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13 November 2014
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John Betjeman

John Betjeman

John Betjeman - "A poet goes north"

In 1968, John Betjeman, the poet and architectural critic, was asked by the BBC to make a television programme about Leeds. The film was never broadcast, but now, 40 years on, extracts are being shown by Inside Out Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

John Betjeman Fact File

John Betjeman was born near Highgate, London.

He was educated at Marlborough College and Oxford, but failed to complete his degree.

He taught at various preparatory schools before joining the staff of The Architectural Review in 1930.

Betjeman's book, Ghastly Good Taste, an architectural commentary, was published in 1933.

In 1931, Betjeman married Penelope Chetwode, daughter of an army general.

By the 1950s, he was a well-known figure, campaigning for threatened buildings and making frequent appearances on BBC radio and television.

His architectural works included First and Last Loves (1952), The English Town in the Last Hundred Years (1956) and English Churches (1964, with Basil Clarke).

His Collected Poems (1958) was a bestseller, as was the autobiographical verse cycle, Summoned by Bells (1960).

During the 1960s and later, Betjeman remained much in the public eye, notably with television documentaries such as Metroland and A Passion for Churches.

In 1969, he was knighted, and after the death of Cecil Day Lewis in 1972 became Poet Laureate.

From 1974, he was incapacitated by Parkinson's Disease, dying in 1984.

In the half-hour film Betjeman explored the city’s Victorian heritage and lamented the destruction of the city’s past in favour of new tower blocks.

Its existence came to light 20 years ago when a copy of the film was found on top of a cupboard in the offices of Leeds Civic Trust.

The Trust had been given a copy because, in 1968, it contributed 200 guineas towards the cost of the film and co-operated with the BBC during its production.

Binny Baker from the Yorkshire Film Archive, who restored the film, says:

"It’s just so exciting to find a treasure like this. We’ve got a star – Sir John Betjeman – and nobody’s seen it. That for me is a real find."

Retracing Betjeman's footsteps

Inside Out reporter, Nicola Rees, follows in John Betjeman’s footsteps.

Her first stop is Temple Mill, in Holbeck, Leeds, a 19th Century flax mill built in the style of an Egyptian temple.

After it was built the roof was covered with grass on which sheep were allowed to graze.

In 1968, Betjeman was filmed walking across the roof of the mill.

It was announced in 2005 that the mill would be part of a £180m development scheme, including shops, art and sculpture.

Work is still to start, and now the roof of this Grade One listed building has collapsed.

Writer Martin Wainwright said: "It’s appalling to see how it is now.

"This is one of the most important industrial buildings in the whole country.

"If Betjeman came back now he’d be aghast to see what’s happened."

In the film, Betjeman criticised the changes which were taking place in Leeds, including the demolition of back-to-back houses.

He said: "The noise you sometimes hear, pick-axes and falling walls, is old Leeds being destroyed around us."

But other parts of the city have seen improvements since Betjeman’s time, including  Leeds Town Hall, which has been cleaned externally and had major restoration inside.

Sparkling start to the day 

John Mapplebeck, the BBC producer who made the film with Betjeman in 1968, is filmed by Inside Out watching the programme for the first time in 40 years.

He said: "He was delightful. He taught me the pleasures of drinking champagne at 11 o’clock in the morning, which was the way his day used to start.

Sir John Betjeman

Leeds lover - Sir John Betjeman.

"He had a great deal of knowledge but, more than knowledge, he had a great deal of affection for the city. I think that’s one of the things that still comes out after 40 years."

It’s still not clear why the film was never broadcast.

A copy of the programme exists in the BBC’s film library, but no paperwork has survived.

John Mapplebeck suspects there might have been an anti-Northern bias by BBC bosses in London at the time, saying:

"I think London was even more of a metropolitan centre than it is now and a film, even from Betjeman, was something they might have thought wouldn’t attract a large audience."

last updated: 20/02/2009 at 12:10
created: 12/02/2009

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