Obituary: Meredith Edwards

Meic Stephens
Monday 15 February 1999 01:02

MEREDITH EDWARDS was one of those Welsh character actors who, during the post-war years found parts in the comedy films largely associated with Ealing Studios. In A Run For Your Money (1949), an affectionate but stereotypical view of the Welsh in which a group of rugby-loving miners spend an international day in London with uproarious results, he starred alongside the wild-eyed, dissolute harpist Hugh Griffith and the handsome dimwit Donald Houston who is fleeced by a West End tart played by Moira Lister - the sort of woman, as one collier puts it, who paints her toenails.

Now the Welsh are notoriously difficult to please when it comes to seeing themselves on film and many found A Run For Your Money, which Ealing intended to be the Welsh equivalent of Whisky Galore, too simplistic and, at worst, patronising. The film does have some nice comic touches, however, as when a voice over the loudspeaker at Paddington asks Mr Thomas Jones and Mr David Jones to come to the stationmaster's office, and a horde of leek- bedecked fans answer to these archetypal Welsh names.

It was characteristic of Edwards that, offered a chance to work in Hollywood on the strength of his memorable performance, he turned it down and chose to stay at home. He was never to regret his decision, for he was rarely out of work thereafter.

Although he had no formal training - his first job after leaving Ruabon Grammar School was that of laboratory assistant at the Courtaulds factory in Flint - he had become a professional actor in 1938 when he joined the Welsh National Theatre Company which the quixotic Lord Howard de Walden was trying to found at Plas Newydd, the former home of the Misses Butler and Ponsonby, "the Ladies of Llangollen". This touring group, although it made little headway as a national company, taught him the rudiments of his trade and inspired in him the ideal of a permanent home for the theatrical profession in Wales, for which he was to campaign long and hard, but to no avail.

Edwards's acting career proper began at the Liverpool Playhouse, where he played in Julius Caesar, but it was interrupted in the war when, as a conscientious objector on Christian pacifist grounds, he was set to work as a fireman in Liverpool, Chester and London, and later drafted into the Non-Combatant Corps, where he entertained the troops with amateur theatricals sponsored by Ensa.

He spent most of the war years in Palestine. His stage career was resumed after the war at the Old Vic, where he played Glendower in Henry IV and, less predictably, John of Gaunt in Richard II; of his Churchillian rendering of the "happy breed" speech in the latter play the London Evening News commented, "After hearing Meredith Edwards's impassioned delivery of John O'Gaunt's speech, every schoolboy who has got it from memory will go back and get it by heart."

Edwards was born, a collier's son, in 1917 in the hill-top village of Rhosllanerchrugog, near Wrexham, in industrial north-east Wales. The district has a robust Welsh-speaking culture and a tradition of radical politics which left an indelible mark on him. He spoke Welsh fluently, delighting in the local peculiarities of Rhos speech, including its retention of the familiar ti (thou) with which its inhabitants habitually address friend and stranger alike, and he wrote it with panache in his autobiography, Ar Lwyfan Awr ("On an hour's stage", 1977).

The language was at the heart of his patriotism and he worked tirelessly on its behalf, contributing generously to such causes as the Welsh Schools Movement, in particular the Welsh School in London (now at Willesden Green) in the days when the LCC was refusing to fund it. He was also a political nationalist and left-wing member of Plaid Cymru, serving as a member of the Flintshire County Council and standing as the party's candidate in the West Denbigh constituency at the General Election of 1966. During the referendum on the National Assembly in 1997 he played a prominent part in the Yes campaign.

In demand as a specifically Welsh character actor throughout the 1950s, Edwards made about 50 films in all, notably The Blue Lamp (1950), which led to the television series Dixon of Dock Green, Where No Vultures Fly (1951), Girdle of Gold (1952), The Cruel Sea (1953), The Long Arm (1956), and Dunkirk (1958). In the last, he insisted on delivering the dying words of his character, a Welsh Tommy lying wounded in an orchard, in Welsh. "Who the hell's going to understand?" asked the exasperated producer, Leslie Norman. "I have the feeling that when someone is dying," Edwards replied in his eirenic way, "they go back to their childhood, and if I went back to mine, it would be a Welsh-speaking one". So he expires in Welsh, while John Mills, with stiff upper lip, tells his men they will have to leave him and push on.

Returning permanently to Wales in the early 1960s, although still making forays to London for work with Z Cars, Coronation Street and Softly Softly, in which he made regular appearances, usually as the affable Welshman with homely features and a mischievous grin, Edwards settled in the village of Cilcain, in Flintshire, so that his children could be educated in Welsh. One of the best theatres in Wales, Theatr Clwyd, was situated nearby and he returned to the stage with great success, particularly in Chekhov's The Three Sisters.

Among his finest cameo parts was as the stern clergymen in Only Two Can Play (1962), based on the Kingsley Amis novel That Uncertain Feeling (1955), who presses the hapless Peter Sellers, a candidate for a librarian's job, about his knowledge of Welsh literature. He was much in demand on Welsh television, initially with Granada (where Sian Phillips was his co-presenter) and especially after the advent of S4C, the Welsh-language fourth channel, in 1982.

He appeared in Welsh versions of plays by Moliere and Pinter, and was one of the German generals plotting against Hitler in Saunders Lewis's Brad ("Treason"). His last film was Bride of War (1997), a tragic love- story set in occupied Poland and directed by his son Peter, now Head of Drama at HTV; both his other children, Ioan and Lisa, also work in television.

In addition Edwards worked with Amnesty International, CND Cymru, Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Society) and Equity, the actors union, of which he was a Life President. In 1996, as part of the celebrations marking the centenary of cinema, he was chosen to unveil the plaque at Rhyd-y-main, where Emlyn Williams's film The Low Days of Dolwyn had been made in 1949, an acknowledgement of his contribution to the theatre, cinema and television of Wales over more than half a century.

Gwilym Meredith Edwards, actor: born Rhosllanerchrugog, Denbighshire 10 June 1917; married 1942 Daisy Clark (two sons, one daughter); died Abergele, Denbighshire 8 February 1999.

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