David Berry: Historian and critic of film and television in Wales

Monday 15 March 2010 01:00

"Film was never made to feel very welcome in Wales. As a two- or three-year-old infant, stinking slightly of gin and the sweat of the fairground, it ran slap up against Evan Roberts and the religious revival of 1904, and was severely mauled. It survives, but remains retarded to this day," wrote the distinguished film-maker Wil Aaron in The Arts in Wales 1950-1975, a symposium I edited for the Arts Council in 1979.

David Berry set out to test the veracity of this provocative statement by researching the origins of cinema in Wales and showing, the fire-and-brimstone evangelist notwithstanding, that there had been a thriving industry in places like Cardiff, Swansea and the old coal and iron towns of upland Glamorgan from about 1894, when entertainments such as Edison's Peepshows had been very popular. Two years later Birt Acres' Kineopticon had put on a display of early movies at the Fine Art and Industrial Exhibition held in Cardiff at which a film of the visit by Edward VII had been screened.

In his magnum opus, Wales and Cinema: the First Hundred Years (University of Wales Press in association with the Wales Film Council and the British Film Institute, 1994), Berry charted the rise of travelling picture showmen, mountebanks and pioneers who operated at fairgrounds and music halls in Edwardian Wales, which was his favourite era because it was the moment when the movies emerged from still photography.

Foremost among them was William Haggar, maker of 34 films distributed by Gaumont; the most controversial was The Life of Charles Peace (1905), which appealed to audiences in south Wales weaned on penny dreadfuls but shocked many progressively-minded people with its brutal hanging scene. In north Wales Haggar's counterpart was Arthur Cheetham; Berry's research into the work of both men brought him great acclaim as a historian of early film in Britain.

The book's first section focussed on the silent melodramas made when Wales was "discovered" by Hollywood and on the career and influence of Ivor Novello, who starred in D. W. Griffith's film The White Rose (1923), Cutts' The Rat (1925) and Hitchcock's The Lodger (1926). Berry was the first to bring a critical mind to these films and put them in the context of their time. Suddenly, it seemed, Wales had a tradition of film-making that was far from being retarded, and had produced actors and film-makers who could be compared with the most famous stars and technicians of their day.

With the coming of sound and the boom of the inter-war years, Wales became the setting for films portraying working-class communities, often with quasi-propagandist messages. Berry wrote a detailed analysis of such films as The Citadel (1938), based on a novel by A.J. Cronin, Proud Valley (1940), starring Paul Robeson, and John Ford's How Green Was My Valley (1941).

He was particularly informative in his account of how Ford, who was of Irish descent, shot his version of Richard Llewellyn's famous novel in the back lot of 20th Century Fox's studios and on its ranch near Malibu, employing with just one exception a cast of American-Irish actors (including Maureeen O'Hara, Roddy McDowall and Walter Pidgeon) whose accents were, at best, only approximately Welsh. The film presented a heavily romanticised vision of industrial south Wales which went round the world and was to retain its mythic quality, even for the Welsh themselves, until critics like Berry began to deconstruct it.

He also delved into the film careers of some of the best-known screen actors produced in Wales, including Emlyn Williams, Stanley Baker, Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins, showing how their talents had been nurtured in their home country before they won wider fame.

A final section discussed television and film-making since the second world war and up to the creation in 1982 of S4C, the fourth channel in Wales, casting a cold eye over reputations which had hitherto not had much critical attention paid them. The directors John Grierson, John Ormond, Karl Francis, Endaf Emlyn, Chris Monger, Colin Thomas, Joanna Quinn and Stephen Weeks featured prominently at this point in Berry's narrative. The book had a useful filmography of actors and directors and some fascinating photographs unearthed during his research, and a comprehensive appendix listing about 400 films of specifically Welsh interest.

Dave Berry first came to Wales in 1974 and was by trade a print journalist. Born in Farnworth, Lancashire, in 1943, he had worked on the Lancashire Evening Post in Preston, The Journal in Newcastle, the Birmingham Post, the Bristol Evening News and for Northcliffe Newspapers in London, where he had honed his skills as a sports correspondent. A proud Lancastrian, he was a lifelong supporter of Bolton Wanderers, rugby league, speedway and cricket. From 1974 to 1989 he worked in Cardiff for the South Wales Echo as Education Correspondent and until 1994 as Film Critic.

He was Research Officer with the Wales Film Council and from 1997 to 2004 with the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales. In 1986 he wrote and directed a four-part series for HTV about the film industry, The Dream that Kicks – the title is taken from a poem by Dylan Thomas -- which was also shown on Channel Four and S4C.

Among the mysteries which exercised him was why a silent film depicting David Lloyd George had been "lost" shortly after it was made in 1918: he concluded that it had almost certainly been banned by the Government for not showing the statesman in a wholly favourable light. Berry discovered the spools in 1994 and made the film available again for general release; Norman Page played the part of Lloyd George and Alma Reville, who became Alfred Hitchcock's wife in 1926, played his daughter Megan. With Simon Horrocks, Berry wrote David Lloyd George: the Movie Mystery (1998).

A kindly and modest man, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of film and television, Dave Berry was always ready to share it, his infectious enthusiasm inspiring others, especially young film-makers and animators, and this role gave him oracular status. In 2002, for his services to the industry, he received the Anthony Hopkins Award and at the Cyfrwng Conference held at the University of Glamorgan in 2005, where Kenneth Griffith was among those who paid him tribute, he was given the equally prestigious Siâ*Phillips Prize.

Dave Berry's partner of many years, Gerhild Krebs, who survives him, is a film archivist in Saarbrücken, Germany.

Meic Stephens

David John Berry, journalist and film historian: born Farnworth, Lancashire 29 December 1943; features writer, South Wales Echo, 1974-94; Research Officer, Wales Film Council 1989-97; ) Research Officer, National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales, 1997-2004; died Cardiff 22 January 2010.

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