Town of stars and steel: teachers’ role in nurturing Port Talbot talent

Marking 90 years since the birth of Richard Burton, historian and biographer Professor Angela John used a public lecture in Port Talbot to outline the crucial role of teachers in nurturing the talent of promising young actors from the town.

Richard Burton blocks thin

Angela V. John, Honorary Professor at Swansea University, who comes originally from Port Talbot, gave the annual Richard Burton lecture at Dyffryn Lower School, which Burton himself attended.

Angela John 1 - 2015 lecturePicture:  (l-r) Professor Daniel Williams, head of the Richard Burton Centre, Swansea University; Professor Angela John, Honorary Professor at Swansea University; Mr Martin Grimes, Headteacher,Dyffryn School, Port Talbot.

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Professor John focused on Richard Jenkins (Burton) and his contemporaries and Anthony Hopkins.  She showed how a few farsighted individuals in schools and in youth centres, who were passionate about drama, helped to transform these young people’s lives and opportunities, laying the basis for a town of stars as well as steel.   

The lecture was entitled ‘Educating Richard: Actors and Educators in Port Talbot, 1925-55’ and was preceded, fittingly, by a performance of scenes from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by Dyffryn pupils.

Professor John drew upon her newly published book "The Actors’ Crucible.  Port Talbot and the Making of Burton, Hopkins, Sheen and All the Others" (Parthian, November 2015).

Professor Angela John said:

"John Gielgud said that Burton came from nowhere.  He didn’t come from nowhere.  He came from an extremely rich cultural background in Port Talbot – the town of stars and steel, and the actors’ capital of Wales.  

Burton grew up in a world of chapels, opera, eisteddfods, in a town with a vibrant amateur dramatic tradition.   He encountered devoted teachers like Philip Burton, with his links to the BBC, and writers and producers like Leo Lloyd and Cyril Jenkins, a railwayman by profession, who in his spare time ran the YMCA theatre company and adapted short stories from Tolstoy.  

These were the inspirers behind the stars.  It is not simply a case of the isolated genius."

After the lecture, Professor Hywel Francis of Swansea University, former MP for Aberavon, on behalf of Sally Burton, Richard Burton’s widow, presented Dyffryn School librarian Jayne Simonson with a French dictionary which was used by Burton as an adult.

Angela John 2 - 2015 Lecture‌Picture:  Richard Burton's own French dictionary is presented to the library at his old school - Dyffryn in Port Talbot - on behalf of his widow Sally.  Pictured are (l-r): Jayne Simonson, Dyffryn School library, Port Talbot;  Professor Hywel Francis, Swansea University, and former MP for Aberavon; Professor Angela John, honorary professor at Swansea University, who gave the Richard Burton Centre lecture in Dyffryn School that same evening; Katrina Burton, head of English at Dyffryn School, and a Swansea University graduate.

The event was hosted by the Richard Burton Centre for the Study of Wales, a flagship research centre of the Research Institute for Arts and Humanities (RIAH), Swansea University.

Director of the Richard Burton Centre for the Study of Wales, Professor Daniel Williams said:

"The Richard Burton Centre is delighted that eminent historian Angela V. John is delivering this year's lecture.  Her contribution in expanding the fields of Welsh historical and cultural studies is widely acknowledged. 

Having innovated in feminist history and in biographical writing, she has returned to her native area in her most recent work which explores the rich cultural matrix out of which Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Sheen and many others emerged. 

Professor John is the perfect person to deliver this year's annual lecture, and the topic and location were particularly apt given that Richard Burton received his education at Dyffryn School."

Festival of HumanitiesThe event was part of the Festival of Humanities, which saw Swansea University serve as one of only 5 UK hubs for events which took place across south west Wales.

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Angela John

After graduating with her doctorate from Manchester, Professor John lectured for almost thirty years, in Kent then in London.  Her first book By The Sweat of Their Brow was a pioneering study of women’s employment at British coalmines.  She also wrote an award-winning book for schools called Coalmining Women.   

Professor John is vice-president (and former Chair) of Llafur, the Welsh People’s History Society.   She has been an Honorary Professor at Aberystwyth University since 2004 and now holds that position in the College of Arts and Humanities at Swansea University.