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Summoned By Bells (1976)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Summoned By Bells (1976)
BBC, tx. 29/8/1976, 58 mins, colour
ProducerJonathan Stedall
Production CompanyBBC Television
Written byJohn Betjeman
PhotographyJohn McGlashan

Cast: John Betjeman

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John Betjeman explores his early life, from his Edwardian childhood up to his time at Oxford in the 1920s.

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Nostalgia is a key ingredient of virtually everything that John Betjeman did for television, but this adaptation of his famous 1960 verse autobiography was more so than most. Commissioned to mark the then poet laureate's 70th birthday, it consists of his own reading of an abridged version of the poem on the soundtrack, accompanied by faded black-and-white family photographs, footage from the Edwardian and WWI eras, and new material of Betjeman himself revisiting old haunts.

These include the house at the foot of Hampstead Heath in which he spent his formative years (complete with his famous teddy bear, Archibald Ormsby-Gore, apparently the inspiration for his fictional equivalent in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited), Trebetherick in Cornwall, where he spent many family holidays and eventually settled, Marlborough College in Wiltshire (where he discovered English literature for the first time) and Oxford University, from which he was ignominiously sent down - though Betjeman's version doesn't entirely match the recorded facts.

In between, he visits the family cabinet-making firm in Islington, muses about his unrequited first love for Peggy Purey-Cust and the experience of walking to and from school in fear of local gangs (he was known as "the German spy", thanks to his surname, originally Betjemann), and the sensory evocation of the Cornish coast and surrounding countryside - not always pleasant, as he refers to the smell of a neighbour's cesspool as "a body-blow".

Above all, it charts his growing awareness of literature in general and his own gifts in particular. He affectionately recalls his father's early encouragement of his writing, and feels that he betrayed him to some extent by refusing to join the family business. A passing reference to "the American master, Mr Eliot" refers to T.S. Eliot briefly teaching him at Highgate school.

But it's in his teens that he starts referring to himself as "the aesthete" and somehow apart from the rest, immersed in literature and second-hand bookshops (and new ones: he makes passing reference to an astronomical bill at Blackwell's in Oxford, only settled years later thanks to his father's legacy). Both poem and programme end with Betjeman's departure from Oxford and the commencement of his career as a wage-earning adult, initially as a teacher.

Along with Metro-Land (BBC, tx. 26/2/1973), Summoned By Bells became one of the most enduringly popular of all Betjeman's television programmes, and has been one of the most frequently repeated.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Trains and toast (3:03)
2. Peggy Purey-Cust (3:53)
3. Childhood in Cornwall (1:58)
4. Failed in divinity (2:57)
Betjeman, Sir John (1906-1984)