My coffee with Phil
It’s 10 years since I interviewed Philip Wyn Jones for the Iris Blog. We’d met five years previously at one of the first festival brunches, where we got talking about old movies, and in particular the films of Alfred Hitchcock. I was soon added to the long list of recipients of the postcards Phil sent while on his travels, visiting film and classical music festivals around the country. When I last spoke to him he had been in hospital for several months, and though he sounded frail he spoke of the forthcoming Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester, one of those events from which I’d often receive a postcard. Two days later I got the call from Berwyn Rowlands telling me that Phil had passed away.
Before moving to Edinburgh he was a familiar face at every festival and a regular member of the preselection jury, helping to select some of the films competing for each year’s Iris Prize. After the move his presence was much missed, but whenever I spoke to him on the phone he would still ask about each year’s batch of films, and what I thought of them.
As we prepare to remember Phil at the 15th Iris Prize Festival it seems as good a time as any to let the man speak for himself. With that in mind I’ve trimmed back many of my 33-year-old self’s rambling comments from the original post, but left every word of his exactly as he said them.
David Llewellyn, September 2021
Iris Blog 07/09/2011 – Coffee with Phil
Anyone who comes to Iris and watches every short film will tell you it’s a rewarding but exhausting experience. So many films in such a short space of time. By the end of it all your mind fizzes and your eyes ache. Or is it the other way around?
It’s a brave soul, then, who watches all of those films – the good, the bad, and the indifferent – submitted by filmmakers from around the globe. The subject of this interview is just that soul. As a regular member of the pre-selection jury he watches around 100 short films each year, and helps whittle that down to the 15 or so that will make it onto the shortlist.
Philip Wyn Jones was born in Merthyr, and has enjoyed overlapping careers as a schoolteacher, journalist and critic. It came as no surprise when – while arrangements for this interview were made – he announced that he currently has houseguests from Uzbekistan. He’s an effortless raconteur, the kind of person who can namedrop without sounding a show-off, and for whom a houseful of Uzbeks is nothing out of the ordinary. With his large, expressive eyes, magnified by his glasses, and his desert-dry humour, Phil has the air of the sage, old voice of wisdom in a vintage Disney cartoon; the owl from Bambi, perhaps, or Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket.
Before my notebook is out of my bag, he’s already acting out a scene from one of this year’s features (“So then she‘s tied up, like this, see?”) and reminiscing about an early Almodovar (“What’s the one with the nuns? They’re all lesbians, of course…”)
This sets the tone for the rest of the conversation – Phil freestyling his way from one subject to the next, me struggling to keep up, scribbling notes in my own, practically indecipherable shorthand.
“So you started off as a teacher…” I begin.
“Well, yes, but before that I studied at the University of Bangor. English, Welsh and History. When I graduated I approached the Welsh department to ask what I should do next, and they told me to go to the English department and ask them what to do, and when I’d done that to come and ask them – the Welsh Department – what I should do after that. Then there was a job in the archives of the National Library, but I didn’t get that one, and I auditioned for a job as a BBC announcer, but they said my voice was too quiet, so I didn’t get that. But I suppose now the thing is, you think, ‘If I’d done that, I wouldn’t have done this, and things wouldn’t have turned out the way they have.’”
After qualifying, his first teaching job was at a grammar school in the foothills of Snowdon.
“From the playground you could see the smoke from the train as it made its way up the mountain. And this school – it had once been a public school – it had its own RAF Squadron. Anyway, the leader of the squadron was the physics master, and the one thing I remember was they never had to queue in the canteen.”
He taught English, history and Welsh for 15 years, from 1963 to ’78.
“I preferred teaching the boys at the bottom of the class. They were the real characters. They’d often have them doing practical classes, you know, cookery and that sort of thing, and after they’d had a cookery class I’d be invited to come down and help them pick the best lasagne, or whatever they’d cooked. That was always fun. And this one boy, he was so short-sighted, he wouldn’t know if he’d lit the oven properly, and you’d see him crouching down with his head inside the oven, and this gas pouring out…”
While he was teaching, Phil began writing book reviews for a weekly, Welsh-language newspaper.
“Every week this big parcel of books would arrive, and I’d review them for the following week. Anyway, this one time the parcel contained a book by John Gwilym Jones, who’d been a lecturer of mine in university. So I wrote a brief review, and the following week there was a letter of complaint from a reader: ‘I find it disgusting that an author of the calibre of John Gwilym Jones should be given a review of only four or five lines…’ And rather than stick up for me the editor replied – and this was in the paper, mind – ‘I know, I can’t apologise enough. If only we could afford a better quality of reviewer this would never have happened.’
“Well… if that happened now, I’d probably tell them all to fuck off. As it was, I decided I’d write film reviews instead.”
Were films a lifelong passion?
“Oh, yes. Growing up in Merthyr, it was a good place for films then, you see? You had so many cinemas, and each one had its own deal with one or two of the studios. The Castle was a beautiful cinema, very classy, eventually became run down and had trees growing out of it and everything, but beautiful in its day. That was where they showed the MGM and Warner Bros. films. All the Doris Day musicals, which we would watch as a family. My mother in particular loved going to the cinema.
“Sometimes I would go with friends, I’d be eight or nine years old, I suppose, and the first film I remember vividly was The Fallen Idol, the Carol Reed film. I suppose the protagonist was a young boy, about my age, and so I could associate with it all the better.
“The Castle was the only cinema in Merthyr equipped for 3D, and so that’s where I watched Dial M For Murder, in 3D, and House of Wax, one of the first horror films that Vincent Price starred in.
“I remember with that film, sitting in the stalls, and as Vincent Price leaned out of the screen, like this… (Phil reaches across the table with 3D murderous intent) …the man sitting in front of me shouted, ‘Get away from me, you bugger!’
“All the 20th Century Fox and Paramount films were shown at the Theatre Royal, and so they showed all the Hitchcock films, after he’d left Warner. Hitchcock was my hero. Still is. And then the Temperance Hall – funny name for a cinema, I know, but there it is – showed all the Disney films. I remember going to watch Pinocchio there one Boxing Day.”
In any conversation with Phil, sooner or later you’ll get to Hitchcock. When asked by BBC Radio Cymru to list the three films that have made the greatest emotional impact on him, all of his choices – Marnie, Notorious, and Vertigo – were directed by Hitchcock.
“Of course in Marnie you have Sean Connery playing a very unusual character, only interested in Tippi Hedren because she’s emotionally damaged, and in Vertigo, James Stewart’s character does terrible things to Kim Novac. And then Cary Grant, too, in Notorious… a horrible character.
“People say Hitchcock is misogynistic, but that’s rubbish. He gave his actresses a hard time, but that was for effect. His films are always on the side of the female characters, they are the ones you sympathise with, and it’s their dilemmas which are moving. I suppose the films I like best are the ones which move me, but I suppose that’s the same of everybody, isn’t it?”
Following regular stints contributing film reviews to Welsh language newspapers he began writing a regular film column for the now-defunct magazine Orson, “named either after Orson Welles, or this cat they always had wandering around Chapter…”
When the magazine folded he carried on writing a monthly column for Chapters’ in-house magazine, which still bears the squiggled cartoon logo of Orson the cat.
“Originally there were several of us writing about films. There was me, Dave Berry of course, Linda Parisier, and Tony Whitehead, who took over from Linda. Now it’s just me. I’m the last one left!”
For several years, films screened at London’s Lesbian and Gay Film Festival would be shown at Chapter Arts as part of a national tour, and Phil reviewed a great many of them. This led to the invitation, from Iris’s founder Berwyn Rowlands, to become a pre-selection juror, which brings us back to that dauntingly gargantuan list of 100 or so films. What’s the experience of separating the wheat from the chaff really like?
“Oh, it’s good fun. We watch the films at Berwyn’s home, and there’s a lot of repartee. You know what Berwyn’s like. And every year it seems the television gets bigger and more impressive. We start watching the films around June, and we have five days of this, from around 10 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon.
“There’s never an agenda behind our choices. We never think, ‘This year we need more films by lesbian filmmakers’, or, say, ‘This year we need more films by black or Asian filmmakers’. This year, for instance, there’s a large number of British films, but that wasn’t a conscious decision. I always choose the films I like. It’s as simple as that.
“We’ll usually agree on maybe eight films that definitely belong on the shortlist, then we’ll discuss the others. Some years there are problem films. This year, for example, there was a film, a very good film, I thought, which would have been too problematic as far as screening was concerned. The sexual content in it was very graphic, the sex in it wasn’t simulated, it was real.
“I remember, during one of the London Lesbian and Gay tours at Chapter, they had a programme of these silent pornographic films, made back in the 1920s. Now, in one of these films there was a scene of this man and a little fluffy dog… I don’t think I need to tell you what happens next. But the dog seemed happy enough. Its little tail was wagging.
“Anyway, Chapter were worried the council might not give them permission to show it. To their surprise, the council said, ‘That’s fine, but it’ll have to be rated R18, which means you can have no-one under 18 in the building while it’s being shown.’ Now, for a place like Chapter that’s impossible.
“So with this Iris film, with the explicit sex, it just wouldn’t be practical.”
Considering that he must have watched around 500 short films since Iris began, I wonder if there are any he regrets not making the shortlist.
“There aren’t many I regret not getting through. There was one, this year, in fact, which I watched on my own, and I really liked, but then when I saw Lisa (Nesbitt, a fellow juror), she just looked at me and said, ‘Sorry, Phillip…’ But that’s the way it goes. Everyone apart from me hated it.”
The clock is against us, so I wrap things up by asking Phil if he remembers the impact that Victim, one of the first films to deal openly with the subject of male homosexuality, had in the early 1960s.
“They showed it at the Plaza, in Bangor. I thought it was a good film, but to be honest, I wasn’t really with it at the time, if you know what I mean. The men I knew would talk about Marilyn Monroe, you know, and they’d say, ’I’d give her one!’, or whatever, and I knew that wasn’t for me. I think Grace Kelly always appealed more to me, I thought she was more elegant. Of course, the irony is Grace Kelly was fucking absolutely everyone, and Marilyn Monroe wasn’t like that at all…
“I do remember one scene (in Victim), where there’s this lad, the attendant in the petrol station. And it’s all very phallic, you know, with the petrol pump and so on. And there’s this terrible longing in Dirk Bogarde’s character, I remember that. But for many years, gay films were few and far between. When the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival first began, there was a tendency to show films just because they were gay, rather than because they were good, but all that’s changed a great deal for the better.”
Sadly, but appropriately that’s where our time runs out, and Phil starts scanning the menu board of Chapter’s café.
“Now,” he says. “Do I have Uzbek food or Chapter food for tea? Hmm. I had an Uzbek lunch, so I suppose I should eat here, really.”
I’ve a bus to catch, so if I’m ever to find out what an Uzbek lunch consists of, it’ll have to wait for another day, another hundred stories, and another afternoon of coffee with Phil.