Saturday, 6 June 2009

Poetry season

This week saw Britain's most exciting democratic event of the year: the start of Big Brother. I hear might have been some stuff about Europe, too. Like Orwell's Big Brother, Channel Four's monstrosity is now an omnipresent force for oppression. There is simply no way to escape it. Even more disturbingly, nobody can remember life before it appeared, and a worrying number of depraved individuals have somehow learned to love it. Fortunately, being thoroughly on the beat of popular culture and down with the kids and all that, I am not going to speak of Big Brother (or of that Europe business), but of the real, big news of the week. The stuff everyone's talking about: BBC Poetry Season.

For me this has so far involved watching two BBC4 documentaries about retro poetry. The first of these taught me the true meaning of television. It turns out that it is not for watching films five years after they come out and being glad you didn't pay to see them in the cinema, nor about watching people pretend to murder one another on ITV, nor even, and it pains me to say this, about watching a nine-hundred-year-old time traveller struggling with emotional repression (apparently they have public school on Gallifrey). No. As Simon Armitage's amazing documentary about Gawain and the Green Knight shows, television is about watching an enormous side-burned farmer breaking a deer's back with his bare hands, soundtracked by PJ Harvey screaming about fertility symbols. I was left in so much shock that I just used the word 'soundtrack' as a verb. Take that, English language.

Television is also about Simon Armitage, who proves to be an eminently pleasant, dryly witty chap, saying things like 'and the magic rock is where we have arranged to meet Chris, a local pagan'. I was hoping for slightly more charming eccentricity from Chris the Pagan, and possibly a ritual sacrifice, but it turns out that the chief accoutrements of hardcore modern paganism are a natty hat and a pierced ear. While disappointed by the lack of a giant wicker Camelot, I acknowledge that flaming effigies are few and far between these days. As the great philosopher Henry Crun often said: 'You can't get the wood, you know.'

Basically, the documentary featured Simon Armitage retracing the footsteps of Gawain, looking mournfully at blasted industrial landscapes, trying to use a fourteenth century poem as a tourist guidebook, and finding patches of wilderness populated by strange shirtless farmers who speak entirely in different forms of mumbling. If they'd been further south, I'd have expected them to start muttering about mollocking.

As well as being a great film about a great poem, it also managed a notably rock and roll soundtrack, even if they did break the iron laws of mix-tapes by including two Mercury Rev songs. This approach is ace, and was presumably a result of realising how much budget they had left after spending about twenty pounds on the rest, which can be itemised as:

  • One northern poet with cagoule.

  • One film student with slightly wobbly camera.

  • Several train tickets.

  • Several dead animals.

  • Bag of sweets for tempting reticent locals in front of the camera.

Taking a slightly different approach from Mr Armitage and his slightly nervous enthusiasm was Michael Wood, who bounced around historical sites and sights, chattering about Beowulf. He spends his hour grinning, nodding, and wearing a striking collection of long scarves that he won from Tom Baker in a bet in 1971*. His excitement is so constant that I imagine him thinking not just 'Blimey, I'm in Seamus Heaney's living room', or 'Lawks, it's the original manuscript of Beowulf', but also 'Amazing! Pungent marshland!' and 'Wow! A tree!'

He is like the universally adored schoolteacher who continues to expound delightedly about the Anglo Saxons, entirely unaware of the three-quarters of the class who are brawling and chucking things at one another, or the remaining quarter who are too hung over to fight or throw things. Primary school isn't what it used to be.

At one point Wood teams up with a more doughy but equally loveable fellow called Sam Newton, who has the same hat as Chris the Pagan from the Gawain documentary. They drive and walk around together for a while, throwing historical facts about and grinning at one another in the silent conspiracy of people who are at last going to be put on television for knowing weird and interesting stuff about things that happened a very long time ago. I want them to have their own series in which they wander around the country solving historical mysteries, chatting up owners and housekeepers of old country estates, being entirely oblivious to all the sexual tension, then driving off together in a 2CV while chateline and servant gaze longingly after them from the windows of their Midlands mansion. It would be a cross between The Remains of the Day and Starsky and Hutch.

Anyway, after all this, the filmmakers ended up with about twenty-five minutes of Michael Wood being chirpy, and about twenty more of arty camerawork, which usually seemed to consist of standing really close to a leafless branch, moving in and out of focus, then bleaching all the colours out. It occasionally felt like the Blair Witch Project, but better, because watching it didn't make you long for a weird beastie to come along and slaughter all the main characters. With fifteen minutes left to fill, the Beeb did what any right-thinking person would do: film Julian Glover ranting, hamming, shouting and becoming increasingly drunk, in front of an audience who, between them, haven't had a haircut since 1982.

These weren't a collection of hirsute extras who'd been shoved into some helmets: these people were in it for the love. They were enthusiasts who had built their own Anglo Saxon mead hall, acquired a collection of beards and hats that would put the Cambridge Folk Festival to shame, and then installed Julian Glover as a juke-box: fill him with mead, and he'll recite Beowulf, with all the hand gestures. It was deeply mad, but utterly brilliant. And that, pretty much, is what television should be.


* About whose guest voicing of the Shipping Forecast would cause more impressionable young ladies to swoon beside their radios. Sadly, either historty neglected to record the results, or it was a nil-all draw, but Tom Baker did cause a small fishing vessel to ground itself on the isle of Skye after announcing that the mainland had been taken over by Cybermen.

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