A Poet In New York: Tom Hollander

The London preview screening.
The London preview screening.

“WE all know people who have stood too close to the fire and have died.

“It happened to Philip Seymour Hoffman very recently.”

Tom Hollander reflecting after last night’s premiere screening of A Poet In New York.

A remarkable BBC2 / BBC1 Wales single drama about the final days of Dylan Thomas before his death in 1953, aged just 39.

The star of Rev and so much more, Tom plays the self-destructive Welsh poet in a performance that will live long in the memory.

“I did find it very moving, this story about somebody that couldn’t conceive of a future for themselves,” he said.

Written by Andrew Davies, the film marks the centenary of Dylan Thomas’ birth.

It begins with his arrival at Idlewild Airport (now JFK) in New York in October 1953 ahead of the first performance of Under Milk Wood.

Before he was due to travel on to Hollywood to write an opera with Stravinsky.

Filmed in just 18 days, the drama also flashes back to both Dylan’s childhood and his marriage to Caitlin – another brilliant performance, by Essie Davis.

Plagued by ill health, alcohol binges, money worries and the 1950s’ New York smog, Dylan never made it home to Wales.

My edited transcript of last night’s post screening Q&A at The Soho Hotel in London is below and will be added to in due course.

The Q&A, hosted by James Rampton, featured Tom Hollander, Andrew Davies, director Aisling Walsh, executive producer Griff Rhys Jones and producer Ruth Caleb.

It includes Tom’s recollection of going into Dylan’s favourite pub in Laugharne, the village where he and Caitlin lived for a period of time, and meeting the locals:

“One of them was so drunk when I walked in that he briefly thought that I was Dylan Thomas and time somehow had kaleidoscoped and it was still the Fifties.”

Plus Tom on having to “fatten up” to play the ailing poet:

“I should have spoken to a Sumo wrestling coach.

“Who probably would have told me to eat chips and pizza and deep fried pork balls and egg fried rice and sweet things and McFlurries, chocolate.

“And I did. Just all the stuff you’re not supposed to eat. I stuffed my face with it.”

Made by Modern Television, A Poet In New York – also co-starring Ewen Bremner and Phoebe Fox – is due to be screened on BBC2 and BBC1 Wales later this spring.

With the third series of Rev starting on BBC2 from Monday March 24.

Tom Hollander, Griff Rhys Jones, Andrew Davies, Aisling Walsh, Ruth Caleb and James Rampton.
Tom Hollander, Griff Rhys Jones, Andrew Davies, Aisling Walsh, Ruth Caleb and James Rampton.

Tom Hollander:

Q: What appealed when you were first offered this role?

“Well, I’m afraid, traditionally the answer is that it was a wonderful script and a wonderful part. And a wonderful director who was extremely dedicated to her subject, despite not having a huge amount of money to do it and very constrained time. We shot it in 18 days. And Aisling with just sheer grit and determination made that work. As did Ruth. As did Griff and the production team. And so, I thought, ‘Gosh, it’s going to be tough but it’s such a good part you can’t not do that.’”

Q: Did you have time to prepare?

“I had a few months, actually, to prepare. But I then took another job…for financial reasons (laughter). So that meant that my fattening up lead time was severely reduced to about six weeks. So I stuffed my face for six weeks. Which is not as fun as it sounds, actually. If any of you fantasise about being able to eat whatever you want with impunity, you can’t. Because after about 48 hours of it you’re full and then you just feel sick and you have night sweats and go to the loo at all sorts of strange times of day. Anyway, you know, we suffer for our art in showbiz, as is well documented.”

Q: There are some very demanding scenes for you. Which one did you find hardest to do?

“I can’t remember, is the truthful answer.”

Q: (From Griff Rhys Jones) Tell us a little bit about the voice because that was an extraordinary thing. I remember when you first did the read through and sort of took off with Dylan, that was such a wonderful moment for us.

“Yes, the voice thing was fun. The initial just huge relief at discovering that he didn’t sound that Welsh. So I was able to think, if I can get that. I worked with a voice coach called Jill McCullough, who happens to be Welsh. And then listened to him a lot. That was actually the most enjoyable part of the preparation. It was not reading the biographies but was just absorbing the sound of him, which I did in my car driving around the place. And on my iPhone. I’ve still got all the recordings of him reading prose and poetry. That was a lovely thing to do. And then tried to find a version of it. His actual voice – I could put on my phone – actually now sounds so fruity that it would have been hard to believe. So it was a way of trying to find some sort of modern zone where it would be sufficiently faithful to his 1940s strange voice but also not laughable to a modern ear.

“As for this self-destructive thing, for me…what drew you to the character, the great script and the director and the usual things. But also I did find it very moving, this story about somebody that couldn’t conceive of a future for themselves. And that his best poetry, or the poetry that I found the most accessible, is the stuff about youth. So he writes about his boyhood and he somehow can’t imagine himself as middle aged man or as an older man. And so he is going to die. So there’s a sort of death wish.

“Also there’s addiction. And I have seen people of my own generation – we all know people who have stood too close to the fire and have died. It happened to Philip Seymour Hoffman very recently. When that happened I thought, ‘That’s not an overweight man in early middle age dying a terribly sad death because they can’t work out how to be…’ Dylan Thomas knows how to be a roaring boy, he knows how to be a roaring youth behaving badly, running around Fitzrovia. He doesn’t know how to be an eminent poet. A senior citizen. A teacher. He can’t perform the next level of role for himself. I found that compelling.

“Until Philip Seymour Hoffman died I used to say, ‘And it’s amazing someone that famous could have been neglected that much and could have died. Because surely, if you were that famous…’ An author these days, Ed Victor (one of the world’s leading literary agents) would have you in The Priory in five seconds. And then Philip Seymour Hoffman keels over next to his bath.

“I don’t remember the most difficult…the whole thing…we took one deep breath in and then we filmed for 18 days and then we all fell over. It was all hugely challenging. But there wasn’t time to think about it once we’d started. And then it was quite emotional finishing it when Dylan Thomas’ granddaughter (Hannah) came. She saw the last day. And she was so moved by it. And she had his curly hair, which was rather an amazing thing to see for some reason. That was very touching.

“Laugharne itself opened to us. It was hilarious…somebody amongst all the people in the local pub – Browns Hotel – insisted that he (Dylan Thomas) wasn’t a big drinker. One of them was so drunk when I walked in that he briefly thought that I was Dylan Thomas and time somehow had kaleidoscoped and it was still the Fifties.”

Tom Hollander, Griff Rhys Jones and Andrew Davies.
Tom Hollander, Griff Rhys Jones and Andrew Davies.

Q: Playing Thomas and getting to know about him, did it change any preconceptions that you had about him, if you had any? And also, which was easier – gaining weight for the part or losing it afterwards?

“Losing weight was easier. And I didn’t know very much about him. So there weren’t many preconceptions for me to be re-educated about. There’s this thing in his poetry…that’s in that poem, ‘The Force That Through The Green Fuse Drives The Flower…drives my green age and is my destroyer,’ is the line. That’s very good. That’s about him. That my heart beating in my chest is also killing me. I mean, there are lots of really bad pop songs that have the same sentiment. But life and death are the same thing. That’s what I learned about him. And I learned that he didn’t sound Welsh.”

Q: (From me as it happens) Tom – In the whole process of researching and filming this production, did you formulate any burning questions that you would want to ask Dylan, had he been available?

“No. I didn’t. I must think on my feet. No. You just say, ‘Can’t you calm down for five minutes?’ Would be the question. ‘Just have a day off. Have a couple of days off.’

“But I met Robert Hardy when I was preparing to do it. We did a charity function together. Robert Hardy – Siegfried in All Creatures Great and Small – knew him. Because Robert Hardy, as is often spoken about, his best friend was Richard Burton and he met Dylan Thomas with Richard Burton in the BBC, in Broadcasting House, one day. And was introduced to Dylan Thomas. And Dylan Thomas said, (effected voice) “Hello, my name is Dylan Thomas.’ And Robert Hardy, who’s quite fruity himself, went, (effected voice) ‘Oh, my name’s Robert Hardy.’ Thinking that it was a joke. (laughter) And Dylan Thomas gave him this long, hard stare. Like Paddington Bear. And I said, ‘But was he fun? Was he fun? He must have been really good fun?’ And he went, ‘No, he was very drunk. He got drunker and drunker and more and more boring and then became mercifully incoherent.”

Q: Tom – how did you put the weight on? What did you eat?

“There are so many clever people here..well, I thought, ‘I mustn’t get diabetes because I’ve got to put it on very quickly and I’ve got to take it off very quickly.’ Because we were about to do the third series of Rev. And I had six weeks either side. So I went to this nutritionist and she said, ‘You must eat three times as much of the healthy stuff and that’ll do it, if you don’t want to get diabetes.’ So I did that. But it didn’t work. I should have spoken to a Sumo wrestling coach who probably would have told me to eat chips and pizza and deep fried pork balls and egg fried rice and sweet things and McFlurries, chocolate… And I did. Just all the stuff you’re not supposed to eat. I stuffed my face with it, having done a couple of weeks with it not working.”


Andrew Davies:

Q: Why focus on this period – his last days?

“It’s always nice to know what the end of a show is going to be. And death is always a convenient thing. I’ve always thought as a dramatist that it’s a shame that the death penalty was abolished. Because that was always a good point to flash back from.”

Q: The controversy over what killed an already ill Dylan Thomas?

“Actually that’s not really what I want to say about Dylan Thomas. Not a pathologist’s view of my favourite poet. I wanted to celebrate his life and his poetry. And the last few weeks of his life was a good place to flash back to childhood and particularly his marriage and his love affair with Caitlin, which started off so idyllic and then finished up in this terrible deadlock. That he couldn’t live with her and he couldn’t live without her. They loved each other and they hated each other.

“Dylan Thomas was a huge inspiration to me when I was a teenager growing up. His poetry was much celebrated at our school. I won a verse speaking competition reciting one of his poems when I was about 14.

“And also, his dad was Head of English at Swansea Grammar School. My dad was Head of French at Cardiff High School. There were no writers in my family and I thought, ‘Could I be a writer?’ The more I read about Dylan Thomas, he had a childhood which was remarkably like mine, really. A sort of South Wales childhood living in the suburbs, holidays in the country and by the seaside. And what he wrote about was all the sort of stuff that I experienced. So I thought, ‘Maybe I could do it as well?’ I was also very attracted by his wild lifestyle and I thought I would like all that. But preferably not die of drink at 39. I managed that by hook or by crook. I may die of it at 77 but…”

“The story of his life, to those who know it, is very moving. And he’s also written half a dozen poems that are among the greatest poems in the English language and will last for centuries. The book of short stories called Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Dog is another masterpiece. And Under Milk Wood is a masteriece as well, in its way. That’s why he’s worth remembering because he’s a wonderful writer.”

Director Aisling Walsh:

Q: Did you come to a conclusion about what made him so self-destructive?

“I think it’s that Celtic soul with a lot of people. We’re kind of dark, aren’t we? At the beginning of the Fifties, he is that first beat generation that makes it to Greenwich Village. It’s 1953, he’s kicking all that off. It’s before Bob Dylan, it’s before any of that. He’s that sort of Fifties rock star in a way. And the pressure on him to deliver, the pressure to make money for his family…huge pressure to be successful. He’s at the height of his career. That first performance of Under Milk Wood. A huge amount expected from that. And a combination of things. I think physically he was never very well. I think Tom does it rather beautifully in the film. You just get that sense of somebody with this…bad asthmatic, bad chest, bad winter, cloud down, you’re not supposed to go out. All of the things that he shouldn’t have done, he did. And suddenly they combine together and explode and that’s it. After one night of binge, ends up on the floor in a coma and that’s it.”

Dylan Thomas

The Force That Through The Green Fuse Drives The Flower

BBC A Poet In New York Production Release

Modern Television

Tom Hollander site

Ian Wylie on Twitter