BBC gives poets free rein across its channels and stations in new season, Contains Strong Language

To mark and celebrate the 21st birthday of National Poetry Day in October, the BBC will unleash the UK’s poets and poetry, professional and amateur, past and present across its channels and stations in Contains Strong Language, a season of poetry and poets across the BBC.

Published: 21 September 2015
This autumn BBC Two and BBC Four are putting poets and poetry at the heart of the schedule with an ambitious range of content which demonstrates the unique and distinctive way in which the two channels work together...
— Kim Shillinglaw, Controller, BBC Two and Four
  • Major new BBC Two documentary exploring life and work of Ted Hughes (pictured above), featuring an interview with his daughter Frieda Hughes
  • Radio 4 launches the season with a day devoted to poetry to mark National Poetry Day on 8 October
  • On BBC Four, AN Wilson revisits the work of Philip Larkin, Nicholas Parsons explores Edward Lear, Dr Janina Ramirez uncovers the surprising story behind Edmund Spenser’s 16th century epic The Faerie Queene, and Simon Armitage and Tony Harrison discuss their craft

To mark and celebrate the 21st birthday of National Poetry Day in October, the BBC will unleash the UK’s poets and poetry, professional and amateur, past and present across its channels and stations in Contains Strong Language, a season of poetry and poets across the BBC.

Led on television by BBC Two and Four, the season features, for the first time on television, a feature-length documentary exploring the life and work of Ted Hughes, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. Ted Hughes (w/t) will feature an interview with poet and artist Frieda Hughes – the daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, as well as unseen interviews, readings and photographs of the poet himself. Contributions from a raft of experts and people who knew him will illuminate the life and work of one of the 20th century’s greatest poets.

BBC Four explores some of our most loved and celebrated poets. In Return To Larkinland, writer and critic AN Wilson revisits the life and work of Philip Larkin; two of Britain’s best known and most popular poets, Simon Armitage and Tony Harrison, discuss their craft and careers in front of a live audience; Nicholas Parsons explores the Nonsense Songs of Edward Lear in The Secret Life Of Books; and Rhymes, Rock & Revolution tells the story of performance poetry. Other content includes a BBC Four special on Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and a dramatisation of Simon Armitage’s Black Roses – The Killing of Sophie Lancaster.

Kim Shillinglaw, Controller of BBC Two and Four, says: “This autumn, BBC Two and BBC Four are putting poets and poetry at the heart of the schedule with an ambitious range of content which demonstrates the unique and distinctive way in which the two channels work together, with BBC Two bringing viewers a landmark piece in peak time about one of our most celebrated poets, Ted Hughes, and then BBC Four enabling the audience to take their interest further with a wide range of entertaining and expert content.”

The season will launch on Radio 4 with We British: An Epic In Poetry. Broadcasting all day on National Poetry Day, Thursday 8 October, We British: An Epic In Poetry will see Andrew Marr and some of Britain’s most loved poets weave their way through the Radio 4 schedule with readings, archive material interviews and conversations.

On BBC One, The One Show will be paying tribute to poet Rudyard Kipling on the 8 October, featuring a unique performance of Kipling’s ‘If’, from Rudyard Lake near Staffordshire, to mark 150 years since his birth.

Presenter and poet Ian McMillan will join BBC Radio 3 Breakfast for a special poetry edition on National Poetry Day on the 8 October, and Ian will be asking contemporary writers, including Michael Symmons Roberts, Kei Miller and Angie Hobbs to champion and celebrate 'undersung' poetic heroes from the past, in a special episode of The Verb - otherwise known as 'the cabaret of the word'. Also on Radio 3, Free Thinking will dedicate an edition to exploring one of America’s most iconic works of poetry - Walt Whitman’s 'Leaves Of Grass' - and throughout National Poetry Day, new poems specially commissioned from the audience winners of Radio 3’s Proms Poetry Competition will be read live on air.

On Radio 2, Jeremy Vine, Simon Mayo and Chris Evans will all be marking National Poetry day with special programmes on 8 October while Radcliffe and Maconie will be joining the celebration over on BBC Radio 6 Music.

Throughout October, BBC Radio 1 and Radio 1 Xtra, in collaboration with BBC Arts, The Roundhouse and The Arts Council England will lead regional workshops and live events across the UK as part of the Words First initiative, to find six brand-new spoken word artists, helping to propel them to the next stage of their careers.

The BBC’s Director of Arts, Jonty Claypole says: “From BBC One to Radio 3, the BBC is devoted to celebrating and showcasing the extraordinary arts and culture of the UK, bringing it to the largest possible audience wherever and whoever you are. To mark National Poetry Day, Contains Strong Language will celebrate the urgent and disruptive power of poetry, putting it at the heart of schedules, across the BBC’s channels, stations and online.”

SH8

TV

BBC One

On BBC One, The One Show will be paying tribute to poet Rudyard Kipling on 8 October, featuring a unique performance of Kipling’s ‘If’ from Rudyard Lake near Staffordshire, to mark 150 years since his birth.

BBC Two

Ted Hughes (W/T)

Ted Hughes is widely recognised as one of the greatest poets of 20th century. Now, for the first time, his life and the breadth and influence of his poetry will be the focus of a major documentary for BBC Two.

Featuring the first television interview with Frieda Hughes - poet, artist and daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Path - alongside a rich seam of testimony from family members, friends, fellow poets and writers, this film will illuminate one of the 20th century’s most controversial and elusive cultural figures and focus on how his life story shaped his vision as a poet.

Hughes' stature as a poet of huge significance is incontrovertible, yet so often during his lifetime, attention was focused on the turbulent events in his personal life. Love and work collided with tragic consequences during his marriage to Sylvia Plath and he was forced to weather a storm of speculation over her suicide and that of his lover Assia Wevill. Yet as the film will show, the interconnection between life and creativity was at the heart of Hughes’ evolution as a poet.

Ted Hughes (W/T) will explore the passions and impulses behind Hughes’ unique poetic voice. Drawing on nature, mythology, ancient lore and the occult, his work cast a spell over readers from the publication of his first volume of poetry in 1957. It was a voice that took on an increasingly personal tone, culminating in the searing power of ‘Birthday Letters', his final volume and only account of his relationship with Plath.

By talking to those who bore witness to his life and work, the programme will seek to answer some of the questions that have for the past five decades haunted his legacy and his reputation.

BBC Two – 1x90 – Matchlight productions

BBC Four

Return To Larkinland – presented by AN Wilson

To celebrate National Poetry Day, and to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the death of Philip Larkin, writer and critic AN Wilson revisits the life and work of one of the greatest English poets of the 20th century - a poet soon to be honoured with a place in Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey.

In Return To Larkinland, Wilson traces Larkin’s life from his childhood in Coventry, through his student days at Oxford and then his adult years working in university libraries, while writing both some of the best-loved and most notorious poems in the English language.

Wilson, who knew Larkin in later life, remembers memorable encounters with the poet, and this personal connection helps him to reveal a complex man with a complicated, and at times tortured, private life. As part of this candid exploration into Larkin’s life, Wilson will confront the allegations of racism, bigotry and misogyny which dogged his posthumous reputation, following the publication of the Selected Letters and biography.

However, Wilson concludes that it is Larkin’s poems, not his faults, that have survived. Featuring readings of his work by Larkin himself, including masterpieces such as The Whitsun Weddings, Arundel Tomb, Church Going and Aubade, Wilson argues in this programme that Larkin spoke for Britain between the 1950s and 1970s perhaps more than any other writer.

BBC Four - 1x60 – BBC Arts Bristol

Tony Harrison in Conversation with Simon Armitage

In this special programme, recorded in front of a live audience at Salts Mill near Bradford, two of Britain’s best known and most popular poets, Simon Armitage and Tony Harrison, discuss their craft and careers.

Tony Harrison is one of the leading poet-playwrights working in the English language today. Harrison grew up in a working-class family in Leeds and, since exploding into public consciousness in 1987, when his controversial poem ‘V’ was televised, he has been well known for his out spoken politics, and for his poetry dealing with issues of class, race and power. Throughout his prolific career, he has written for the theatre, opera, film, television and print – but all of it in verse.

Harrison has inspired a generation of younger writers to find their own voice – including fellow Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage, who like Harrison has established himself in other fields, such as TV and translation and whose northern roots and ear for the language of the street has given his work a young, urban appeal.

BBC Four – 1x60 – BBC Arts

Great Poets In Their Own Words

First shown on BBC Four in 2014, there is another chance to see Great Poets In Their Own Words - a journey into the BBC archives, unearthing glorious performances and candid encounters with some of the giants of modern English poetry. The first of the two programmes in this series will bring to life the revolution in poetry that was led by Ezra Pound and TS Eliot - determined to find a new language for a modern world, they were followed by some of the most powerful, engaging and eccentric figures of modern writing. Alongside Ezra Pound and TS Eliot, others appearing on camera are Edith Sitwell, WH Auden, Stevie Smith, John Betjeman, RS Thomas and Dylan Thomas.

The second episode explores how poets have reached out to new audiences - through television, in pubs and on the streets. American poets developed a raw confessional style, while in Britain poetry became part of the revolution in pop culture. Among those featured are Philip Larkin, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Roger McGough, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Seamus Heaney.

BBC Four - 2x 60 - BBC Productions

Rhymes, Rock & Revolution – The Story Of Performance Poetry

Is poetry the new rock ‘n’ roll – or is rock ‘n’ roll the new poetry? Rhymes, Rock & Revolution – the Story Of Performance Poetry explores how the edges between performance poetry and popular music have become blurred – a radical cross-pollination that began 50 years ago when Beat poet Allen Ginsberg stormed the stage of the Royal Albert Hall.

2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the International Poetry Incarnation – a landmark event in the history of post-war culture. Spearheaded by Ginsberg, a group of poets whipped the audience into a frenzy with their words. In the year when the Beats met the Beatles, the event turned the hippy generation on to verse.

We can still feel the impact of this event today. Poets began to ape pop stars – and pop stars began to ape poets. The likes of the Mersey Sound, punk poets and poetry slammers like Kate Tempest, have brought an ancient form back into mainstream pop culture, while musicians including John Lennon and Patti Smith have returned the compliment and turned their hands to performance poetry.

Drawing on an extraordinary range of contributors and rarely seen archive footage, this documentary celebrates one of the most dynamic cultural innovations of the past half century.

BBC Four – 1x60 – BBC Arts Productions

Secret Life of Books - The Faerie Queene

Dr Janina Ramirez uncovers the surprising story behind one of the most influential poems in the English language: Edmund Spenser’s 16th century epic The Faerie Queene. Written at the end of the 16th century, The Faerie Queene is a unique and ambitious work. By fusing Arthurian and Classical influences with intricate layers of allegory and metaphor, it created a revolutionary new kind of poetry that would influence generations of poets and herald a new era in English literature. However, it was also a work that would chart its author’s descent into despair and disillusionment.

Social and cultural historian Dr Janina Ramirez has been fascinated with the epic poem ever since she first encountered it as a teenager. For her, the world of the poem – a world of elves, nymphs and questing knights – is undeniably attractive and romantic, but it also hides something much darker and emotionally complex - a powerfully existential reflection on the human condition which resonates just as strongly today as it did over 400 years ago. This programme was produced in partnership with The Open University.

BBC Four – 1x30 – BBC Arts

Secret Life of Books - Nicolas Parsons on Edward Lear's Nonsense Songs

Lifelong fan of Edward Lear, veteran broadcaster and undisputed national treasure Nicholas Parsons delves into the book that gave the world The Owl and The Pussycat to discover how Lear - the 20th child of a bankrupt businessman - pioneered a new kind of poetry that married brilliant wordplay with astonishing artwork. For Nicholas, Lear’s Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets published in 1871 represent a wonderfully childish, creative antidote to the relentless and dehumanising march of Victorian 'progress'.

Nicholas begins his journey by meeting children’s author Julia Donaldson, who discovered that Lear wrote – but never completed – his own follow-up to The Owl and the Pussy Cat, and together they discuss the fine line between joy and melancholy in Lear’s writing. Lear’s verse coincided with an explosion in English nonsense literature – including Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. But Lear introduced a unique visual style to his books. To find out how Lear combined image and text Nicholas visits cartoonist Ralph Steadman. Together they create a nonsensical creature very much in the anarchic spirit of Lear. This programme was produced in partnership with The Open University.

BBC Four – 1x30 – BBC Arts

Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster

Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster is an elegy marking the anniversary of the death of the young gap year student Sophie Lancaster, who was attacked in Stubbeylee Park, Bacup, Lancashire and later died on 24 August 2007.

Through this drama documentary, Sophie tells her own story through a series of poignant poems written by the award-winning poet and Professor of Poetry at The University of Oxford, Simon Armitage. The poems are combined with the words of Sophie’s mother, Sylvia, taken from an interview she gave for the original Radio 4 drama in 2011.

Sophie was an intelligent young woman who showed signs of wanting to be different from an early age. Political, vegetarian, a pacifist, Sophie had left school with A-levels and was thinking about what to do with her future. Sophie and her boyfriend Rob dressed in a unique way, expressing their individuality through Goth-style clothes, piercings and make-up, which provoked the fatal attack in the early hours of that Saturday morning.

Julie Hesmondhalgh will play Sylvia and Rachel Austin will give voice to Sophie, as she looks back over her life through the poems. Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster is produced by Sue Roberts and Tim Baxter for BBC Learning and will air on BBC Four as part of the BBC’s Poetry Season.

BBC Four – 1x45 – BBC Productions

Radio

BBC Radio 1Xtra

From October, BBC Radio 1Xtra in partnership with the Roundhouse, and with support from Radio 1 will be holding a series of regional workshops and live events across the UK including in Leeds, London, Manchester and Birmingham to find six brand new spoken word artists and help propel them to the next stage of their careers.

In June 2016, the six new artists will perform alongside more established names in an ambitious live event.

BBC Radio 1Xtra launched Words First in May 2015 - a year-long project in collaboration with BBC Arts, The Roundhouse and the Arts Council England, which aims to both reflect and enrich the UK underground spoken word scene. Spoken Word artists George the Poet and Kate Tempest are official ambassadors for the project, which kicked off with an event at The Roundhouse where 20 young poets performed a collaborative poem.

Audiences can access the latest content and information about Words First at bbc.co.uk/wordsfirst.

BBC Radio 2

Radio 2 will be celebrating National Poetry Day on Thursday 8 October with a range of tailored programming across the network. The Chris Evans Breakfast Show (6.30-9.30am) will feature Deborah Alma the ‘Emergency Poet’, who prescribes poetry for any personal crisis. In Drivetime (5-7pm), Simon Mayo will be speaking to poet and friend of the show, Harry Baker, who appeared daily on Drivetime live from the Edinburgh Festival to poetically sum up each programme.

On The Jeremy Vine Show (12-2pm), there will be a feature on how poetry can help people living with dementia. Jill Fraser, who is Director and Co-founder of healthcare charity Kissing It Better, will be talking to Jeremy, and listeners will hear her reading The Owl and the Pussycat with a lady who has dementia. Plus, later in October, there will be a spooky Halloween Friday Night is Music Night: Witches, Wizards and Scary Fairies (Fri 30 Oct). The concert will feature the world premiere of ‘Scary Fairy’, a poem written by Craig Charles, complete with new orchestral score composed by Iain Farrington and performed by the BBC Philharmonic orchestra.

BBC Radio 3

BBC Radio 3 will celebrate National Poetry Day on Thursday 8 October from the early hours, with poet and Radio 3 presenter Ian McMillan joining the breakfast team for a special edition including poems alongside the usual mix of music to start the day. Recorded on National Poetry Day and broadcast on 9 October, Ian McMillan will also present a special edition of The Verb, his ‘Cabaret of the Word’, bringing together a range of poets and writers to the Radio Theatre stage to celebrate imaginary National Poetry Days in past centuries.

New commissions from winners of this year’s Proms Poetry Competition, in partnership with the National Poetry Society, will be read out live on air and broadcast throughout the day on Radio 3. Inspired by a particular piece of music, the winners of each of the over- and under-18 categories have been specially commissioned by Radio 3 to write a new poem for National Poetry Day.

BBC Radio 3’s arts and ideas programme, Free Thinking, will dedicate an edition to exploring one of America’s most iconic works of poetry, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, to celebrate National Poetry Day.

Also on Radio 3, in the Sunday Feature: Ginsberg in India, poet Jeet Thayil will be talking to poets and writers about the influential legacy within India brought about by the pioneering visit of Beat poet Alan Ginsburg to the subcontinent in the early 1960s. It was a visit that paved the way for the Western fascination with India in the hippy era – but it also was a watershed in India’s own poetic development.

BBC Radio 4

On Thursday 8 October, Radio 4 will reflect and explore British history and identity through poetry in We British: An Epic in Poetry – from the medieval church, the court of Henry VIII, the Civil War and Restoration to the Industrial Revolution, the slave trade, the Victorian Empire, mass immigration and the two World Wars.

Throughout the day, Andrew Marr will weave his way through the Radio 4 schedule with a series of readings, archive material, interviews and conversations. He’ll be joined by leading actors, including Ian McKellen, Fiona Shaw, Siobhan Redmond and Simon Russell Beale, and poets including Carol Ann Duffy, Daljit Nagra, Gillian Clarke, Simon Armitage, Michael Rosen and Patience Agbabi - plus a variety poetry fans including Graham Norton, Gerald Scarfe and Deborah Meaden.

Radio 4 listeners will hear the works of poets such as William Shakespeare, Robert Burns, Stevie Smith and Ted Hughes played out against the grandeur of British history. Andrew will take the listeners down a few roads less travelled too with poems of Anne Askew and Anne Bradstreet and anonymous medieval ballads.

On 25 October and 1 November, Radio 4 will broadcast New Lyrical Ballads. The two programmes will see Britain’s current poets reading their own work inspired by Wordsworth and Coleridge’s original Lyrical Ballads – the book that is renowned for its radical preface and considered to have marked the beginning of the English Romantic movement in literature.

BBC Radio 6 Music

On National Poetry Day on BBC Radio 6 Music, Mancunian poet Thick Richard - who has featured on Radio 4’s Bespoken Word - performs ‘Music For The People’ live on 6 Music’s Early Breakfast Show with Chris Hawkins (5-7am). And Radcliffe and Maconie (1-4pm) will be weaving poetry into their daily show with punk-poet John Cooper Clarke, whose career has spanned five decades, and the UK’s first Canal Laureate, Jo Bell, who is also a former director of National Poetry Day. Both award-winning poets will be on the show and reciting some of their work. 

BBC Scotland Poet in Residence

The successful recipient of BBC Scotland’s Poet in Residence title will be announced in early October and will take up their three-month residency in time for National Poetry Day.

BBC Arts online

In addition to a film introducing BBC Scotland’s new Poet in Residence, who will be announced in early October, there will be a dedicated Contains Strong Language season website at bbc.co.uk/poetry. This will be home to all of the season’s programmes and highlights.

Contains Strong Language

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