Phil Morris pays tribute to playwright, film-maker and critic Othniel Smith, who has died.
Should the history of Welsh theatre during the past 30 years come to be written, there will be an inevitable focus on the visionary artistic directors, prize-winning playwrights, dazzling performers and possibly a few wise heads of arts-funding bodies. Scant attention will be paid, however, to those who went about their work with quiet yet fierce dedication, whose contribution though barely acknowledged was nonetheless of significance and import; unassuming figures such as Othniel Smith, who sadly died last week after three decades of play-writing, film-making and reviewing hundreds of theatrical productions and gigs. His work was nothing if not professional in standard, though much of it was unpaid or poorly paid it was always of value. Social media tributes to him have rightly noted his personal qualities of gentility, generosity and thoughtfulness; while many have gone further to express a deep sense of loss to our theatre community, for he had given so much of himself, in a variety of roles, as both an artist and hardworking supporter of his fellow artists.
Over the past decade, Othniel’s prolific work as a theatre critic had come to overshadow somewhat his own creative writing. He was a constant presence at press nights, and the sheer volume of his reviewing, for the online British Theatre Guide and his own Blakeson blog, was impressively prodigious. His criticism was welcomed by most theatre-makers because of its generosity of spirit – he could never be accused of seeking to wound someone merely to draw attention to his own intelligence and wit – and the insights he had gleaned from his practice as a working playwright. Othniel knew how cruel a cutting remark could be because he was brave enough to risk committing his truth to the stage and had experienced his fair share of artistic vicissitudes and frustrations. His reviews were intelligent without being ideological, shrewd in practical matters of staging and careful to note the contributions of designers and technicians when applicable; most of all he seemed concerned that good work would somehow find the widest possible audience.
From the late 80s through to the late 90s, Othniel wrote several plays and short stories that were produced by Radio 4 and BBC Radio Wales. In 1998, his full-length play Giant Steps, described by Time Out as ‘inspirational’, was staged at London’s Oval House by Made in Wales. When Giant Steps was later anthologised in New Welsh Drama II (Parthian), editor Jeff Teare observed in his introduction the many difficulties Made in Wales faced at the time with regard to attracting the necessary funding and desired audience for the play. Teare recalled being “met with a long silence” on a phone call to the Arts Council of Wales, after explaining that he understood the term ‘multicultural’ to apply to “Welsh writers from non-European backgrounds” rather than simply those who spoke Welsh and English. The production of Giant Steps was ultimately funded through a special grant from the London Arts Board to promote Black and Asian writing. The question arises as to whether such an ambivalence or confusion, regarding multicultural identities within the context of cultural debates surrounding notions of ‘Welshness’, which have been ‘whitewashed’ for generations, was a factor in stymying the development of Othniel’s play-writing career in Wales, for he was never again to receive a major commission for a full theatrical production from a Welsh theatre company.
His talent was recognised as a screenwriter, writing eight episodes across four series of The Story of Tracy Beaker for BBC TV. In this drama series, set in a care home for children and based on books by Jacqueline Wilson, Smith found a blend of social issues and irreverent humour that was a suitable match for his style and approach to contemporary stories. He also wrote episodes for two other children’s TV shows, the comedy-drama Kerching! and the animated Hilltop Hospital.
After earning a PhD in Independent Film from the University of Glamorgan, he began to script short films, most notably Say It (2013) for the BBC Wales It’s Your Shout strand. As his creative career struggled to establish itself with further momentum, he made inventive but very short and extremely low-budget films created from archived stock footage set to classic poems or classical music. There was little money in such work, although these idiosyncratic films were shown at international festivals. In later years he would herald via his social media the arrival of an occasional small Tracy Beaker royalty cheque with wry self-mockery at his depreciating professional status. At the time of his death, he was working on the latest season of Jamie Johnson for CBBC, so it is particularly poignant that his return to TV was cut short so prematurely.
In parallel with his struggle to gain paid work as a writer, Othniel served with distinction as Secretary of the Welsh Committee of the Writers’ Guild of Britain for over 20 years. Co-chair of the committee Manon Eaves gratefully acknowledged his steadfast support, writing: “As we all know, people come and go on committees, but Othniel was always, always there”. His commitment to the welfare of writers and to protecting their professional status was characteristic of a man who was unfailingly fair-minded and encouraging to artists as a critic.
While his sizeable contribution to Welsh theatre as a critic, activist and friend of the creative has been celebrated by almost all who knew him, and his achievements as a TV screenwriter and graduate student were not inconsiderable, the nagging sense remains that his potential as a playwright was underappreciated and even neglected in his lifetime. He was a good playwright who had the potential to become a really good one, and while it is ill-advised to point any finger of specific blame at any one door, it is perhaps a collective failure on the part of the theatre community in Wales that so little was done to provide a prominent platform for Othniel as a playwright. A few companies, notably Made in Wales and Dirty Protest, staged readings and scratch performances of his plays, yet as is the nature of these companies with limited means they were unable to provide adequate resources to aid his career development further.
Othniel was invited to be a panellist in a debate about new writing in Welsh theatre, which was part of a Critics’ Roundtable I organised at the Wales Millennium Centre for Wales Arts Review in 2014. During our preparations, we discussed his playwriting career and with a characteristic lack of bitterness or rancour, he calmly spoke of his disappointment at not receiving more developmental support through the middle stage of his career as a playwright. On hearing of his death, I could not escape the suspicion that an opportunity had been lost in not recognising him as a playwright. I would not wish to define him narrowly as only a BAME writer, but I feel he might have widened our notion of Welshness by offering us his truth as a Welsh writer of colour. It is important that we remember Othniel as kind and gentle, but it may be more useful for us to at least pose the following questions of the Welsh arts: Are we truly appreciative of the importance of representing all Welsh cultures on our stages? Have we done enough to set up meaningful structures to develop writers of BAME origins at every stage in their careers?
(Image courtesy of Dan Green @ Dirty Protest Theatre)