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John Betjeman: A Poet in London (1959)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of John Betjeman: A Poet in London (1959)
For Monitor, BBC, tx. 1/3/1959
12 mins, black and white
DirectorKen Russell
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerPeter Newington
CommentaryJohn Betjeman

Presenter: John Betjeman

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John Betjeman muses amongst the war-damaged ruins of Aldgate Station; ponders the solitary existence of office girls in Camden Town; makes real the allure of a woman on an advertising hoarding, and recalls painful childhood memories in Hertfordshire.

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Ken Russell's first professional film was commissioned by Huw Wheldon, the head of the BBC's Monitor arts strand, after he'd been impressed by Russell's amateur film Amelia and the Angel (1958). He invited Russell for an interview, during which the young film-maker pitched several ideas (including a film on the composer Edward Elgar, eventually made in 1962), and Wheldon chose a project illustrating John Betjeman's London poetry, not least because it would be very cheap and quick to make.

Russell was assigned a budget of just £300, which the BBC could afford to write off if the film didn't work out. Unsurprisingly, given the stakes involved (if Wheldon liked the film, Russell would be hired by Monitor full-time; if not, his film-making career might have been stopped in its tracks), A Poet in London is one of the most conservative of all Russell's films, and conspicuously less inventive and original than its immediate predecessor.

That said, it does an effective job of coming up with suitably evocative images to match Betjeman's nostalgic verse, and the film is equally valuable as a record of a new modern City of London emerging from the ruins of its past. There is still plenty of evidence of the Blitz, even nearly two decades after most of the German bombs fell. There are a couple of mildly startling images, notably a neglected doll floating in a Camden canal, but these seem more like serendipitous coincidences than part of a calculated visual strategy.

In all other respects, the director defers to his star. Betjeman alternates reminiscences about taking afternoon tea at the now-ruined Aldersgate Street station (since rebuilt and renamed Barbican), watching young women playing tennis and recalling a humiliating shooting trip with his father, with his own readings of poems inspired by these events.

The following year, Russell would make another film with Betjeman, the longer, more ambitious and thematically consistent Journey into a Lost World (tx. 28/3/1960). Both these films were relatively early entries in Betjeman's filmography, though he went on to become a familiar face on television as writer and presenter of numerous documentary films and TV series on Britain's heritage, including Betjeman's West Country (TWW, tx. 1962), Discovering Britain with John Betjeman (1964) and Betjeman's London (Rediffusion, tx. 1967). He was made Poet Laureate in 1972, a post he held until his death in 1984.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Aldersgate Street (3:54)
2. Business girls (2:05)
Amelia and the Angel (1958)
Journey Into a Lost World (1960)
Betjeman, Sir John (1906-1984)
Russell, Ken (1927-2011)
Wheldon, Sir Huw (1916-1986)
Ken Russell on Television
Ken Russell: The Monitor Years