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Betjeman, Sir John (1906-1984)

Writer, Presenter

Main image of Betjeman, Sir John (1906-1984)

One of the most enduringly popular poets of the 20th century, John Betjeman was also Poet Laureate from 1972 to his death in 1984. He was an obvious choice: his reassuringly old-fashioned verse style is instantly accessible, and his output includes many perennial favourites. 'Slough' (1937) is so universally known that an episode of the sitcom The Office (BBC, tx. 2001-03) devoted several minutes to its deconstruction, while others include the autobiographical 'Summoned By Bells' (1960) and the eulogy to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn in 'A Subaltern's Love Song' (1945).

But Betjeman also owed much of his high public profile to his prolific television output, which began almost at the dawn of the medium and continued well beyond his death. Betjeman's programmes allowed him to indulge his passions for poetry, architecture, train travel and nostalgic reminiscence to the full, while also giving him a regular public platform for his tireless efforts as a conservation campaigner.

He was born John Betjemann on 28 August 1906 in north London, at the bottom of Hampstead Heath. By his own account, he spent a lonely childhood, and felt guilty about his lack of interest in the family cabinet-making business. After being bullied at school over his German surname (this was during World War I), he dropped the second 'n'. Initial education in nearby Highgate was followed by stints at boarding school in Oxford and the famous Marlborough College, followed by a less than auspicious return to Oxford, this time at the university's Magdalen College. Devoting too much time to private interests (including architecture and editing the student newspaper), he was eventually sent down without completing his degree.

Feeling ill-equipped to join the family business, he began his professional career as a private secretary and prep school teacher. In 1930, he was appointed assistant editor of the Architectural Review, a post he held for five years and which he claimed was his true university. In addition to a growing body of verse, he wrote guide books for Shell with Jack Beddington, the firm's head of publicity. They became firm friends, and Betjeman would be a key beneficiary of Beddington's subsequent appointment as head of film at the Ministry of Information in 1941, an event that facilitated the poet's increasing involvement with film and television (Betjeman would be directly employed by Beddington's department in 1943).

However, he had made his television debut some time earlier, practically at the dawn of the medium in early 1937. This appearance, like virtually everything else from the era, does not survive. An even earlier film appearance, an acting role in The Sailor's Return (1935) was never shown in public, the project being abandoned prior to editing.

In the 1950s, his television career took off in earnest, and he would remain a prolific presenter, interviewee and chat-show guest until his death. Amongst other things, this gave him the highest public profile of any poet laureate before or since. Working mainly with the producers Jonathan Stedall, Malcolm Freegard and Edward Mirzoeff, his programmes generally involved variations on a theme of trains, architecture, religion, light-hearted sociological observation and nostalgic reminiscence. By general consent, the perfect example of the form is Metro-Land (BBC, tx. 26/2/1973). Other outstanding examples include A Passion for Churches (BBC, tx. 7/12/1974), an in-depth look at the churches of Norfolk, and Summoned By Bells (BBC, tx. 29/8/1976), an adaptation of his popular verse autobiography made to mark his 70th birthday.

They were generally made for the BBC, though he also had regular collaborations with British Transport Films (the best-known example being the 1962 short John Betjeman Goes By Train) and various regional ITV companies, notably TWW, for whom he made the series Betjeman's West Country in 1962. Long believed lost, it was eventually disinterred by Channel Four in the 1990s and repackaged as The Lost Betjemans (1994) and Betjeman Revisited (1995).

As those programmes and others (Discovering Britain with John Betjeman, 1964; Betjeman at Random, 1966; Betjeman's London, 1967; Betjeman in Australia, 1973; Betjeman and Friends, 1977; Betjeman's Britain, 1980; Time with Betjeman, 1983) demonstrate, his name frequently appeared in the titles, a self-evident testament to his enduring popularity. At one point, he was even featured on Jim'll Fix It (BBC, tx. 4/2/1978), where he read a poem written at the age of six to a trio of schoolgirls.

But by then he was already suffering from Parkinson's disease, which eventually claimed his life on 19 May 1984. In addition to the poet laureateship, he was made a CBE in 1960, a Companion of Literature in 1968, and was knighted in 1969. Since his death, he has continued to appear regularly on television, partly via regular repeats, but also through several one-off documentaries and a series of programmes to mark both the tenth anniversary of his death in 1994 and the centenary of his birth in 2006.

Michael Brooke

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of John Betjeman Goes By Train (1962)John Betjeman Goes By Train (1962)

John Betjeman travels from King's Lynn to Hunstanton

Thumbnail image of Journey into the Weald of Kent (1959)Journey into the Weald of Kent (1959)

John Betjeman narrates a journey through south-east England

Thumbnail image of Railways For Ever! (1970)Railways For Ever! (1970)

John Betjeman reflects on the passing of the steam train

Thumbnail image of John Betjeman: A Poet in London (1959)John Betjeman: A Poet in London (1959)

Ken Russell's first professional film, a visualisation of Betjeman's poems

Thumbnail image of Journey Into a Lost World (1960)Journey Into a Lost World (1960)

John Betjeman remembers London's great exhibitions

Thumbnail image of Metro-Land (1973)Metro-Land (1973)

The many historical and cultural diversions along the Metropolitan Line

Thumbnail image of Passion for Churches, A (1974)Passion for Churches, A (1974)

John Betjeman explores church art and architecture in Norwich

Thumbnail image of Summoned By Bells (1976)Summoned By Bells (1976)

Small-screen adaptation of John Betjeman's autobiographical poem

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Thumbnail image of Beddington, Jack (1893-1959)Beddington, Jack (1893-1959)