Ray Gravell

Wales and British Lions rugby player who won new admirers as an actor and broadcaster


Raymond William Robert Gravell, rugby player, actor and broadcaster: born Kidwelly, Carmarthenshire 12 September 1951; married 1991 Mari Roberts (two daughters); died 31 October 2007.

Ray Gravell played rugby for Wales on 23 occasions between 1975 and 1982. He was a member of the Welsh team that won the Grand Slam and Triple Crown, and of the British Lions team which toured South Africa in 1980. He was in the Welsh side that beat Australia in 1975 and Fiji in 1985. A powerful centre, he began his career with Llanelli RFC in 1969 and in 1980-82 was the team's captain. He was also in the Scarlets' side that beat the All Blacks in 1972.

As a player he showed great respect for his opponents and made many friendships which continued long after he hung up his boots. His genial personality and exuberant commentaries on radio and television brought him many admirers, though he was more fluent in Welsh than in English. With Huw Llewelyn Davies he broadcast the first Welsh commentary on Welsh-language television in 1982.

His touch-line and half-time observations were witty, knowledgeable and highly partisan, for there was no more patriotic player than Ray Gravell. There was a boyish quality to him that endeared him to thousands. Such was the esteem in which he was held that the road where he lived in the village of Mynydd-y-garreg was renamed "Heol Gravell".

Born in Kidwelly, Carmarthenshire in 1951, the son of a collier, but brought up in Mynydd-y-garreg, Ray Gravell was educated at the Queen Elisabeth Grammar School in Carmarthen, where his talent for rugby was soon noticed. For many years he was a youth officer employed by the Manpower Services Commission.

A straight runner and hard tackler, he played his début game with Lampeter in 1970 and his final appearance was with Llandovery on 26 January 1985. After playing 485 games for Llanelli and scoring 120 tries, he decided to retire and thereafter concentrated on his career in broadcasting.

He took the leading role in Bonner in 1985 on S4C and had a walk-on part in Louis Malle's 1992 film Damage, which starred Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche, as well as presenting chat shows on BBC Wales and BBC Cymru. With Frank Hennessy he presented a weekly programme called I'll Show You Mine in which his humour and wealth of anecdote from his rugby days were put to good use.

So wide was his appeal that when he had a small part in the nightly soap Pobol y Cwm, it boosted the programme's ratings overnight. He also played a farmer in Peter O'Toole's production of Dylan Thomas's Rebecca's Daughters (1992).

His catchphrase "Tip top!" (also the name of a programme he compered for BBC Cymru) became the hallmark of his television and radio appearances. Among the memorable moments associated with him was when he tried to teach the words of "Sospan Fach", the Llanelli war-song, to Simon Weston, the Falklands War survivor, on the TV show The Big Welsh Challenge.

In his autobiography, Grav (1986), he described how as a young man he had discovered the body of his father near their home and what effect this suicide had on him. He was nevertheless of a jovial disposition, and even after the amputation of his right leg earlier this year – he suffered from diabetes – he remained cheerful and grateful for the love he had been shown by friends and strangers alike.

Although cast down, he was cheered by messages of support that came in from all over the world. He even appeared on Max Boyce's chat-show on BBC Wales and proudly displayed the artificial limb he had been given. Typically altruistic, he toured Britain giving talks about diabetes and organising fundraising events such as golf tournaments.

His first public appearance after his operation was at the Eisteddfod organised by Urdd Gobaith Cymru (the Welsh League of Youth), whose activities were always near his heart. To thunderous applause he presented the BBC Cymru Talent Award.

The amputation of his leg interrupted his appearance as the Grand Sword Bearer in the ceremonies of the Gorsedd of Bards, a role he undertook with great enthusiasm. When the Archdruid cried "A oes Heddwch?" ("Is there Peace?"), Gravell, or Ray o'r Mynydd as he was known in bardic circles, held the enormous weapon aloft with pride and dignity, and always to tremendous dramatic effect. His place was taken by the formidable figure of Robin McBride, the former Lions and Wales star, at this year's Eisteddfod and at the proclamation of next year's festival to be held in Cardiff, where there will be a gap that is hard to fill.

Meic Stephens

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