Travels with Betjeman

“Laureate Productions” was the name we gave to the Independent Television Production Company that we dreamed of setting up in the mid-1970s, an idea that turned out to be about 20 years ahead of its time.

“We” in this case meant three of us: the Poet Laureate, Sir John Betjeman, a wonderfully funny and sensitive film editor called Ted Roberts, and me. We had made a few films together for the BBC, and fantasised about creating many more without the interference of talentless executives — “Brigstockes”, John called them. We would sell our works of art to the BBC, or to the highest bidder, and make our fortunes. It never came to pass, of course.

Betjeman was a man of many parts — journalist, critic, poet, performer, dramatist even, architectural expert, railway enthusiast, conservationist. He had a passion for churches, and for the Church of England. And there were private passions too. But I want to concentrate here on Betjeman and broadcasting, specifically my experience of making half a dozen television documentaries with him in the late 1960s and 1970s, and the light it cast on the character and personality of our hero.

We first met in 1968 when the BBC, most unusually awash with cash from colour TV licences, decided to hire a helicopter for three years. The original “Brigstocke”, a boss-man called Aubrey Singer, thought it would be in demand for every hour of every day by every BBC department. When it turned out that nobody had much interest in a chopper, he came up with Plan B — a 13-part documentary series, to be filmed, over three years, entirely from a helicopter — Bird’s-Eye View.

A gaggle of potential writers convened at our then offices, Kensington House, which Betjeman always called “The Palace of Arts”. (It’s now an hotel — you could book my old office, Room 2066.) He was the most distinguished of the group, but he seemed affable and approachable, and I enjoyed talking to him. He was prepared to risk a flight in the whirly-bird to see if it inspired him.

So one day we collected him at Oxford station and drove to Kidlington Airport, where the Alouette 3 helicopter was based. It was a misty, rather gloomy day, and things went wrong from the start. The radio intercom wouldn’t work, so we couldn’t talk. The Polish pilot seemed to have some difficulty in working out where we were, dropping down out of the sky to read road signs. And it was bumpy. “Oh, I am enjoying myself,” Betjeman shouted, meaning that he was not. Then after a while, he pulled out his cheque-book and wrote on the back “Please can we go home now.” It was not an auspicious beginning, only slightly alleviated by brandies at Oxford station buffet to calm his nerves.

Nevertheless, he signed up as a writer for the series. Perhaps it was the fee — we were offering £750 a programme, remarkably high for those days, worth over £11,000 in today’s money. Betjeman, an extremely generous man by nature, was always concerned about income, unsurprisingly for a life-long freelance with two houses, a wife, children, a lady-friend or two, and an expensive lifestyle to support. “I’m frightfully rich!” he would say, as he pulled out wads of notes to buy another round. As usual, in Betjemanese, this meant the exact opposite. He was always worried that one day, suddenly, fashion would change, his poems would be rejected, his contracts terminated, and he would finish up, as he would say, in the workhouse.

There weren’t many workhouses by the late ’60s, but I saw another famous writer with whom I worked, Sir Angus Wilson, fall into sudden and irretrievable penury, so it was not a wholly irrational fear. Betjeman always instructed his agent, bubbly Sue Freathy, to demand outrageously high fees, and he turned down proposals if he felt the BBC was underpaying him. Luckily, not in this instance.

Betjeman knew about films. He had been a film critic, contributed to books about films, performed as an actor in private films. There had been all those short films for Shell and others, and TV documentaries with Jonathan Stedall.

But in Bird’s-Eye View his involvement was limited to the cutting-room. True, he suggested possible locations for filming, and was even persuaded, in North Cornwall, to venture once more into the air — “OOOH, it’s just like getting drunk!” he screeched, as the pilot auto-rotated down towards a tiny island in the glistening sea.

But apart from that, the films were shot, assembled, edited and finished before he turned up. His job was the commentary. The cutting-room was in Soho, just off Wardour Street, in those days the centre of the British film industry. It was a small, friendly, slightly run-down sort of place, that John came to love. He observed Soho shops like the music publisher Peters Edition, and pretended that it was the home of Peter Sedition, an anarchist. Among the occupants of our building he spotted the name Ben Henry OBE, a person he never met, but speculated about obsessively. How was dear old Ben getting on, what services precisely had he performed to earn his OBE?

John would arrive at about mid-morning, and settle down in front of the Steenbeck, the film editing machine, running the sequences backwards and forwards, forwards and backwards, soaking in the rhythm of the editing, before setting pen to paper. He would write on A4 pads, tearing off sheet after sheet of unsatisfactory words, scrunching them up, and throwing them on the floor. (The editor and I would dive for them after he left.) His handwriting was not good, and got worse as time went by. Sometimes even he couldn’t read his spidery scrawl.

Most of what he wrote was in verse, often iambic pentameter in blank verse, varied with rhyme when the sequence seemed to call for it. His rhymes were sometimes couplets or quatrains, sometimes more elaborate schemes borrowed from other poets — Thomas Hood was a favourite. Rhyme came easily to him, and often led to striking imagery. Where did such inspiration come from, I used to ask? Betjeman’s answer was always the same: pointing upwards, “The Management.”

There was never any doubt in his mind about the relationship of word with picture. Richard Strauss composed a whole opera, Capriccio, about which mattered more, words or music; in the end, he couldn’t decide. Betjeman always knew that the powerful visual medium led, the pictures told the story. How often he would say “That doesn’t need any words.” A good way of getting out of having to do some work, I uncharitably thought. But his narration, when he could be persuaded to write it, would counterpoint and enhance the picture, introducing affection, surprise, humour, deep knowledge, and a very personal point of view.

Our film editor, Ted Roberts, played a vital part in all this. A wonderful rapport grew between him and John. Ted could make the poet laugh, creating a light-hearted, jokey atmosphere that relieved the pressure of having to write all those words. Even better, he had a gift for coming up with ideas, rhymes, even whole sections of verse, in Betjeman’s own style. “Oh, that’s much better than I could do”, Betjeman sometimes said, and altering just a word or two, would write Ted’s pastiche text straight in.

Even at the time, and certainly in retrospect, it was more like fun than work. At the very beginning of the editing John had turned up with a couple of bottles of rather good Burgundy in a shopping bag. But it soon became apparent that quaffing did not improve the work-rate, so, making myself rather unpopular, I puritanically banned alcohol from the cutting-room. Instead John would resort for refreshment to tangerines, as they were called in those days, and I would be sent out to the Berwick Street market — “Another bag of tangers, please, Eddie . . .”

After a productive morning he would sometimes totter down to one of the local Soho restaurants for lunch. Wheeler’s was a favourite, and so was Bianchi’s, in Frith Street, where John would encounter friends like John Julius Norwich, often himself working on a BBC film, and they would compare progress. Once or twice, if inspiration seemed to be lacking, Betjeman would throw down his fountain pen, pick up his squashed brown hat, and tell us to come out with him. Hailing a taxi, we would drive to the Athenaeum or the Royal Automobile Club. “Am I a member of this club?” he would ask the porter, “Of course, Sir John.” “Oh good, we’ll have a spot of lunch then.” The porter fitted underdressed Ted with an oversize jacket, and a gravy-stained tie, so that he could be admitted too, while John pointed out the RAC’s shallow, comfortable steps by architects Mewès and Davis, “just like at the Ritz”.

On some days Betjeman was inspired. A particular favourite of mine is his commentary for a sequence we shot at Castle Howard. He gazed at the shots for a while, and then said he would like to retire to the composition cell. This “composition cell” was a tea-making and broom cupboard, where he could shut himself off from noise, chat, and phone calls. When he came out, about an hour later, he was waving this newly-created 18th-century verse:

Stay, traveller! With no irreverent haste,
Approach the mansion of a man of taste.
Hail, Castle Howard! Hail, Vanbrugh’s noble dome,
Where Yorkshire in her splendour rivals Rome!
Here the proud footman to the butler bows
But kisses Lucy when she milks the cows.
Here a proud butler on the steward waits
But shares his mistress at the Castle gates.
Here fifty damsels list my lady’s bells
And a whole parish in one mansion dwells.
Chef, Housekeeper and humblest Houseboy, all
In due gradation of the servants’ hall.
Dependent on the slightest frown or smile
Of him who holds the Earldom of Carlisle.

It didn’t always come so easily. For reasons none of us could fathom, Betjeman sometimes got bogged down. It took three whole days of depression and gloom, agonising at the Steenbeck over a few not very special shots of East Anglia, to finally settle on:

Far over in England, how peaceful are names
Like Deeping St Nicholas, Deeping St James,
Long strings of rich soil and low houses of men,
Where slow flows the Welland through Lincolnshire fen.

He wouldn’t hesitate to filch an extract from his own existing poetry if it seemed to fit, triumphantly brandishing it when he arrived as if it were newly composed overnight. Occasionally, when really stuck — as, for example, with the ending for “The Englishman’s Home” — he would chance upon something apposite elsewhere, a privately-published prayer in this case, and just slot it in.

I think he enjoyed the cutting-room so much because there he was part of a small, protected, closely-knit team, full of jokes and laughter and fun. He would entertain us by reeling off from memory the limericks of his friend Lord Berners, or reading aloud the hilarious homoerotic poems of the Rev E.E. Bradford. He brought his friends in too, to show them what he was up to, and to gauge their reactions. Paul Paget came, the architect and church restorer; Adrian Daintrey, the artist; but none made as strong an impression as his good friend Margie Geddes, warm and bubbly, giving John the love and reassurance he craved.

Archibald Ormsby-Gore, Betjeman’s trusted and beloved teddy bear, was a regular visitor too, Jumbo the elephant slightly less so. “Archie’s feeling very gloomy today,” Betjeman would say, as he fetched it out of the carrier-bag. “Well, let’s cheer him up,” Ted would reply, carefully placing the bedraggled old teddy-bear on the film rewind machine, where it would sit, spinning round faster and faster, as on a merry-go-round. “Oh, Archie’s much more cheerful now,” Betjeman would cry, and his wonderful smile would break out, as if the sun had emerged from behind the clouds. Archie’s moods were, of course, John’s own.

I found Betjeman’s uncertainty and thin-skinned self-doubt unexpected and rather surprising. “Oh, Brigstocke won’t like this,” he kept saying, meaning that the BBC bosses would reject what he had written. I assured him that Brigstocke would be delighted. More seriously, “What will Sean Day-Lewis say?” Sean Day-Lewis was at that time an influential journalist and TV critic of the Daily Telegraph. He was also the son of Betjeman’s old chum Cecil Day-Lewis. For whatever complicated personal reasons, Sean Day-Lewis lost no opportunity to do down Betjeman in print — or so the poet believed. And he cared.

So much so that he composed an anticipated version of Day-Lewis’s attack words, and put it in a sealed envelope — to be opened and compared with the real hurtfulness on the day.

Sean Day-Lewis didn’t let him down. All the other reviews of “The Englishman’s Home”, the first in the series, were raves — “totally fascinating”, “I am full of admiration”, and so on. Sean Day-Lewis said it was “irritating”, adding: “Mr Betjeman was invited to air his prejudices and he did so predictably, and with more illogicality than usual, in a poetic manner that at best sounded like tongue-in-cheek parody of his own verse.” The sealed envelope was opened, and the prediction was almost word-for-word.

Sean Day-Lewis was one of the small group of people Betjeman couldn’t take. His Oxford tutor, C.S. Lewis, was another. So were developers, in general. Betjeman could be quite a good hater.

But equally there was no one like him for enthusiasm, warmth and generosity. He had the rare gift of making people somehow feel livelier, and funnier, by being lively and funny himself. His generosity knew no bounds. Praise for quality of work was one thing; beyond that, there were drinks and lunches, gifts and treats. In those days the Craftsman Potter Shop was just down the road from the cutting-room, and we would frequently pop in. Betjeman had a liking for the stoneware of Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie, born to an aristocratic family at Coleshill, a house Betjeman loved, which later burned down. He often bought a pot or two for himself, and then made sure to add others for Ted and for me.

After the success of our Bird’s-Eye View films John took us all on a railway outing to Southend, where he had discovered an unlikely hoard of fine old claret in the café at the end of the pier. And it was at another such celebration, this time lunch upstairs at Wheeler’s in Old Compton Street, that we first talked of making a film about life in the town, particularly the suburbs, rather than the country, and shot on the ground, rather than in the air. The idea for Metro-land was born as John slipped down a dozen oysters.

Now, for the first time, I was able to ask John to talk directly to camera. He himself pointed out that there were very few performers blessed with the gift of speaking not at the glass lens but through it, making human contact directly with the individual viewer at home. David Frost, he told me, was one, and Betjeman himself, in my opinion, was most certainly another — and it was one of his greatest gifts. Perhaps it’s something to do with the down-to-earth, unpatronising language he used, his light-heartedness, his spontaneity, his sincerity, his big brown eyes. And of course the key to his personality, which he himself understood, was that he was always the performer, always the actor, always wanting to be the centre of attention, always wanting to be loved.

Betjeman’s idea was that our film should resemble the music-hall turns he had so enjoyed in younger days, each item no longer than about four minutes, variety and surprise the keynotes, lots of laughter and perhaps a bitter-sweet moment or two along the way. I thought we would need a few anchor-points in the film, significant houses of different periods and styles through which Betjeman could guide us. Each would be the place for a big piece to camera. And as it turned out, the scene of memorable moments.

The grandest mansion in Metro-land must be Moor Park, the remarkable 18th century house designed by Sir James Thornhill and Giacomo Leoni, with its plasterwork, murals, and trompe-l’oeil ceiling. Lord Leverhulme made it a golf club in 1923.

The plan was for  John to join us there early one morning. In the spirit of the film, he would travel by Metropolitan Line from his house in Cloth Fair to Moor Park station, where he would be met and driven to the location. The film crew and I waited on the steps of the mansion to greet him as he arrived.

Time passed. Eventually, a Mini crept up, and our distinguished presenter emerged, stormy as a thundercloud. “I know I’m only the artiste, and therefore the least important person in the production. . .” He hadn’t finished the sentence before the crew melted away, leaving me with a crisis on my hands.

Apparently he had been waiting at one exit, our highly competent researcher Christine Whittaker at another, and neither had realised that there are two ways of leaving Moor Park station. John was plainly not a happy man. I bought him a large drink — but it made no difference. No good expecting him to tell us about plasterwork and murals while he was in this state. Perhaps best to switch the schedule round, and film him on the golf course first? It might lighten the mood.
It didn’t. When we got to the tee he was still fuming. In reality no mean golfer, he took a massive swing — and missed the ball completely. Turning to camera, his black mood instantly forgotten, he laughed and laughed. With great presence of mind cameraman John McGlashan went on filming, and a magical, accidental moment was captured.

Chance, you see, played a certain part with John. And so it was at The Orchard, Charles Annesley Voysey’s apparently simple and deeply sympathetic Arts and Crafts house at Chorleywood. John loved The Orchard, and he had known the Voyseys. For the piece to camera, our plan was that he would read from The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse, by Beatrix Potter, lines which he said reminded him of the interior here:

Such a funny house! There were yards and yards of sandy passages, leading to storerooms and nut-cellars, all amongst the roots of the hedge. There was a kitchen, a parlour, a pantry and a larder . . .

If you look carefully at the sequence in Metro-land you can see that John is carrying a little book, a Beatrix Potter I borrowed from my small children. But when the time came for the piece to camera, John, in mid-flow about Mr Voysey, ignoring script and rehearsal, was suddenly struck by how deceptively low the interior was, and how he could show this by moving across the hall to stand under a low doorframe — which he did, to the cameraman’s considerable surprise. And Mrs Tittlemouse was forgotten.

No two takes of his pieces to camera were ever the same, or even similar. Improvisation was always a part of John’s performance — thinking aloud, and not just repeating a script by rote. It is one of the reasons why his work seems always fresh.

He revelled in the poetry of film-making, particularly film-lighting language — Gennies and Blondes and Redheads, Pups and Bashers, Brutes and French Flags, Barn Doors, Baby Legs and Inky-Dinkies. He enjoyed being on terms with the crew, nicknaming our rather high-minded cameraman “The Bishop”. At lunchtimes and in the early evenings we gathered around the Master in a Metro-land pub, hearing him tell of his younger days, of being sent down from Oxford for failing his Divinity exam, of his career as a prep-school master and as a cricket coach who knew nothing of the rules of the game. And although we were in the visual business, he taught us how to observe. “Look up!” was his great maxim — all the excitement and joy of architecture is up there, above eye-level.

I suppose that the most memorable event in the making of Metro-land was the last, after the shooting and the editing and the writing were all over: the recording of John’s commentary. He was the finest reader I have ever known, with his mellifluous voice, perfectly judged intonation, superbly natural pacing and emphases.

There was no one like him for reading verse, either his own or other people’s (he was very impatient with the way actors read poetry, by the way). So I was looking forward to recording day. But when I arrived at the studio in Oxford Street, the editor seemed anxious. “Have a word with Sir John,” he said, “see if you think he’s all right.” He wasn’t. His speech was slurred and very slow. Had something dreadful happened?

We phoned his doctor, who asked to speak to him. It emerged that, after lying awake for hours worrying about the coming ordeal, he had taken sleeping pills at about 5am. He was really not fully conscious, and the only thing to do was to let him sleep it off. How were we going to manage that? By good luck, the studio had a camp bed and a blanket. The Poet Laureate was put to bed, the lights were turned out, and we tip-toed away — I to see if I could negotiate a lower rate for sleeping than for commentary recording.

When we returned several hours later, Betjeman was gone. Apparently he had woken up perfectly refreshed, and taken himself off to Wheeler’s for a dozen oysters and a glass of bubbly. He reappeared, wide awake and in excellent form, to deliver the relaxed and masterly performance we love and remember today.

Our next film, A Passion for Churches, was more stressful in the making. John was a little older, a little slower, a little less well. The subject, a celebration of his beloved Church of England, much appealed to him. But it did not lend itself so easily to a narrative structure. Eventually we came up with the discipline of making it all in one diocese. Not Southwark, as he first suggested, but Norwich.

The big advantage of the Diocese of Norwich, apart from the many wonderful mediaeval churches, and the remote and unspoilt countryside, was Lady Wilhelmine Harrod, “Billa”, old and dear friend and, for a brief time, fiancée of John’s. She was a powerful, indeed irresistible, force in Norfolk church life, and a formidable ally. Moreover John could stay with her at the Old Rectory in Holt, and be comfortable.

And for the first time, I was on location with John during the research and filming, staying together overnight either at Billa’s or in hotels. It’s like going away on holiday together — you get to know your presenter very well when you have to help him in the morning with the cuffs of his shirt , or go out with him to buy a capacious blue plastic mac from a gents’ outfitters — his “Swaffham”, he called it, after the town in which it was bought. Sometimes he would wear the Swaffham with a straw boater, which made an engaging picture. And there were excursions to dusty second-hand bookshops — Sir John’s favourite, in Norwich, was The Scientific Anglian, which he called The Scientific Anglican.

An unexpected visitor was John’s wife Penelope, who stayed for several days. Her presence seemed to unsettle him. The night she left he and I had dinner together alone, at the Maid’s Head Hotel in Norwich. There followed the most extraordinary personal conversation I ever had with him, an outpouring of grief, guilt and regret about the sadness of his relationship with his wife and the alienation of his son Paul — “the Powlie”, as he called him, who had left the country and would have nothing to do with him. For once the laughter was stilled, the public act abandoned. It was a gloomy evening.

But the filming itself still had magic. A high point came at Lound, in Suffolk but in the diocese of Norwich. Inspired by the richness and colour of the work of the Anglo-Catholic church architect Sir Ninian Comper, Betjeman astonished us all, in an unscripted piece to camera, by suddenly and spontaneously recalling Comper’s lah-di-dah way of speaking — “my wark, don’cher know, in that charch” — and Comper’s resemblance to Colonel Sanders, of the Kentucky Fried Chicken ads. Here was Betjeman on peak form — funny, surprising, incomparable (as he said of Comper).

Commentary writing stretched out longer than in previous years. But some of the verse he wrote had a depth of feeling rare in his earlier films:

Christ Son of God come down to me and save
How fearful and how final seems the grave.
Only through death can resurrection come
Only from shadows can we see the light
Only at the lowest comes the gleam . . .

John became uneasy and fearful as the commentary-writing progressed. There was tension, once even a row, in the cutting-room. To his normal paranoia about the response of critics was added an extra anxiety about how his churchy friends, and the Anglican community generally, would respond to some sequences.

“It is my religion which is being filmed,” he wrote to me, “and I will be held responsible for views expressed.”

One worry was how to treat potentially controversial scenes at the suburban but Romish shrine at Walsingham, with its candles, images and processions. After much agonising, he found a solution in a series of rhetorical questions: “I wonder if you’d call it superstitious . . . Or do you think that forces are around, strong, frightening, loving, and just out of reach, but waiting, waiting somewhere to be asked?”

When it was all completed, John wrote to Ted Roberts:

I need not have worried about the film at all. You and Eddie have made it marvellous and deep and rich and sad and funny and local. It will not get good notices. The Church of England never does. But it is the Church of England and it ambles along like the fat old commentator who signs himself, Yours ever, John Betjeman.

The last film we made together was The Queen’s Realm: A Prospect of England. It was commissioned by Brigstocke, he of Bird’s-Eye View, who wanted another helicopter film to mark the Silver Jubilee of the Queen in 1977. By this time we had all come to agree with John that we didn’t want to fly any more in that infernal machine. We decided on a cut-and-paste job, re-editing aerial material previously filmed for Bird’s-Eye View and other documentaries, all to be linked by English poetry and English music. An anthology, in fact, partially selected and wholly presided over by John.

He himself came up with some unregarded (to use a good Betjeman word) but wonderfully apt suggestions — an ode by Hilaire Belloc in praise of electricity, an elegy by Kipling about motoring, a pastoral by John Meade Falkner. His storehouse of memory again proved unique. And he advised, in the cutting-room, on whether the team’s other ideas were right or not. The usual principle was that first-rate poetry with its own powerful imagery did not go well with strong visuals — they clashed, rather than enhancing each other. And he had no hesitation in being ruthless with texts, chopping off the last couplet of a Shakespeare sonnet because it didn’t work with the pictures. Even the Times Literary Supplement cheered at the result.

So we ended our partnership on a high note. There were thoughts about more films, lunches to discuss them, now usually in Chelsea, at Radnor Walk, or Dog Mess Walk as he called it.

A film on the paraphernalia of death was talked about — perhaps not for him, John eventually decided, try Philip Larkin. I did, and Larkin shuddered with horror.

A very good idea was for a film on the architecture of New York. A researcher produced a superb treatment, which John loved. But Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, whom he called “Feeble” because she wasn’t, intervened, saying that the project would be too tiring for him, so it came to nothing. Instead, replacing the Laureate by his beloved daughter, we made two films with Candida Lycett Green. The first of them, The Front Garden, was John’s own suggestion. The result gave him immense pleasure.

A few years later, in May 1984, working in Venice on a series about Italians, I came back one evening to the Hotel La Fenice et Des Artistes to find a scrappy hand-written note. Just four words: “Signor Betjeman è morto.”

Laureate Productions could be said to have made one final documentary, 17 years later, but here John was only on archive, and in the memory of his friends. The Last Laugh, the film was called, and the last words of it were spoken by John Drummond:

Oh his laugh. I mean as we sit here talking now I can hear his laughter, I can see that wicked grin, that squashed old pork pie hat on his head, glasses on the end of his nose, and that absolute sort of riotous laughter which starts and builds and builds and builds, and a sort of gurgling chuckle and all the rest of it. And then, a sort of expression of despair, as if the world can’t always be laughter.

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