Thursday, July 13, 2006

Betjeman not Beckett

To celebrate his centenary, the BBC is dedicating a month of programming to the work of Sir John Betjeman. There will be contributions from those well-known literary figures: TV comedian Griff Rhys-Jones, TV historian Dan Cruickshank and TV chef Rick Stein.

All very nice, I suppose. But it makes me wonder why there wasn't a similar series to mark Beckett's centenary. While Radio 3 ran a few programmes, there was nothing on BBC TV. Isn't the BBC supposed to be highbrow and elitist?

Of course, there's nothing wrong with well-crafted, sentimental light verse. (Nothing a blowtorch couldn't fix anyway). So what's the problem?

Well, no doubt Betjeman's fans will concede that he was not a major poet of the century. His name cannot stand beside Eliot, Yeats or Stevens. Not even Beckett the poet. They might even insist on it. They'd tell you proudly that in his poetry readers won't find any of that pretentious mysticism and "experimentalism" of the modernists. He's accessible. He doesn't alienate the reader. He's popular (apparently the Collected Poems has sold 2 million since 1958).

And if they insist on it - or at least do not claim any great import to his work - why is that as soon as anyone in authority takes the logical step and excludes him and English versifiers who have followed (Roger McGough, John Hegley, Ian McMillan) from prestigious awards rewarding those who take poetry itself forward, there are mutterings about snobbery? If, on the other hand, Betjeman can be regarded in the same breath as the great modernists, then something more than craft, humour and popularity has to be revealed. Maybe the TV chef will rustle something up.


  1. That's the deal. More people like Betjeman than Beckett. And more people will respond to Rick Stein than, say, Tom Paulin or Christopher Ricks or Terry Eagleton. Since when has media coverage been a yardstick of artistic worth.

    Also, remember that Channel 4 did commission all the Beckett plays about five years ago. Although, as I recall it, transmission was suspended when the Queen Mum croaked.

  2. Yes Tim, precisely. But that wasn't my point. It was that those who respond will like to think they're responding to Literature and thereby afforded the respect and depth to their taste that is afforded to writers like Beckett. Not one of these celebs will disabuse them as they're clueless about literature too; which is the reason why they get a response.

    You're right about the Beckett on Film transmissions. They have been shown on weekday mornings for schools but more or less unadvertised.



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