by Hilly Janes)
Two weeks ago a large audience of Dylan Thomas enthusiasts gathered in a marquee in Laugharne, the pretty Carmarthenshire town where Thomas spent his last years, to view a screening of A Poet in New York, a new TV drama about his final days. It is the centrepiece of the BBC's Dylan Thomas season which marks the poet's centenary this year.
At a post-screening Q&A with the writer Andrew Davies and actor Tom Hollander, who plays Thomas, one man said: "I have only known Thomas as a formidable poet. I knew nothing of his personal life and now you have destroyed that image of him for me. Why did you do that?"
It is a good question. Literary reputations come and go, of course, but the self-styled "Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive" polarises opinion like no other. The writer of poems such as "Fern Hill", "Do not go gentle into that good night" and his play for voices, Under Milk Wood, was showered with praise by leading literary figures such as Edith Sitwell when he was only in his 20s. By 1952, the Observer's influential critic Philip Toynbee was calling him "the greatest living poet in the English language".
Hollander and Cardiff-born Davies, an acclaimed screenwriter whose adaptations include House of Cards, Bridget Jones's Diary, Bleak House and, most famously, Pride and Prejudice, defended themselves by saying that it would be childish to sanitise the poet's reputation and that they tried to present a balanced view. Hollander ate himself silly to transform his slight frame into the bloated, middle-aged Thomas (although the child within the man is suggested with flashbacks). Beautiful shots of Laugharne, where Thomas found the peace to write some of his most lyrically moving poems, contrast with the bustle of New York – despite these shots being filmed, surprisingly, in Cardiff.
But we also see Thomas vomiting violently before going on stage for the first ever reading of Under Milk Wood in New York, a failed attempt at fellatio with a young groupie at a party, and his beautiful but bitterly unfulfilled wife Caitlin (Essie Davis) banging his head on the floor in a rage at their home in the Boathouse at Laugharne. Most controversially, we see him claiming that he had drunk 18 straight whiskies before falling into a coma, which sparked the story that he drank himself to death. Painstaking research since by writers such as David N Thomas has revealed that he was exaggerating, but was suffering from undiagnosed pneumonia and, fatally, was given morphine by a New York doctor.
No one would deny that Thomas drank too much or that he could be a troublesome drunk. And while he went to bed with a lot of women, he was rarely the seducer, as even jealous Caitlin pointed out. While he often failed to pay back loans and relied heavily on the generosity of friends, many of them understood the difficulty of making a living from the arts. But he rarely, if ever, took advantage of friends who were struggling as much as he was.
One of them was my late father, the artist Alfred Janes – Fred as he was known to family and friends. They met in 1931 at the house of a mutual friend, the brilliant musician Daniel Jones. All three had been to Swansea grammar school, but Fred was by then studying at the Royal Academy Schools in London, where Thomas joined him in 1934, to share, as the young poet recalled, "one big barmy room kept by a Mrs Parsnip", with the artist William Scott and another talented painter from Swansea grammar, Mervyn Levy. "Swansea's Bohemians in exile," were, boasted Dylan, "going to ring the bells of London and paint it like a tart."
My father painted the first of three portraits that he made of Thomas in what he described as this "happy shambles", despite his coming "in and out like a cat in a tripe shop". But when the poet worked, he worked furiously, according to my father. "He would revise tirelessly and the room could be inundated with papers, gradually to be organised and collated and resulting frequently in a poem appearing complete and written out in his inimitable hand on a large sheet of cardboard to be seen as well as read."
Later, after the war that scattered the friends far and wide, my father, now, like Dylan, a family man, and living on the beautiful Gower peninsula, not far from Laugharne, would make "immensely enjoyable" trips to see his friend at the Boathouse. As they said their goodbyes shortly before Thomas left for New York in October 1953, his parting words were: "I'm only going to pay the bills." He came back in a coffin, and my father had to finish his second portrait of Thomas from studies.
Thomas is not part of the "canon", despite consistently topping polls of the nation's favourite poet. He is rarely on the syllabus at universities or in schools. Critics can't pigeonhole him as a surrealist, modernist or war poet – although he wrote some magnificent poems during wartime, such as "Among those Killed in the Dawn Raid was a Man Aged a Hundred". He was Welsh born, but not Welsh speaking, and while his tone is infused with "hwyl", the incantatory Welsh Non-conformist preaching style, he was morally suspect in the eyes of chapelgoers.
Does the real Dylan Thomas emerge in A Poet In New York? Up to a point, thinks his granddaughter, Hannah Ellis. Having read the script, she urged the film-makers to include more of his work. She is glad that they did, and praises Hollander's rendition of her grandfather's spellbinding voice and perfect elocution. She appreciates that his vulnerability comes across too. "At that time of his life he was grieving for the loss of his father, his marriage was in bad shape and he was unwell," she says. How does she feel about the drink, sex and domestic violence?
"I'd prefer that this wasn't the focus," she replies, "but I accept it lends drama to the piece. If you don't like a script and say no to copyright requests, then the work is not included and you have no input into the film, but it goes out anyway." Two other interpretations of Thomas currently under discussion are Set Fire to the Stars featuring Celyn Jones as Dylan and Elijah Wood as Thomas's US promoter, and Dominion, with John Malkovich and Rhys Ifans in these roles.
Hannah, a primary schoolteacher, is more enthusiastic about Developing Dylan, an education programme that is taking his work into primary schools, and has funded Dylan Live, a bilingual show tracing his trips to New York through jazz, beat poetry, hip-hop, spoken word and film. And she loves the innovative BBC Wales production of Under Milk Wood, starring leading Welsh performers such as Michael Sheen, Bryn Terfel, Jonathan Pryce, Tom Jones and Charlotte Church, who join in from around the world, sometimes connecting via laptops. Sadly, like most of the programmes made for the BBC's Dylan Thomas season, which include excellent documentaries presented by poets Owen Sheers and Benjamin Zephaniah, it has not been networked nationally, although there are plans to show the season on BBC4.
Hannah, who is trying to piece together her own story of the grandfather she never met, hopes the centenary will draw attention away from the legend and back to his work. As Thomas said as he coached the American actors who joined him in that first reading of Under Milk Wood in New York 60 years ago: "Love the words."
• A Poet in New York is on BBC2, 9pm, on on 18 May.