When the titles roll over a steam train chuffing its way through the hills with a soundtrack provided by a choir raising their voices together in song, we know we’re in heading into deepest Wales for this movie. The Valley of Song takes place in a part of the country that doesn’t make it into Welsh films (or Wales-set films) so much nowadays: a cosy tight-knit village.
Rural Wales, or indeed anywhere on earth, may never have been as quaint or harmonious as this village, but it makes a lovely background for the story to unfold against. Geraint Llewelyn (Clifford Evans) is a villager who is returning home on that train after having been living in London. When asked when he’s going back to the big smoke he cheerily replies “Never I hope.” His heart is firmly fixed in the village, and so will ours be.
Geriant has managed to wangle a job back in his home village. There he is offered the position of choirmaster for the up-coming production of Handel’s Messiah. In a place where everyone seems to be singing as they work, rest and play, it turns out that this is a role of immense power. Not that we’d expect a snake in this Welsh Eden.
The first twenty minutes of the film introduce the village: Bessie the Milk, Evans the Post, Davies the Coal and Lloyd the Undertaker. There is even Lloyd the Haulage played by a very young-looking Kenneth Williams in a blink-and-you’ll-miss it performance. This is bucolic bliss and some distance from the sex and drugs of Human Traffic or Twin Town. No wonder since this 1953 movie was directed by Gilbert Gunn from a sweet-natured play by Cliff Gordon.
These villagers are a tad eccentric and according to Rotten Tomatoes, “Valley of Song perpetuates the British stereotype of Welshmen as pugnacious rubes” (ie bumpkins to us Brits). It is true that the majority of the villagers are not portrayed with a great deal of psychological subtlety, but we are not encouraged to laugh at them either. Besides the central characters are drawn with more detail.
There is Cliff Lloyd (John Fraser) who works at the railway station and is sweet on Olwen Davies (Maureen Swanson), and the wise priest Minister Griffiths (Welsh legend of Ealing films, Mervyn Johns), not to mention Geriant. Things become complicated when Geriant casts Mrs Davies (Betty Cooper) as the contralto in the Messiah, rather than Mrs Lloyd (Rachel Thomas) who had sung the part for the last few years.
The seeming harmony unravels as the village splits into two rival camps: the Davies vs the Lloyds. This casts the budding love between Cliff and Olwen into a rather Romeo and Juliet-like situation, as they are both from opposite sides of the clan divide. As the gulf widens, the couple come closer together.
If there is a baddie it is Mrs Lloyd, however when she finally gets to say her piece it becomes clear that she is a good deal more human that it might have seemed. Finally, the film reaches it’s conclusion with an ending as warm as the glow from a grate full of Welsh coal. The credits are also very funny, as the full extent of the villagers’ roles scrolls upwards: Lloyd the Fish etc etc etc.
Valley of Song is out on DVD on Monday 18 February.
See two clips from the film here: