A new approach is claimed for three new programmes in the English File series on poets William Blake (May 23), Seamus Heaney (June 6) and Grace Nichols (June 13). They are certainly appropriate to the target age range: music, photography and choice of presenter ensure this. And there is no talking down. Each programme has excellent location work - London, Ireland, Guyana - and they have interesting soundtracks with poetry read aloud, sometimes more than once. And, in each film there is an acted episode from the poet's childhood. Beyond that, they have little in common.
There is some caprice in selecting these three disparate poets, and there is not much house-style to create a link. Each programme has splendid moments: shots of Heaney's head in close-up, speaking his seminal poem, "Digging"; a modern engraver discussing Blake's techniques; a touching montage of Caribbean mother-and-daughter pairs. The three directors, however, have interpreted the brief differently, and the results are diverse.
The Heaney programme is the most successful. John Hegley, obviously an enthusiast, presents, but we get a wide variety of voices: Northern Irish farming folk, the poets Catherine Byron and Tom Paulin, plus Hegley and the poet himself, all different in style and provokingly lacking in consensus. The result is a rich and stimulating view of Heaney's work. There is excellent photography of some of the scenes from which the poetry derives: turf-cutting, farmyards, a village pump, and so on.
The Blake programme is less effective. Nigel Planer is the presenter, and very active he is, whisking here and there by tube and taxi. But the essential Blake somehow eludes him. The strongest sequence gives us the poem "London" with its evocation of the "youthful harlot" against shots of garish, girlie clubs. There is some puzzling footage from Liz Lochhead, who, in order to make Blake palatable to the young, makes unsustainable claims, for instance that his rhyme scheme is outside what one expects from "posh, literary poetry". Most of the poems are read in voice-over by Deirdre O'Kelly, who, rather than trying to recreate the poems through speech, seems to be attempting to explain them, a mistaken approach and, in the case of Blake, impossible.
The Grace Nichols poetry discusses the essential duality within her personal identity and that of black people in the UK. She was born and raised in Guyana but has lived in Britain for many years: "I have crossed an oceanI have lost my tonguefrom the root of the old onea new one has sprung." We see her travel to Guyana. We see her there. We hear her speak her poem "Sugar Cane" against a montage of men cutting the cane. Yet somehow Grace Nichols travels like an outsider through her native land. She talks to a cab driver but never to anyone who knew her. And this is a shame. She speaks her verse extremely well, but we rarely hear any voice but her own.
The series is certainly viable and worth extending. The teaching notes are helpful, and do not give too much guidance, a reticence I approve. They point out that the programmes are not intended as an introduction, and will be more effective with groups who have already read and discussed the poems. But capturing the spirit of poetry is an uphill task because, as Seamus Heaney slyly remarks (to camera) poems "are precisely meant to elude the kind of explication which one obligingly gives".