Tune in, switch off - Is poetry on TV Donne for?

5th June 2009 at 01:00

Where has all the poetry on our screens come from? I think the swirling surges of this stuff started when Andrew Motion - velvet voice like the rolling ocean - relinquished his 10-year tenure as Poet Laureate. I may just re-read that paragraph to check that it scans.

But Motion's real career can begin now: reading the voice-overs for cocoa adverts. So soporific are his vocal chords, I once slept through several of his answers in a seminar I chaired when he answered questions from our sixth form.

The start of the BBC poetry season had Griff Rhys Jones posing in a field of daffodils where he just looked silly. Well, comedy is what he's lived his life for. But forget poetry, Griff, and stick to Restoration, where you can defend derelict objects like Mel Smith.

In Poetry Please on BBC Four, we watched the scarlet-jumpered Roger McGough unveiling the secrets of the nation's favourite Radio 4 poetry request programme. Was it his red jersey? No, it was simply reading poems to the listeners without musical serenade, suggestive images or interference of any kind. BBC television, please note.

There was plenty of swirling suggestiveness in Simon Schama's John Donne on BBC Two. What gives Schama the right to claim ownership of Donne? But there were three of them in this programme: John Carey, Fiona Shaw and the great poet's keeper.

It began graphically. Our "most electrifying poet", announced Schama. Cue fluorescent ceiling lights. He's a metaphysical poet. Cue clouds. Tales of terror, racks and disembowelment: cue droplets of red liquid. Why the phoney photos? Poetry is meant to feed our imaginations. Perhaps the producer thought we had none.

But Schama is a compelling storyteller and Carey and Shaw made great props. It was time to read some Donne so the camera panned to anywhere in London that looked old.

To get inside these erotic poems we also had to get up close and magnified. Lazing on leather sofas with Fiona, Schama verbally wrestled, swapping lines and insights.

Red sofas, of course. She had the text ready annotated, dirty bits underlined: "License my roving hands and let them go" - the rudest line ever written, we were told. There was pounding music and poems that lived - "not left-over relics". Sorry, Mel Smith.

The full frontal shots shifted to Carey and the back of Schama's head, revealing magnificent, magnified red ears. The two held a private tutorial, the world watching, as they dissected the verbal strip tease of: "To His Mistress Going to Bed". Today's sixth form males recite it as chat up lines, my English teacher wife tells me.

So to the end and death was everywhere in shots of sunsets and blackened trees as Donne wrote the Holy Sonnets and Fiona got to jog on the beach out of breath, reciting verse that "throbs with physical force".

Meanwhile on Britain's Got Talent, the hyperbolic Piers Morgan described Susan Boyle's singing as "having inspired the world". But you have to be Obama or John Donne to achieve that. No matter how many YouTube hits you score, it's all exaggeration - something Piers Morgan, former editor of the Daily Mirror, should know all about. Cue fake photos?

Ray Tarleton is principal of South Dartmoor Community College in Ashburton, Devon.

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