Three minutes into Andrew Davies's biopic A Poet in New York, Dylan Thomas jauntily cuts to the grim heart of the matter when his Manhattan friend asks "How are you doing?" Thomas replies, "Apart from a spot of gout, the gastritis of course, and the asthma, piles, warts and carbuncles, a bit of cirrhosis, a touch of TB, brittle bones and an overwhelming sense of panic and terror, I’m absolutely tip top."
The BBC America TV movie, debuting October 29, stands as a bittersweet love letter from Davies, who wrote the screenplay, to his boyhood idol, played in the film by Tom Hollander. Long before creating the original House of Cards and adapting Pride and Prejudice for television, Davies wanted to be a poet just like Dylan Thomas.
Speaking from his London home, Davies recalls that as a schoolboy orator, "I read ‘The Hand That Signed the Paper’ and was blown away. Then my English teacher told me Dylan Thomas came from South Wales, which is where I grew up, and his father was a teacher, just as my father was a teacher."
Davies continues, "In my late teens, I thought, 'I want to go to London like Dylan did and get drunk and have lots of women and lead the bohemian life.' Unfortunately, most of my early work was very bad sub-Dylan Thomas poetry until I realized my gift wasn’t for poetry at all; it was for drama and writing dialogue."
For A Poet in New York, Davies draws on those talents to chronicle the 1953 week-long Manhattan debauch that culminated in Dylan Thomas's death from drink at age 39. Taking a break from writing the second season of PBS Masterpiece series Mr. Selfridge, Davies talks to Co.Create about the protean gifts and equally prodigious burdens borne by the man who wrote "Do not go gentle into that good night."
"I think one factor in Dylan Thomas’s decline is that he was hopeless with money," Davies says. "He actually earned quite a lot in his lifetime but it slipped through his fingers. He was beset with debt and tax demands and that wound up damaging his marriage. By the time we meet him in A Poet in New York, he was basically fucked."
It didn’t have to be that way. Davies, who prepared for the movie by reading 30 books of biography and related Dylan Thomas ephemera, says "Dylan wasted a lot of time writing enormously long begging letters to his friends, the object of which was to borrow five shillings."
Noting the success of his radio dramas including the classic Under Milk Wood, Davies says, "Obviously you can’t be writing great poems all the time. If Dylan had paced himself better and pursued script writing almost as a day job, I think he could have been a steady earner writing movies."
As shown in A Poet New York, Thomas reveled in his own celebrity to ruinous effect. "At home in Wales, Dylan lived a moderately restrained life, but in New York he was treated like a rock star," Davies explains. "He had groupies and friends who wanted to take him out drinking every night. Dylan cooperated enthusiastically in all of that."
Meanwhile, Thomas's daughter and wife Catilin (played in the film by Nansi Rhys Adams and Essie Davis, respectively) remained in Wales faced with mounting bills. "Caitlin became bitterly resentful when Dylan left her behind for what she saw as whisky-drinking, showing off, and infidelity in New York."
"Dylan Thomas wanted to be a truly great poet," says Davies. "He was going up against people like Shakespeare and Keats so he had standards that were almost impossible to satisfy. He talked with such fluency and brilliance that people thought writing poetry for him was similarly easy, but it was actually something he had to work terribly hard at. Struggling on his own all day in this shed in Wales to write sometimes just a single line, he must have been thinking, 'Oh my God how long do I have to keep this up?' He had this tremendous urge to escape from it, which is partly why he had so much trouble with drink: it relaxed him and got him off the hook from time to time."
Thomas may have burned out prematurely, but the poems themselves remain as fresh as the day he set them to paper. Davies says, "Part of the power in his poetry is that Dylan seemed able to see things with the vividness and intensity of a boy. It's as if he retained a direct line back to his childhood."
Influenced by old Welsh folk poetry and the Bible "Dylan got exposed to these grand sonorous sounds," Davies says. "Writing about the way that love and life and death are intertwined, he created terribly moving poems that are wonderfully musical."
55 years after the poet's death, those rhythms continue to resonate. To illustrate the point, Davies recites a line he's memorized from his Dylan Thomas repertoire: "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower. Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees is my destroyer."