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Tweaking history diminishes Dic and the film.

Byline: Mario Basini

THE way the film industry treats history has become a political minefield. The issue has threatened, for example, to blow a hole in the special relationship between Britain and the United States.

Producers such as Steven Spielberg, the creator of the epic Saving Private Ryan, have been accused of rewriting World War II to make it appear an entirely American victory, ignoring Britain's not inconsiderable contribution to the war effort.

So it must have been with trepidation that Peter Edwards, head of drama at HTV, decided to rewrite perhaps the most famous bit of 19th-century Welsh history for his projected new film Rebellion.

In the film, Mr Edwards tells us, Dic Penderyn will commit the crime for which he was hanged in Cardiff Jail on August 13, 1831. Dic, real name Richard Lewis, will wound soldier Donald Black in the thigh during the mayhem of the Merthyr Riots in June that year.

In case you have been living in an Eskimo village or in the deepest Australian outback for the past 30 years let me explain that modern historians have generally agreed with what the people of Merthyr have insisted for the past 170 years - that Dic was innocent. And his judicial murder has turned him into Wales's best-known, working-class martyr.

Mr Edwards explains that he has been playing fast and loose with the accepted version of Dic's death because he wants to make a Welsh Braveheart, a film with a hero who positively challenges the authority of the capitalist establishment running South Wales at the time.

The real Richard Lewis is yet another victim in a Welsh culture already stuffed full of them, explains Mr Edwards. He has a point. In much of what has been written about him, Dic remains a colourless cipher, a man with the disconcerting habit of disappearing into the crowd of rioters who for four explosive days in June 1831 rampaged through Merthyr Tydfil.

The late Gwyn Alf Williams in his masterly The Merthyr Rising is one of the few who breathes life into Dic. And even then Dic is overshadowed by the man many regard as the real leader, Lewis Lewis, Lewsyn yr Heliwr.

But Mr Edwards, it seems to me, takes too much dramatic licence in his treatment of Dic.

If he wants to give Wales a warrior-like hero to match William Wallace, Braveheart, he has plenty of choices. He could make one of the last great native Welsh princes the hero of his film, for example. He could turn to Owain Glynd ^wr or to one of loyal, hard-fighting lieutenants such as Henry Don of Cydweli in South West Wales.

And if the wants to stick to the Merthyr Riots, a moment in Welsh history of great political and cultural significance, then why not make the charismatic Lewis Lewis the focus of his new film?

There is a very good reason why the real Dic Penderyn, the one who was almost certainly innocent of the crime for which he was tried and executed, has earned himself such a warm place in Welsh hearts.

As one man who believes in that innocence, Gwyn Alf Williams, points out in The Merthyr Rising, Dic Penderyn was not a man who stood out in a crowd. He was the equivalent of Everyman in the colourful, fluid, chaotic society that was Merthyr at the time of the riots.

He may well have had friends in the town's notorious red light district, China. But he was also well-connected through his family with respectable, religious South Wales.

He was said to be handsome, a miner who was a good worker if a little too fond of his drink. He was also a strong debater in the cause of workers' rights and a man prepared to fight what he saw as injustice, even with his fists.

It is precisely because he was not a natural leader that his cause quickly captured the imagination of the people of Merthyr and of the rest of South Wales. They celebrated him as an honest, courageous, ordinary working man who fought the wrongs in the society around him and paid a terrible price.

He represents a tradition Wales should all be proud to celebrate. It is one that Peter Edwards would do well to honour.
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Dec 29, 2001
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