century of his working life.

He was also associated with a group of younger journalists looking into the possibility of publishing a daily newspaper in Welsh, which is due to be launched next year as Y Byd ("The World"). It was a source of great satisfaction that he saw Cymru a'r Byd ("Wales and the World"), a daily digest of news, launched on the internet by BBC Cymru.

Meic Stephens



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