Poetry in motion 

14 March 2003 tbs.pm/1898

Music was the “food of love” according to Shakespeare, but as far as BBC2 was concerned, for the Valentine period in February 2003, it will most definitely be on-screen poetry readings, spicing up the love lives of the nation.

BBC Television launched its biggest ever season of poems to be read at random between programmes, which went in hand with five special half hour documentaries, shown on consecutive nights from Valentine’s Day onwards.

This ‘season of the spoken word’ aims to inspire lovers and poets everywhere and was called Essential Poems (To Fall In Love With).

It harnessed top British acting talent such as Christopher Lee, Prunella Scales, Alison Steadman and Amanda Holden, who took part in the anthology, and over 35 well loved actors and celebrities appeared between programmes in the BBC2 schedule.

Daisy Goodwin, perhaps less well known to viewers as a producer of such programmes as, Jamie’s Kitchen, Bookworm, The Nation’s Favourite Poem, and Home Front at the BBC, went in front of the camera as the primary presenter of the project.

Filmed in the style of a mini-drama in a contemporary location, viewers were given the chance to see and hear poetry as never before on television. Works including William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 129” and Wendy Cope’s “Bloody Men”, were extremely seductive, humorous and uplifting.

Using poetry to fill gaps in between programmes on BBC2, or to calm the mood at the end of an evenings transmission is no new innovation. As far back as 1975, BBC2 was screening a nightly poem for much of the year at Closedown.

Six poems were read out at the close of programmes most Weeks, using the voices of well known actors – while BBC presentation screened pre-recorded still photographs to fit a given theme.

“Closedown” as the nightly poems were then billed, was produced by Angela Buckland, of what was then BBC Television Presentation.

This department had two sections. Presentation (Production) produced trailers and provided out-of-vision continuity announcers for BBC1 and 2.

It had editorial responsibility for all programme transmissions, once the channel controllers programme selection had been made.

The Presentation department also ran a programme making arm, Presentation (Programmes). This used small studios “Presentation A & B”, on the fourth floor of the Television Centre, originally built to house the in-vision TV announcers the BBC used until late1965.

It was in those presentation studios that original announcers like Michael Aspel, Valerie Singleton, Valerie Pitts, Judith and Sandra Chalmers, and Meryl O’Keefe, linked BBC television programmes live in vision sitting at desk, talking to camera.

When BBC 1 moved to ‘sound only’ television announcing after 1965, the studios took on another use, an improved weather service, with Met Office forecasters like Barbara Edwards and Bert Foord seconded to the BBC.

The other studio was used for Late Night Line-Up with Joan Bakewell for the Brand new BBC2, and the BBC’s first community television experiment, Open Door.

The closedown poems season went out starting Sunday, 8 June 75, on BBC2 read by Leslie Sands. The works included:

  • Wook Hill by Wm. Barnes
  • A Tuscan Villa by C. Day Lewis
  • A Gentleman Comes to Town by Derek Neville
  • Beauty in Trouble by Robert Graves
  • When I Have Fears by John Keats
  • Top Dog by Alex Comfort

Gwen Watford, an actress first known for her extensive Drama work for both ABC and Rediffusion, read the following closedown poems on BBC2, from Sunday 29th June 1975:

  • Mrs Blow and Her Animals by Stevie Smith
  • Floods at Bewdley by Molly Holden.
  • The Little Falls Pool by Norman MacCaig
  • Romanies in Town by Anne Beresford
  • Telling Stories by Elizabeth Jennings
  • Song by Edward Muir.

There were six poems each week, screened from Sunday through to Friday. “Closedown” as the programme was billed, did not go out every week of the year but was periodic.

Many people were introduced to fine modern poetry during these slots. John Westbrook read the work of Seamus Heaney, R S Thomas and Charles Causley.

On non-poetry evenings BBC announcers like Peter Bolgar, Clive Roslin, Mel Oxley or David Allen would just say good night, play a choice musical clip and show a selection of photographic slides, usually of the highest scenic quality, by professional photographers.

Friday 14th February, Valentine’s Day 2003 was the launch pad for the first of the five “themed” films introducing the poems on BBC2, and were seen between various programmes across the fortnight. Called ‘First Flush’ it dealt with flirting, the dating game and unrequited love.

Daisy enthused viewers with poems that aimed to seduce and enchant. Poems suitable for those giddy themes of meeting someone and Falling for them. Lisa Tarbuck recited Nina Bourne’s – Where the Single Men Go in Summer, Jimmy Mistry performed Shelly’s persuasive Love’s Philosophy, and Mr Midshipman Hornblower personified, Ioan Gruffudd was hopelessly love struck in the captivating First Love by John Clare.

In Wild Nights which followed on Saturday 15th February at 8pm, Goodwin lead viewers through an arousing poetic journey of the physical manifestations of love and featured John Donne’s The Good Morrow, amorously performed by Lennie James, followed by the warm tenderness of the morning after, when Andrew Lincoln recited Saturday Morning.

The third programme shown on 16th February was Talking in Bed, domestic bliss as perceived through poetry. Child by Sylvia Plath was performed by Jo Whiley. Prunella Scales was a disgruntled housewife in Home Is The Hunter by Pamela Gillilan, and the reliable Alison Steadman reading Wendy Cope’s Being Boring.

The penultimate programme on 17th February called The Grass is Greener, examined the pain of falling out of love. Rupert Penry-Jones performed Parting by Michael Drayton and Stephen Tomkinson’s recital of Ending by Gavin Ewart.

Invaluable advice on how to act at such difficult partings came from Maya Angelou’s, The Lie. The final programme of the five billed specials was Love in a Life, on 18th February. This looked at the ups and downs of togetherness, from the tenderness of a long term Relationship, to the loss of a loved one.

Prunella Scales returned to read Bath Teashop by Sir John Betjeman, and Douglas Henshall revealed what Robert Burns had to say in A Red, Red Rose.

Christopher Lee rounded up the programme when he read A Marriage, by R S Thomas. Throughout this year BBC2 will be searching for fresh poetry talent among the nation, including an online competition, as BBCi launched a search for the cream of the UK’s new poetic talent.

Budding writers will have the chance to show off their work to a wider audience. An exclusive collection of the short-listed poems will be published and in a special BBC televised programme on National Poetry Day, on 9th October 2003, actors will perform the ten favourite poems submitted and a winner will be announced.

The Essential project was a most powerful and thought provoking season of poems to reach our television screens and many viewers will have been touched in some way. Angela Buckland started in 1975, a novel idea for TV presentation, we saw it beautifully revived in 2003.

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