Kevin Saving on
the BBC Poetry Weekend 30.9-1.10.17
Stop All the Clocks: W.H. Auden in an Age of Anxiety (BBC2, 9 pm, 30.09.2017)
Strong Language Live (BBC2, 10 pm, 30.09.2017)
Betjeman and Me (BBC4, 7.10 pm, 01.10.2017)
Cornwall's Native Poet: Charles Causley (BBC4, 8 pm, 01.10.2017)
Men Who Sleep In Cars (BBC4, 9 pm, 01.10.2017)
Lest we forget: Saturday the thirtieth of September was National Poetry Day and the BBC accordingly gifted us over half-a-dozen themed programmes in swift succession over that weekend. A veritable feast after a prolonged, prosaic famine.
The first of these, Stop All the Clocks: W.H. Auden in an Age of Anxiety, was a documentary of the type the corporation once used to do so well -before they discovered that the 'lowest common denominators' (soaps, celebs and culinary operas) were infinitely easier to mass-produce. Film-maker Adam Low revisited the scene of his (1982) The Auden Landscape, this time assisted by a team of ‘Talking Heads' including James Fenton, Alan Bennett, Richard Curtis, the rather waffling Alexander McCall Smith and Paul Muldoon -who's looking increasingly like a slightly bulkier replication of his mentor, Seamus Heaney, and who offered us the classic reflection that 'the great poet is a product of their moment. If they are true to their moment, they will be true to all moments'. (Next week Professor Paul will be sharing yet more of his insights into the Space/Time continuum AND speculating as to just why Doctor Who elected to take up the option of gender re-alignment...).
As so often, it is the archive footage which enthrals. Auden in America; Auden with his lover, Chester Kallman, in Austria; Auden on Parkinson; Auden in Oxford. THAT incredible voice: a strange hybrid of posh public school and the unaffected North. THAT delivery: so confident, matter o' fact yet ever-so-slightly smug (like the guy who just knows he's the smartest person in the room). And THAT face: someone once described it as resembling a wedding cake which had been left overnight in the rain.
Inevitably, some of the recollections were more interesting than others. Richard Curtis was good value reminiscing about how his Rom-com Four Weddings and a Funeral rekindled people's interest. James Fenton, too, came across well- recounting some of The Great Man's idiosyncratic domestic foibles in Kirchstettin and noting how Wystan was partially ostracised in later life at Oxford's High Tables. However, it is the work itself (seemingly as relevant now as when it was first written) which will continue to resound. We must ‘love our crooked neighbour/ With our crooked heart not least because I and the public know/ What all schoolchildren learn:/ Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return’.
Strong Language Live (compiered by Simon Armitage) was a salutary reminder of just what it is that we have lost. A number of contemporary poets performed some of their own work 'live' -and, by and large, the performances were spot-on. Such a pity, though, about the content. Isaiah Hull came out with some extraordinary Rapper-type effects -but left us little clearer as to just what it was which so excited him. Helen Mort and Kate Fox were more coherent, but their material still seemed desperately parochial. W.H. Auden continues to engage us -at least in part because he is a poet of ideas; of the 'universal' rather than the merely 'particular'. That is why he will still be read in a hundred years time and why most moderns -frankly- will not.
Betjeman and Me (a repeat) could have been, more grammatically, re-titled 'Betjeman and I' or, more truthfully, 'Me, Me, Me, Betjeman and Me'. I feared the worst early on when its presenter, the noted restauranteur and bon vivant, Rick Stein, claimed for his subject an ancestry similarly Germanic to his own (actually, John Betjeman came of Dutch, not German, stock). Showmen, the both of them -and with a shared predilection for wide-angle panoramic shots of themselves panned-out from helicopters- it is difficult to think of much else the two men (who never met) had in common beyond their Oxford degrees and avowed love of Cornwall. The evocative West Country locations were exquisite but, unfortunately, Stein was unable to resist the dubious temptation to display his vaunted culinary skills -supposedly 'in honour' of the long-dead laureate.
It was equally unfortunate that most of the footage of Betjeman was in black and white -making it difficult to discern any truth behind the enduring legend that the old boy's teeth were actually green. This programme was very much of the 'Celebration of a National Treasure' type, yet even amongst all the over-stuffed offal two small, delicious morsels emerged. Firstly, ‘Sir’ John (it can now be revealed) heartily disliked dogs -which he would disparage, generically, as 'Turd Droppers'. Secondly, we got a replay of the (apparently unrehearsed) scene in which the septuagenarian and Parkinsonian writer -upon being asked if he had any enduring regrets- replied that he would've liked to have had more sex. As they say in show business: 'Follow that, if you can!'
Cornwall's National Poet was, if anything, even more fascinating than Stop All the Clocks -if only because Charles Causley has previously enjoyed far less media attention than the internationally-recognised Auden (his elder by a decade). Andrew Motion, Roger McGough, Gillian Clarke, the ever-available Simon Armitage and a host of Launceston friends, colleagues and former pupils dutifully trooped out to testify as to the man's poetic integrity and essential decency.
A Cornishman to his core, Causley had escaped the circumscribed world of his parents for war-time service as a stenographer in the Royal Navy (even though he was 'afraid of the sea'). Following this he would return to 'thirty years in the chalk Siberias' of a Launceston teaching career -coupled with the dutiful care of an invalid mother.
Although there was far more archival material available than might've been suspected, the poet himself -whilst always courteous- seems somehow more 'guarded' or 'elusive' than his better-connected, Oxbridge-educated coevals. Perhaps he felt less 'entitled' than they. While his 'legacy' of really first-rate work is inevitably 'slighter' than Auden's, his very best poems (notably the signature pieces 'Timothy Winters' and 'Eden Rock') remain unsurpassed in their clarity and humanity.
The verse-drama Men Who Sleep in Cars is, with ease, the best thing this reviewer has seen come from the pen of the Northern-based poetry professor, Michael Symmons Roberts. The tensile colloquialism of its rhyming -and off-rhyming- couplets evinces a new direction to his work which, one hopes, he will continue to explore.
Three men (introduced by an initially anonymous narrator, the ever-wonderful Maxine Peake) hunker down in their separate vehicles within the great belly of the Mancunian night. 'Antonio' is a petty-pilfering ex-junkie/ex-soccer-starlet, currently working in a call centre and 'roughing it' nocturnally. 'Marley' (housed in a white Transit van) is married but has thrown-over his career as a hospital lab-technician for the dubious rewards of life as a jobbing/largely jobless labourer. 'McCullough', sits in his (uninsured/untaxed) Mercedes, wearing creased designer clothes, sipping whiskey and listening -like his unknown, seemingly unrelated compeers- to an all-night radio show. Though none of them know it, they are linked by 'Sarah' (Peake) in a way which is plausible, ingenious and -upon its revelation- deeply moving.
Both well-shot and beautifully acted throughout, Men Who Sleep in Cars is something of an off-kilter paean to the city of Manchester where 'all the canals are thickened to ink/ and serenaders’ lungs are jugged with drink'. Socially engaged and, ultimately, uplifting, this was tip-top television, unashamed of its own intelligence and sensitivity. Let's have much more of the same, please, and soon.
Kevin Saving © 2017