Friday 15 May 2009, 18:50
The first time I came down the hill on my bike and turned into the back gate of the BBC in Bristol, I tried to cycle as I tell my actors to read the poems for Poetry Please - ordinarily, as if for the first time, as if nothing was easier in the world, as if there wasn't a microphone in front of them, or - in my case - Karen McGann of BBC4 with a camera to her eye, leaning out the window of a van cruising slowly alongside me.
The take was fine, but once in television is never enough. The next time the wind had got up; how would Byron cycle into work, I wondered. Again Karen and the van tracked past. Poets, famously, don't drive, but I couldn't remember any great cycling poems either. We like to think of Philip Larkin in bicycle clips but what about Coleridge (doped in charge of a penny farthing?), or Stevie Smith (not waving but indicating?), or T. S. Eliot (at least his trousers wouldn't get caught in the chain). When was the first bike anyway (could Chaucer ride one?), and why couldn't I resist throwing some nonchalant I'm-not-looking-at-the-camera-look that could only show me as an arty tosser - the poetry producer, for God's sake, on his bike, of course.
I can do radio, but doing radio for the TV wasn't easy. Next up after the Ben Hur bike ride was me in my office. I found having to act reading or typing or moving listeners' request letters across my desk incredibly hard - every gesture seemed hammy, a pantomime performance of "work", the opposite of the beautiful simplicity of the programme I was trying to show being put together. The talking was easier. The programme is very popular even if a detractor might see it as a mildewed bit of public service - a request show with a poetry DJ - tucked away in a corner of the West Country. I was keen to trip that version up. I too had derisory words for Poetry Please once, but I have changed my mind and have something of the zeal of the convert about me. So I plugged away and said what I thought. The set helped too. My office is echt BBC arts producer, with beetling cliffs of poetry books and CDs and old newspapers. And though I was crap at looking like I was reading it, having a collected A. E. Housman to hand helped somehow. Karen filmed on.
One received idea of the programme - spare me please, an angry performance poet who thinks they are shaking up the establishment - is that it trades in literary warm beer, cricket, English spinsters on bicycles (ah, my imagined poetic cyclist peddles past at last): a world long extinct if indeed it was ever extant, but this is far too crude an account. On Poetry Please we do Grantchester and honey and blue remembered hills and oh to be in England but we do much else as well. Peter Reading and Kathleen Jamie are there, as well as laureates old and new, there are black readers, gay poems, fresh work alongside most-loved lines, and I guarantee everyone will hear new things in every edition of the programme - and by new I mean poems that - as Ezra Pound said they must - make news that stays news. This is what I tried to say.
Making the programme for me is a repeated education - first in poetry itself; it is extraordinary and wonderful that so many Radio 4 listeners carry so much poetry with them; second it offers wider lessons in humankind, that people who write letters on bunny rabbit headed paper or who declare their age to excuse their wobbly hand are not silent and morose or swamped by television or debt but are getting on with their lives, living with poetry that makes reading their letters an uplifting privilege. As producers we must try to rise to the request: the best readings by the best readers (we are good at that, after my clumsy office acting, Karen filmed Kenneth Cranham reading - peerlessly - from 'A Shropshire Lad' for the programme), then the simplest of presentation from the warmest of hosts (Roger McGough, who is marvellous at that), and that's it, then shut up and let A. E. Housman tell you how it was to love a man who died and tell you in such a way that you can never hear enough of him telling you it over again though every time it makes you cry.
Roger McGough reading the poem he wrote to mark the 30th anniversary:
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