Historian and biographer, Angela V. John, Honorary Professor at Swansea University, gave the annual Richard Burton lecture at Dyffryn Lower School, Port Talbot on 11 November 2015. Marking 90 years since the birth of Richard Burton, the lecture outlined the crucial role of teachers in nurturing the talent of promising young actors from the town.
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 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."
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 delivered the 2015 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 here returned to her native area and 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 the 2015 annual lecture, and the topic and location were particularly apt given that Richard Burton received his education at Dyffryn School."
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.