John Betjeman's TV programmes were almost as famous as his poems. Bernard Adams views some recently discovered gems
Sir John Betjeman is a national treasure. Ecc-entric, gentle and mel-ancholy, he is remembered in the popular imagination for saying on his deathbed that his only regret was that he hadn't had more sex. What he did have a lot of was television.
In the 1960s and 1970s he made a string of documentaries about the towns and villages of his "private England". As he says in these programmes, he wanted to be "a sort of social detective" and "to make people look at beautiful things". Not all of the films have been preserved, so the discovery of five more - admittedly incomplete - is something of an event.
The films, which have been adapted into three 30-minute programmes starting tonight (Friday), date from 1962 and are brief tours of West Country towns and villages. They throw an interesting light both on the man, who was later to become a much-loved Poet Laureate, and on the way factual television has evolved.
Nigel Hawthorne introduces the programmes and voices Betjeman's script wherever the commentary has been lost.
The first film is a quirky tour of elegant Devises, and contains Betjeman's justification for his nostalgic delvings. "The past," he says, "gives a key to the confusions of the present." The second is richer, containing a neat comparison between the village of Northlew in Devon ("neglected, obscure and unexpected") and Swindon, then still in its railway pomp and emerging as a new town that was "impersonal but well meant".
Betjeman and the camera potter about but the locals are never allowed to speak. For him, buildings, and their contents, speak loudest - although the relentless background music competes with that intimate Anglican voice, filling the tiniest pauses between his words.
He then visits Chippenham, horribly assailed in those days by the A4, and grumbles about how traffic "stinks, shouts, kills". After that he's off to Crewkerne, where he revels in the beautiful decorative ironwork of the gates and railings.
In the third programme Betjeman is at Sherborne, watching (from his usual safe distance) the comings and goings of the boys and girls at some of the town's nine schools. Here he veers into Johnny Morris territory, making up conversations for the schoolgirls and old ladies staring into shop windows. This is elegant but distant documentary. We like to get closer than that nowadays.
Then suddenly we get a gem, a perfect cameo of shingly Sidmouth in Devon, with its timeless cliffs, its glorious Regency houses and, for this film, a light so bright as to seem almost Mediterranean. Best of all is the playful verse commentary, which perfectly matches the shimmering pictures. Betjeman even manages to carry off the final line,"And farewell Sidmouth by the sea", with aplomb.
What is striking about these films is that for all Betjeman's fuddy-duddy charm, he was preparing a powerful, popular prospectus for the heritage movement more than 30 years ago. What is tantalising about the programmes is that we are left desperately wanting to know what has since happened to the towns and buildings he describes so sharply and affectionately.