A Film by Penrose Tennyson
Paul Robeson was my mother’s favourite actor and singer, with his film, The Proud Valley, one that never failed to move her. We saw that film together many times, with its subtle message about the futility of racialism and hatred, and its less subtle message of the need to work, sing, and win a war together (that the ordinary man and woman in the street can make a difference) sinking into my young brain.
It was the last film Robeson made in Britain, and is set in the coal mining valleys of South Wales, which was a district Robeson had come to know well in the 1930s when he’d vociferously supported the miners in their endless struggle against poor working conditions. Robeson is still hugely revered in that part of the world.
The Proud Valley was directed, in 1940, by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s great grandson, Penrose Tennyson (he was killed in action a year after making the film), and written for Robeson by Herbert Marshall, and his wife Alfredda Brilliant. It’s a film that observes superbly the reactions of the Welsh mining community to a newcomer who also happens to be black, which elicits this response from one character who is trying to break the racial ice:
“ Well, we’re all black down that bloody mine.”
So, in the spring of 1959, with Robeson starring in Othello at Stratford I found myself, with the rest of my class-mates from Wellesbourne Primary School, waiting at Leamington Spa Station for the London train, and what promised to be a great day out at the Planetarium, Madame Tussauds, the Zoo, and Windsor Castle.
I suppose we’d been waiting for about ten minutes when the old steam locomotive from Stratford came chugging in. I recall it now as a very cinematic moment indeed, and rather reminiscent of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter. But instead of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson stepping out of the smoke and steam out stepped Paul Robeson.
Robeson was a big man (no wonder he was called David Goliath in The Proud Valley), and on that rather cold spring morning, wearing a black overcoat with an Astrakan collar, he came over to me and took both of my hands in his:
“ My name is Paul, what’s your name, young man?”
“ I shall always remember you, Stephen.”
I can still feel my hands in his, and there hasn’t been a day since when I haven’t thought about him.