Sir John Betjeman (1906 – 1984) described himself with characteristic understatement in Who’s Who as a “poet and hack”. There was rather more to him than that though – he was a writer, broadcaster and from 1972 until his death also served as the Poet Laureate.
Betjeman’s love of architecture (especially from the Victorian era) and landscape is explored in detail across the three series which make up this boxset – A Passion for Churches, Bird’s Eye View and Four with Betjeman: Victorian Architects and Architecture.
Four With Betjeman finds him indulging one of his most strongly held passions – that of the Victorian architects and the buildings they left behind. “I have known for years and so have most of you that there were great Victorian architects, but they have never been given their due. Today, thank goodness, we can see Victorian architecture in perspective”.
This excerpt from a contemporary Daily Telegraph review articulates just why this short series was so entertaining and absorbing. “There is a precision about his informed enthusiasm which enables one to see the most familiar buildings, such as the Houses of Parliament, in a new light … Sir John, who succeeds in making his conducted tours seem addressed to a personal friend, can move without pause from an appreciation of shape and proportion to an anecdote about an Irish peer rolling the full length of a Barry staircase”.
Four With Betjeman contains four half-hour programmes – (Charles Barry & Augustus Pugin, William Butterfield & Gilbert Scott, Alfred Waterhouse & Norman Shaw, Sir Ninian Comper, William Robinson & Sir Edwin Lutyens).
In Bird’s Eye View we, unsurprisingly, observe Britain from a different angle as we take to the air for an unusual take on the familiar. The first programme, An Englishman’s Home, sees Betjeman waxing lyrical (with the occasional sharp barb) as the camera swoops over a diverse selection of dwellings. From stately castle, Georgian terrace, suburban semi to looming concrete tower blocks, Betjeman has words for all. His comments on tower blocks (“but where can be the heart that sends a family to the twentieth floor in such a slab as this?”) carries a particular resonance today, following the disaster at Grenfell Tower.
From the same series, Beside the Seaside is a treat as we tour past some of England’s most popular seaside destinations. The somewhat faded colour print helps to give the visuals a faint air of melancholy.
A swooping seagull takes its flight
From Weymouth to the Isle of Wight
From Cornish cliff tops wild and bare
To crowds at Weston-super-Mare
The seaside seen as history
Bournemouth, Butlin’s and Torquay
Whatever paddles, surfs or sails
Braves the waves or rides the gales
A scrapbook made at Christmastime
Of summer joys in film and rhyme
The title music for Bird’s Eye View is a typically jazzy piece from John Dankworth (the incidentals are more classically inclined, all the better to compliment Betjeman’s words).
Also included on the same disc is One Man’s Country – Cornwall (1964). This isn’t part of the Bird’s Eye View series, but since it has a similar style it fits well with the two later programmes. The stark black and footage of Cornwall is very striking and helps to make it especially memorable.
Although he’s not on camera, these three programmes (a perfect marriage of visuals and Bejeman’s poetic prose) are probably my favourite from the set. Both of the Bird’s Eye View programmes run for fifty minutes whilst Cornwall is shorter, at twenty five.
A Passion for Churches (1974) sees Betjeman explore his long-held fascination with church architecture. “What would you be, you wide East Anglian sky, without church towers to recognise you by?” His love of churches began exactly sixty years prior to this, as the eight-year old Betjeman went rowing on the River Bure in Norfolk with his father. Delightfully, this film opens with Betjeman re-enacting this. He then moves on to take a whistle-stop tour around the area.
From Medieval stained glass and brass rubbings, to weddings and the Edwardian parish church on the Queen’s estate of Sandringham, A Passion for Churches is another leisurely treat. As with all the programmes, the visuals are anchored by Betjeman’s measured, poetic narration.
Also included on the same disc are ABC of Churches (two episodes of approx. 23 minutes, 1961), Journey to Bethlehem (30 minutes, 1966) and a ten-minute fragment from a later edition of the ABC of Churches series (since the two complete editions only go from A – F, presumably the others were wiped). All of these, unlike A Passion for Churches, are in black and white.
I’m sure that Doctor Who fans will appreciate the tour of Aldbourne’s church (memorably later depicted in 1971’s The Daemons) in the first edition of ABC of Churches whilst Journey to Bethlehem still captures the attention some fifty years on.
Given the age of the source materials, the picture quality is naturally a little variable. The colour film prints are rather faded in places, although the black and white prints aren’t in too bad a condition at all. But everything’s perfectly watchable with no major picture glitches to report.
A wonderful collection of programmes, Betjeman – The Collection should appeal to anybody interested in archive documentaries. Recommended.
Betjeman – The Collection is released by Simply Media on the 23rd of October 2017. It can be ordered direct from Simply here.