Monday 31 October 2022

The Bizarre and Mysterious World of Miri Mawr - An Interview with Dafydd Hywel

G Neil Martin cocks his eye towards Miri Mawr, a Welsh language children's series from the 1970s which has to be seen to be believed - it also helps if you speak Welsh...

To non-Welsh eyes and ears, the name Dafydd Hywel will probably ring few bells. Mention his list of acting credits, on the other hand – 32 episodes of Stella, The Bill, Peak Practice, The Crown, Stanley and The Women, as well as a regular stint on Pobol Y Cwm – and bells might start ringing like testing hour at the Westclox factory.

A regular presence on television, with a distinctive, recognisable face which would place him easily in the world of the ornery, hard-boiled detective sergeant from a four-part murder series, Hywel is currently best-known for playing Glen Brennig in Ruth Jones’s comedy drama, Stella. He has also been the cover star of Radio Times when he featured in the drama, Out of Love

What is less well-known, and what will distract us here at Curious British Telly Towers, is his hinterland in 1970s commercial children’s television, specifically his role in the highly surreal and popular Welsh television series, Miri Mawr, broadcast by HTV Wales between 1972 and 1978, in which he played an enormous talking mole called Caleb for three years of the series’ run. 

The series was broadcast in the late afternoon daytime slot on the channel. It was set in a cave and featured the characters Miss Blodyn Tatws (Miss Potato Flower, played by Robin Griffiths), Llewelyn Fawr (Big Llewelyn, played by John “Ogs” Ogwen), Dyn Creu (Creation Man, played by Dewi “Pws” Morris), Dan Dwr (Dan Water or, literally, Underwater, played by John Pierce Jones) and Caleb Y Twrch (Caleb The Mole, played by Hywel). Also involved was the actress who provided the Welsh voice of shell-hatted black chick, Calimero. Dyn Creu had a head like the inflated teat of a pink condom covered in cenobite-type spikes, had boxing gloves for hands, and daffodils for ears and a nose. That wasn’t even the most alarming thing about Miri Mawr.

The programme was a combination of in-camera comedy vignettes featuring puppets and characters in costume, and pre-recorded educational films. Imagine Sesame Street on some especially powerful mushrooms and you get the general idea. Produced by the Head of HTV Wales Children’s Television, Peter Elias Jones, and written by Clive Roberts and John Pierce Jones, it was recorded at the channel’s Pontcanna studios in Cardiff and featured a rather catchy theme tune: Blue Bottle by The Frank Barkley Group.

It’s a programme with connections to a murder, Welsh Beatlemania, a hit single, Welsh rugby, Max Boyce and a late-night adult version that didn’t quite take off. Through various cloak-and-dagger operations, I managed to arrange a time to talk to Dafydd Hywel over the phone. We covered a lot. I first asked him how he got into acting:

“Well, in 1968, I was part of the Welsh National Theatre of Wales in the Welsh Language which was unusual because most Welsh people became either preachers or teachers. There were four of us chosen to be trainee actors with the company. I was actually in my final year in Swansea and I didn’t pass my exam to be a teacher. I went up to one of the theatre companies and the boss told me to go back and resit the exam so I’d have something behind me. I resat and I passed. I was offered a teaching job in Llysfen in Cardiff – then known as the “Beverley Hills” of Cardiff. I gave it up for another job that didn’t come through. I thought, never mind, I might get a job acting. As luck would have it, Peter Elias Jones rang me up and told me about Miri Mawr which had been going for a year by then and asked me if I’d be interested in the part of Caleb. John Ogs had recommended me – John was one of the four trainees at the National Theatre of Wales.”

One of the distinctive aspects of the programme was the costumes, and the look of Caleb. Did you have any say over yours and how was it to wear?

With the costumes we had, we thought of The Wombles before The Wombles did. It was OK when you got used to it. Everyone used to ask: why is Caleb walking around with his head down all the time? The reason was, that in the cave, I had my scripts all over the place – and the crew used to brush them all around. Blodyn at one point asked me a question but answered it as well, as if Caleb didn’t know the lines. We had a lot of fun like that.

What drew you to the part?

In terms of the character – a large, adult mole – I just took the part; I didn’t ask why or what. In the second year they brought in a second character which I played – Belac, Caleb’s twin brother. In the same suit! To tell you the truth, I was just glad I’d got a job. Morgan Rees was there and John Ogs; it was as if it had been written in the stars. We got on great. One actor – he was a guitarist – played a similar character to mine in a BBC series and he was burnt in his costume. So that scared a lot of people.

Margaret Pritchard, later a continuity announcer on HTV Wales, was also involved wasn’t she?

She had a serious role, talking to the kids. She wasn’t part of the script of Miri Mawr. She did a couple of news stories for the kids. The character of Blodyn Tatws, Rob based her on a lady who used to work at HTV, a woman called Dorothy.

The script could be described as surreal, to put it mildly. What did you think when you read it?

I never thought it was weird. I thought it was really funny when we started dressing up and acting it. We didn’t have much rehearsal – it was only about 10 mins in a half hour show but it was very important that we all clicked as actors; and we were all friends. This made a hell of a difference. When I saw the cameramen laughing – and the crew didn’t speak Welsh – I knew there was something going on here. Caleb ate only penguins and custard pies. He loved custard pies.

How did the crew manage the set and react to the performances?

The crew was very union-minded, as they should be – a group of Cardiffians. You weren’t allowed to touch anything but we got on so well, they let us move stuff around more and more. I always remember waiting for lunch and Dewi Pws was right at the top of the studio. The boys said: “Right! One o’clock! Dinner!” And Dewi Pws shouting “Hey boys, I’m up here!” “We don’t care – it’s one o’clock!” Taking the piss, they were. They kept him up there for about 15 minutes. As the show went on, they started laughing with us – at one point, the camera boys had to stop, they were laughing so much. We had a great rapport with them, fantastic. The best rapport of all the stuff I’ve done.

One thing has always intrigued me: why was Miri Mawr set in a cave?

The only thing I know is that it was out in Iceland somewhere. Right out in the snow. Somewhere like that, the Antarctic. Well, that’s what I thought. Iestyn Garlick, who played Llewelyn Fawr after John Ogs, said that “the idea of doing a programme like Miri Mawr is totally ridiculous if you think about it, but it made the programme cultural” That’s very good, actually, because, you know, it was very Welsh. Not only because of the Welsh language but because of the Welsh context; they put a bit of info in for the kids.

What was the reaction to the first episode that went out, can you remember?

Not really. All I know is that for the next few weeks Caleb became a bit of a star and was invited to all these Eisteddfods. I remember flying to Rhyl Eisteddfod. As I came off the helicopter, hundreds and hundreds of people and all kinds of ages were there. It was like Beatlemania. I was surprised. I was invited to open carnivals. I went to Barry to open something and I was there with one of the players from the Lions rugby team. I remember saying to him, “Trev, what a way to earn a bloody living – as a mole”.

time, Caleb was introducing a night at St Peters Hall in Carmarthen where Max Boyce topped the bill and sang “Hymns and Arias”. A week later it became a huge hit. There was talk about doing a stage show but it would have been very hard to do. Caleb did do a show in the night with, I think, Philip Madoc. Clive Roberts wrote it. It was on at 10 o’clock at night. Adult Caleb. Went on for a year. I’m terrible at remembering things – that’s why I’m not very good at lines. I did have some strange ladies messing about with my nose.

You mentioned Clive Roberts. He had a troubled history [Miri Mawr co-writer Roberts was convicted in 1990 of murdering his partner, Elinor Wyn Roberts, and spent 12 years in prison]

Clive had a problem. The last time I worked with him, I was rehearsing out in the Valleys somewhere with Sue Roderick. He asked her if she’d like to go for a drink at 8 o’clock in the morning.  I worked with his partner, too. Both had problems. Clive said he couldn’t remember what happened [on the night of the murder]. One psychiatrist said he could, one said he couldn’t.

Why did you leave Miri Mawr?

I was offered something else and they wouldn’t give me time off to do it, so I Ieft. Another actor did it for a few months and then it finished. Over the years a lot of people didn’t know it was me – they thought it was someone else.

But people who knew the programme, remember you from it.

A lot of the rugby boys were very big fans – Derek Quinnell, Ray Gravell. I was playing at Clwb Rygbi Caerdydd against Llanelli Athletic and I was introduced as Caleb – not Dafydd, not Hywel, not DH – Caleb. We became great friends, huge mates. The surprise people had is that so many non-Welsh speakers liked it – even my next door neighbour who’s nearly 70. He doesn’t speak Welsh but he and his mates used to watch it. I think that what we did, as actors, was not talk down to the children. A lot of children’s TV is “How’s it going, bach?” We just talked to them as adults. They knew exactly what was going on. It hit a note. I don’t know why.

Did you see what Huw Edwards tweeted earlier this year about Miri Mawr?

No! Well, well!

The success of the series led to Miri Mawr releasing a single, didn’t it?

There was a seven-inch single [Mayhem, released in 1974] and there’s a record where Caleb was singing at the Eisteddfod. Peter Elias Jones said, can you sing this song. And I said, of course. My man is Jerry Lee Lewis.

How would you sum up your experiences on Miri Mawr?

Mad, plenty of laughs and everybody enjoyed themselves

Different to the experience on Stanley and The Women (1991)?

They go on about Gavin and Stacey having 15 million viewers, we had 17 million when we did Stanley. When Holby and Doctor Who came to Cardiff, the Welsh crachach [snobs] loved it. It’s the Welsh language buggers who have spoiled it. I went to about five festivals, flown over to HOFF. When Boy Solider was playing in Dublin, it kick-started the Irish Film Festival. Martin McGuinness came up at the end and said it was the best film about The Troubles he’d seen.

What is next for you?

I don’t know. I don’t want to do a lot, just something I enjoy doing. I’ve been very lucky. I’m not the most popular with the Welsh crachach but that doesn’t bother me. I run a professional theatre company based in Llanelli – if I’m on my own, the girls [his daughters] help me out. We started out doing pantomime, but it’s expanded. The next project is on bullying in schools with some humour and music. We get some money from the Arts Council – we have around seven actors, four in the band, a couple of dancers and a crew of about four. Although I’m not a big fan of the theatre, as an actor – too much like hard work.

Thank you so much, Dafydd – you’ve been generous and brilliant.

No problem. The next time you’re down, let’s go for a pint.

Many thanks to Dafydd for generously taking the time to talk to me for this piece. His autobiography, Hunangofiant, is available in Welsh. Caleb lives forever in our hearts and, occasionally, our nightmares.

G Neil Martin is a Professor of Psychology and writer. You can get in touch with him via Twitter @thatneilmartin

This article originally appeared in issue four of the Curious British Telly fanzine.

1 comment: