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Emlyn Williams

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Emlyn Williams
Williams in 1974, portrait by Allan Warren
George Emlyn Williams

(1905-11-26)26 November 1905
Died25 September 1987(1987-09-25) (aged 81)
Occupation(s)Writer, dramatist, actor
Years active1927–1985

George Emlyn Williams, CBE (26 November 1905 – 25 September 1987) was a Welsh writer, dramatist and actor.

Early life


Williams was born into a Welsh-speaking, working class family at 1 Jones Terrace, Pen-y-ffordd, Ffynnongroyw, Flintshire. He was the eldest of the three surviving sons of Mary (née Williams) a former maid-servant and Richard Williams, a greengrocer.[1] He spoke only Welsh until the age of eight. Later, he said he would probably have begun working in the mines at age 12 if he had not caught the attention of Sarah Grace Cooke, the model for Miss Moffat in The Corn Is Green. She was a teacher of French at the grammar school in Holywell, Flintshire in 1915, where Williams had gone on a scholarship. Over the next seven years she encouraged him in his studies and helped pay for him to stay with a French friend of hers in Haute-Savoie in France, where he spent three months perfecting his French. When he was 17 she helped him win a scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, where he studied French and Italian.[2]

In 1926, during his studies at university, Williams had a nervous breakdown, which was blamed largely on a failed emotional friendship with another undergraduate. As a means of recovery Miss Cooke encouraged him to write.[3] However, Williams intended to enter the theatrical world too and joined the Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS).[4]

Professional career


Aged 22, Williams performed with OUDS in his first full-length play, Full Moon, at the original Oxford Playhouse in 1927. Later that year he joined a London-based repertory company and began his stage career. By age 25 (1930), he had expanded his writing with works such as A Murder Has Been Arranged and The Late Christopher Bean. The same year he appeared in Edgar Wallace's hit thriller On the Spot in the West End.

Over the next few years, Williams took on roles on stage and on film, including the first film celluloid version of the Edgar Wallace mystery, The Frightened Lady. At age 30, he became an overnight star, however, with his thriller Night Must Fall (1935), in which he also played the lead role of a psychopathic murderer. The play was noted for its exploration of the killer's complex psychological state, a step forward for its genre. It was made into a film in 1937 with Robert Montgomery, and again in 1964 with Albert Finney. It has been frequently revived, most recently in the West End with Jason Donovan,[5] and on Broadway in 1999 with Matthew Broderick.[6][7]

His other highly successful play was very different: The Corn Is Green, written in 1938 at age 33), was partly based on his own childhood in Wales. He starred as a Welsh schoolboy in the play's London premiere. The play came to Broadway in 1940 with Ethel Barrymore as the schoolteacher Miss Moffat. A 1950 Broadway revival starred Eva La Gallienne. The play was turned into a very successful film starring Bette Davis, and again into a made-for-television film starring Katharine Hepburn, under the direction of Williams's close friend George Cukor. An attempt to turn the play into a musical in the 1970s, with Davis again in the role of the schoolteacher with lyrics by Williams, failed. So did a Broadway revival in 1983 starring Cicely Tyson and Peter Gallagher. But a 1985 London revival at the Old Vic with Deborah Kerr was successful, as was a 2007 production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. That production starred Kate Burton. Williams was a close friend of Kate's parents, Richard Burton and Burton's first wife, Sybil. In the Williamstown production, the schoolboy – the role created by and modeled on Williams himself – was played by Kate Burton's son, Morgan Ritchie.[8] The Corn is Green was revived at the National Theatre in London in 2022 with Nicola Walker playing Miss Moffat.[9] Emlyn Williams included this story in his early autobiography George covering the years 1905-1927 and published in 1961.[10] A sequel, Emlyn, covering the years 1927–1935, was published in 1973.

Emlyn Williams's autobiographical light comedy, The Druid's Rest, was first performed at the St Martin's Theatre, London, in 1944. It saw the stage debut of Richard Burton whom Williams had spotted at an audition in Cardiff. The play has been revived at Clwyd Theatr Cymru in both 1976 and 2005, and received its first London revival in sixty years at London's Finborough Theatre in 2009.[11][12]

In addition to stage plays, Emlyn Williams wrote a number of film screenplays, working with Alfred Hitchcock (on The Man Who Knew Too Much), Carol Reed and other directors. He acted in and contributed dialogue to various films based on the novels of A. J. Cronin, including The Citadel (1938), The Stars Look Down (1939), Hatter's Castle (1942) and Web of Evidence (1959).[citation needed] He played the mad Roman emperor Caligula in an uncompleted 1937 film version of Robert Graves's novel I, Claudius (with Charles Laughton);[13] a kindly veterinarian who accidentally causes the death of a murderess (played by Bette Davis) in the 1952 suspense drama Another Man's Poison; and the fool Wamba in the 1952 Ivanhoe (with Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor).[citation needed]

Other screen credits include Hitchcock's adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn (with Charles Laughton), Gabriel Pascal's film version of George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara (with Wendy Hiller and Rex Harrison), José Ferrer's I Accuse! (playing Émile Zola), The Wreck of the Mary Deare (with Gary Cooper), The L-Shaped Room (with Leslie Caron), and a made-for-TV adaptation of Charles Dickens's David Copperfield (with an all-star cast including Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson and Edith Evans). In 1941 Williams starred in the film You Will Remember, directed by Jack Raymond and written by Sewell Stokes and Lydia Hayward. The film is based on the life of the popular late Victorian songwriter Leslie Stuart, played here by Robert Morley, with Williams as Stuart's best friend. Also in 1941, he had a principal supporting part (as Snobby Price) in Gabriel Pascal's filming of George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara.[citation needed]

Williams's only film as a director, The Last Days of Dolwyn (1949), which he also wrote and starred in, marked the screen debut of his fellow Welshman, Richard Burton. Williams often appeared in his own plays, and was famous for his one-man shows, with which he toured the world, playing Charles Dickens in an evening of excerpts from Dickens's novels. This "one man show" was the start of a whole new theatrical genre. He followed up his Dickens performance with one man shows based on the works of Dylan Thomas, Dylan Thomas Growing Up, and H. H. Munro better known under his pseudonym Saki. His post-war acting credits included The Winslow Boy by Terence Rattigan and The Deputy aka The Representative by Rolf Hochhuth on Broadway. He also was the "voice" of Lloyd George in the seminal BBC documentary The Great War (1964).[citation needed]

Among Williams's other books was the best seller Beyond Belief: A Chronicle of Murder and its Detection (1968), a semi-fictionalised account of the Moors murderers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. His 1980 novel Headlong, the fictional story of the unexpected death of the entire British royal family in a freak accident in 1930, and the ascent of a most unlikely heir to the British throne as a result, was the loose basis of the 1991 motion picture King Ralph.[14]

On Monday 17 February 1975, Williams was Roy Plomley's guest on Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4. The author's book choice was a dictionary with a typewriter, pen and paper combined as his luxury.[15]

Personal life


Williams was married in 1935 to actress Mary Marjorie O'Shann (Molly Shan), who died in 1970. They had two sons, Alan, a writer, and Brook, an actor. Brook became a close friend of Richard Burton, working as his personal assistant and appearing in many of his films. Williams is godfather to Kate Burton.

Both during his marriage and following his wife's death, Williams was actively bisexual throughout his adult life.[16] He maintained a relationship from 1981 to 1986 with American theatre journalist Albert N. Williams whom Emlyn met while appearing at the Northlight Theatre in the Chicago area with his one-man Charles Dickens show. (Albert Williams served as Emlyn Williams's personal assistant during a 1982 tour of England, Wales and Ireland with the Charles Dickens and Dylan Thomas solo shows.)[citation needed]





Emlyn Williams died on 25 September 1987 at his flat in Dovehouse Street, Chelsea, London, from complications from bowel cancer. He was 81 years old. He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium, London.[19]





Novels (inexhaustive list)

  • Beyond Belief: A Chronicle of Murder and its Detection (1968)
  • Headlong (1980)


  • George (1961)
  • Emlyn (1973)










  1. ^ "Williams, (George) Emlyn (1905–1987), actor and playwright". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 1 (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 23 September 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/39950. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ Krebs, Albin (26 September 1987). "Emlyn Williams, Welsh Actor and Writer, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 October 2016.
  3. ^ Folkart, Burt A. (26 September 1987). "Welsh Dramatist and Actor Emlyn Williams Dies at 81". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 18 October 2016.
  4. ^ Carpenter, Humphrey, O.U.D.S.: A Centenary History of the Oxford University Dramatic Society 1885–1985, Oxford University Press, 1985 (ISBN 0-19-212241-X)
  5. ^ "Night Must Fall". 28 October 1996.
  6. ^ "Night Must Fall". 9 March 1999.
  7. ^ "Night Must Fall". Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved 1 August 2015.
  8. ^ Isherwood, Charles. "Rescuing a Student From a Life in the Mines", The New York Times, 7 August 2007.
  9. ^ "The Corn is Green". National Theatre - What's On. 11 February 2020.
  10. ^ "George: An Early Autobiography". Goodreads. Goodreads.
  11. ^ "Emlyn Williams' the Druid's Rest Revived at Finborough Theatre | TheaterMania".
  12. ^ "The Druid's Rest".[dead link]
  13. ^ Barker, Felix (18 December 1965). "The epic that never was". Liverpool Echo. No. 26755. p. 4. Retrieved 26 January 2019 – via British Newspaper Archive.
  14. ^ Ward, David S. (15 February 1991), King Ralph, John Goodman, Peter O'Toole, John Hurt, retrieved 13 November 2017
  15. ^ "BBC Radio 4 - Desert Island Discs, Emlyn Williams".
  16. ^ John Russell Stephens Emlyn Williams: the making of a dramatist - Page 147 - 2000 - In Emlyn, Williams presents himself as bisexual and in a loose sense he was probably right; but his sexual experience with women was at best limited to a few one-night stands, almost always in brothels, whereas all his committed.
  17. ^ "Wales Honours Princess and Duke".
  18. ^ "Obituary: Mr Emlyn Williams". The Times. No. 62884. London. 26 September 1987. p. 10.
  19. ^ Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed.: 2 (Kindle Location 51034). McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  20. ^ "He Was Born Gay (Queen's Theatre, 1937)". Theatricalia. Retrieved 5 March 2019.
  21. ^ "Gielgud & Goodner in Williams' 'He was born gay'". Getty Images. Retrieved 5 March 2019.
  22. ^ Bibliographic detail taken from a copy of George, Williams autobiography published by Random House New York in 1961