The night Steven Spielberg helped the hairdresser mum of GoCompare singer Wynne Evans stage a Jurassic Park premiere in a small Welsh town – and the unlikely story is tipped to become the feelgood film of the year
It’s the captivating story of a bulldog-willed hairdresser, who described herself as a ‘bit bonkers’ and charmed movie mogul Steven Spielberg to help save the cinema in her sleepy South Wales market town.
Liz Evans galvanised fellow town folk to stop their much-loved but financially-stricken cinema being demolished – and replaced by a shopping centre.
Key to their rescue plan was to appeal to 75-year-old Spielberg. Overwhelmed by their love of the magic of films and by their sense of community, the movie director’s production company threw them a lifeline by offering their town the chance to screen the Welsh premiere of his blockbuster Jurassic Park.
Now a film of this real-life story is due to be released later this month, with critics saying it could prove to be the ‘feelgood film of the year’ – in the footsteps of previous British-made heart-warmers such as The Calendar Girls (about members of a Women’s Institute who posed nude to raise money for a local hospital); and last year’s Dream Horse (about villagers who raised a racehorse to win the Welsh Grand National.)
Ironically, the movie, Save The Cinema, could not come at a more crucial time for the film industry, which is in the Covid doldrums with box office takings slashed because of the pandemic and hit financially by the surging popularity of at-home streaming giants such as Netflix and Disney+.
Sky today unveils a First Look image of Samantha Morton (pictured) in the Sky Original film Save The Cinema
The all-star British cast is led by Samantha Morton, who plays tenacious mother-of-three Liz and includes a walk-on part for two of Liz’s sons: Wynne, best known as Gio Compario, the operatic tenor in the GoCompare insurance ads, and his brother Mark, an opera singer, who wrote the original script for the film.
Wynne says: ‘Mum was a bit of a maverick. I thought at the time she was just an eccentric. But she was an inspiring person who didn’t take no for an answer.’
The film centres on what happened in Carmarthen in the summer of 1993 when the distributors of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park reneged on a promise to allow the town’s struggling Art Deco cinema a lucrative screening of his dinosaur action movie. ‘My mother was furious,’ recalls Wynne.
For several years previously, since 1979, Liz had been a volunteer youth leader at the Carmarthen Further Education Centre where her husband did carpentry jobs.
When she started, Wynne says it was ‘the kind of place where kids would put out a cigarette on the back of another kid’s hand. It was rough. But my mother just said: “Right we’ll do a show.” ’
As an amateur actress herself, she was convinced that the performing arts would help youngsters from broken homes.
Wynne says: ‘You could see these kids were having an almost cathartic experience, being on stage.’
Liz put her heart and soul into productions such as Snow White and Oliver! and, by 1986, the shows were well-established and she was looking for a bigger venue to stage them.
At this point, Liz discovered that the town’s Lyric Cinema – once Carmarthen’s cultural heart but by then an empty and unloved shell – was due to be sold and demolished.
Former mayor Richard Goodridge who wrote to Steven Spielberg in 1993 to get Jurassic Park shown in Carmarthen and it worked
Characteristically, she was able to convince the owner to give her the chance to organise ‘the send-off it deserves’ by cleaning up the cinema and putting on a production of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Wynne says: ‘There were bits of the ceiling on the floor and all the seats were ripped. It smelt horrible. But my mother mobilised all these volunteers and builders in the town to get it going for this one performance of Jesus Christ Superstar.’
The ‘Farewell to the Cinema’ show opened on the weekend of March 13, 1987, and was a huge hit.
Its success led the indomitable Liz to decide to try to keep the Lyric open, funding her theatrical performances by screening films.
She persuaded the town council to buy it on the condition she didn’t ask for any more funding.
She paid a peppercorn rent of £1 a year – winning the support of many, including the legendary Welsh opera singer Sir Geraint Evans.
He told her: ‘You must try to save this theatre. This is the most wonderful arts venue.’
Stars such as comedian Tom O’Connor were invited to perform.
‘People were queuing round the block because we didn’t have a cinema in Carmarthen,’ says Wynne. ‘It was brilliant.
‘That was the start of it. She would ring up distributors and tell the story about underprivileged kids.’
Also, with the help of the then Welsh Secretary, she got funding from the European Union and converted the Art Deco building into a state-of-the-art theatre.
US film director Steven Spielberg (above) arrives for the 2021 LACMA Art + Film Gala at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles, California, in November
‘It was a beautiful building,’ adds Wynne, who now has a weekday morning show on BBC Radio Wales.
‘She managed to redevelop everything – new seats, new auditorium, new mezzanine, fly tower, new stage, hydraulic orchestra pit – and turned it into a state-of-the art theatre.’
The new film takes the dramatic licence to conflate aspects of the story but the key plotline is the great Jurassic Park premiere.
On learning that the Lyric was due to be demolished, Liz spoke to the town’s postman and that year’s town mayor, Richard Goodridge, telling him: ‘It’s ridiculous. All the work you’ve done at the Lyric to help these kids.’
Mr Goodridge (played in the new film by Tom Felton, who starred as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films) later recalled: ‘I was in the Queens pub in the middle of town one night when Elizabeth Evans was telling me about this new film Jurassic Park and how it wasn’t going to be shown down here.
‘She said they had been promised the film but, for whatever reason, it was not going to happen.
‘I don’t know why, maybe because the cinema didn’t have that many seats or because Carmarthen was not a place that many people had heard of. As mayor, I thought I would try and do something.’
He went home and wrote a letter to Jurassic Park’s director.
‘Dear Mr Spielberg,’ he began. ‘I have just been informed that your latest film Jurassic Park will not be seen here at the Lyric Theatre, Carmarthen.
‘The Lyric Theatre has advertised extensively that the film is to be shown and indeed thousands now believe it will be shown here.
‘However, many thousands are now going to be disappointed, not least to say, very angry that this has happened.
Gio Compario character from Go Compare advertisements played by real life opera star Wynne Evans (pictured)
‘People have postponed their holidays to see it. I am appealing to you to avert a crisis and look forward to an urgent response.’
A few days later, Mr Goodridge got a call in the middle of the night from a woman in Spielberg’s Hollywood office.
‘We had a long conversation and she told me the letter would be seen by Mr Spielberg,’ said the then mayor.
Six days later, an official response arrived in the mayor’s parlour from the managing director of United International Pictures, saying: ‘In order not to disappoint the people of Carmarthen, I have given instructions for a print of Jurassic Park to be allocated to the Lyric Cinema.’
Understandably thrilled, Liz prepared for the big night by going to Woolworth’s to buy some huge inflatable dinosaurs and cardboard cut-outs, reopened the cinema bar and devised a Jurassic Park cocktail.
According to Wynne, 49, she was so determined to beat her London rivals that she began projecting the film shortly before the official Royal premiere which was attended by Princess Diana.
‘She was determined to have the first showing, so we “may” have started a few minutes early,’ he added. ‘My mother was very determined when she needed to be.
‘I think there was a message from Spielberg read out at the start of the film. It was a fabulous occasion. Everybody was cheering.’
The 600-seat Lyric Theatre was a complete sell-out. While tickets in London to sit alongside Princess Diana and other celebrities cost many hundreds of pounds; in Carmarthen they were set at the same price as every film back in the early to mid-1990s – £2.50.
On ITN News that night, a reporter at the premiere said: ‘In Leicester Square for £300 you can sit with Princess Diana to watch Jurassic Park – or you can come to Carmarthen where it’s £2.50 with free popcorn’
Since then, Liz’s brainchild has become the Carmarthen and District Youth Opera.
It now has the Duchess of Cornwall as patron.
Liz the Lyric, as she became known, was later granted an MBE. She retired in 2004 after her husband was diagnosed with cancer. But within a few months, she died of pneumonia at the age of 60.
She was buried at Llangunnor Church overlooking the town whose cultural life she influenced for 25 years.
‘After she retired, the life went out of her,’ says Wynne, sadly.
Luckily, Carmarthen has a suitable memorial to her in the revamped Lyric Theatre, which will next week stage a second emotional screen premiere – one that tells Liz’s own remarkable story.
Save The Cinema opens on January 14.