Soothing the Savage
Bill Hicks talks to Lily Savage about her poetic debut on schools television.
And what's a sonnet when it's at home?" asks Lily Savage, perched on her apricot velour sofa, eyes fastening on the upper reaches of Will Shakespeare's Jean Paul Gaultier leather trousers. The bard explains, slips in a quick plug for The Complete Works, and introduces his latest video the hard rock mix of Sonnet 18: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" This is schools television, and if there was one thing that Lily Savage the wasp-tongued, high-stilletto'd drag queen of the late-night cabaret never expected to be asked to do in his or her life, it was to front a schools television programme. Then along came the BBC's English File with the script of "The Poetry of Passion", the second in a crackling three-part poetry season, and Lily, never one to baulk at a challenge, was theirs.
In the programme, Lily plays herself as hostess of Love Lines, a chatshow and dating game, doing her considerable best to prise intimate revelations and thus some of their finest poetry out of four centuries-worth of love poets. Lily, according to director Neil Ben, had been targeted from an early stage "heshe had the right mix of sympathy and sarcasm, we knew the kids would recognise her" and the script had been rewritten (by David Stafford) with this alternative megastar entirely in mind.
"I did it slightly out of defiance," Lily confides, consuming a coffee and nicotine lunch on the first day in the studio. "Everyone said don't do it, you'll dilute yourself, so here I am." She or is it he? no, today, in dazzling leopardskin twinset and pearls, it's definitely she had found the notion of giving that surly misogynist biker DH Lawrence (for so he appears) a public scolding quite irresistible. Almost as appealing was the chance to compare notes with Aphra Behn, who "likes her men hot and steamy".
Lily's enthusiasm was also fired by a desire to give "the kids" something better than her own painful introduction to poetry at school "the best Catholic college in Birkenhead" where, as she remembers, "we got battered with rulers if we didn't learn the lines".
She's on the side of "the kids who hate school, who find English boring I was one of them", and knows much more about the emotional minefield of adolescence than your average comedienne, male or female. The man who became Lily Savage spent 10 years as a social worker in Camden, working with disturbed children: the instinct to help lives on.
"Seventy-five per cent of the letters I get from my bit on the Big Breakfast are from teenagers going through that moody period. It's all Dear Lily, I've got this problem. I had one from a 16-year-old who was HIV positive. It's not really my job, but I write back, send literature, that sort of thing."
There are glimpses of the agony aunt here, as Lily soothes the fevered brow of the American poet, Edna St Vincent Millay, or empathises with the distraught John Clare of "First Love". And then she freezes your blood in readiness for the closing poem, "Auden's Song", the reading of which is every bit as moving as its celebrated recital in Four Weddings and a Funeral.
It's not just Lily's show, of course. Only a rare combination of acting and production skills could pull off such an outrageous idea. Both are abundantly evident in "The Poetry of Passion", and the same is true of the two other programmes in the season, "The Poetry of War" and "The Poetry of People and Places". Each has a cast-list that would not look out of place on a prime-time prestige drama. But while the aim in each case is, in the words of series producer Anne Brogan, "to dramatise the poems, to give them context, to bring them alive", the means used could hardly be more different.
"The Poetry of War" is a highly-polished drama-documentary on the 1914-18 conflict, rich in archive footage, equally rich in the dramatised experiences and poetry of Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon. Interwoven throughout is the story of a young, fictitious pacifist couple, their personal tragedies reflecting a nation's descent from jingoism via disillusion into horror and the mourning of a lost generation.
The final programme explores the green vein in English poetry, from Wordsworth's early-warning signals on the encroachment of the railways, through George Eliot ("a smashing little-known poem about pollution in Victorian London," says Anne Brogan), bittersweet Betjeman and the eco-activists of the post-Chernobyl era. Poet Benjamin Zephaniah is on hand to ensure that no-one is left with the illusion that poets are all "dead and dull and obscure".
"These are programmes that can be enjoyed by anyone," Anne Brogan stresses. "They are not like schools programmes in the old sense. They are designed to meet the specific needs of the national curriculum, but they're also bigger in scale, wider in scope."
"Poetry is very hard to do well on television," she concludes. After several hours in the studios, Lily Savage seems to agree. "I'm not doing the script. I'm having trouble reading the autocue. Me make-up's melting under the lights. Have to shave every four hours and do it all over again. No food thanks, love, just a fag'll do." Back she goes, and does it. The results are not to be missed.