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News > Arts & Culture > The Legacy of John Betjeman

The Legacy of John Betjeman

Former Head of English at Tonbridge School, Jonathan Smith’s radio plays, Mr Betjeman’s class and Mr Betjeman regrets were broadcast on Radio 4 on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, 2017.

Former Head of English at Tonbridge School, Jonathan Smith’s radio plays, Mr Betjeman’s class and Mr Betjeman regrets were broadcast on Radio 4 on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, 2017. The plays were the final performances of distinguished OT actor, Ben Whitrow (Sc 50-55), who sadly passed away in September 2017.

The following article was published in the New Statesman, 4 December 2017

The quickest way to start a punch-up between two British literary critics,” Philip Larkin suggested, “is to ask them what they think of the poems of Sir John Betjeman.” I know what he means. In 1960 I bought Summoned by Bells, Betjeman’s verse autobiography, and I placed the hardback proudly on the bookshelf in my undergraduate rooms. Everyone who came in pointed at it and laughed. 

-John Bet-je-man?
-You’re not serious? Phone for the fishknives, Norman.
-What do you mean?
-You’re not saying he’s any good?
-I think he –
-For God’s sake, Jonathan, he’s a joke.
-Is he? You think so?      
-I mean, come on.

After a week of this I took down Summoned By Bells and stuffed it in a drawer, under my socks and underpants, where even I couldn’t see it. It was that embarrassing.

For most of my life I have been “on” Betjeman, if mostly under cover. A few years ago in Cornwall, sitting in the St Enodoc churchyard where he is buried (near the lych gate), I started to re-read his collected poems, all of them, which led me to his letters and finally to the biographies. Out of this long absorption came two plays, but I always knew who I wanted as Betjeman, and that was Benjamin Whitrow.

Ben Whitrow “got” Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and he was the best Justice Shallow ever in Henry IV Part 2, and I knew, if anyone could, he would be Betjeman. He would be funny, moving, vulnerable, understated, and mischievous: he allows the line, and he steals up on you. To my delight, and to his, late in September we happily met up in BBC Maida Vale studios to record the plays.

Read anything good lately?

What a great start to a conversation that is, even a chat-up line, and what a simple move towards the intimacy which two imaginations and a shared hinterland can bring. Asked the question, read anything good lately?, I notice people come alive, their eyes spark up, and their voices gain persuasive energy.

Though it is often taken as a disparaging phrase, you could say I have led a bookish life. Not that it feels like that: it feels much more like falling in love over and over again. One day, without consciously looking for her, you come across a writer new to you, and suddenly everything is different.
You catch her eye, you hear her voice, you start to circle the table on which she lies, even the shelf on which she sits, and you reach out. Yes, you like her. Yes, she’s got it. And in no time at all, back you go to the same writer. You want more, she shakes you up, you want to see her again, the way the sun lights up the sky. She speaks to you like no one else. You want to be with her on the train, on the bus, in bed.
At Tonbridge the other night I went to a lecture by Jeanette Winterson. It was uplifting. She talked of her life as an adopted child, the violent domestic clashes, her refuge in her public library in Accrington, her days at Oxford, her sexuality and much more. But time and again she returned to books, books, books, and then, as I hoped she would, she read from Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

She did all this without once looking up at a screen, and without resorting to a powerpoint. Dressed in black, she walked on stage and stood there and spoke without a note for over an hour. She held us as easily and naturally as she held the book in her fingers. She was profound and witty, serious and playful, and you felt the full force of her extraordinary mind. What an example to the world of teaching! I am still cheering.
As well as the Collected Betjeman I have been reading someone on whom the literary critics do agree. I am taking on, for the first time, The Complete Works of Shakespeare. As a lifelong English teacher you might think this a bit late, and it is, but I do mean the whole bang lot, including Henry VI Parts 1,2 and 3, and my God they were heavy going. Some plays I tap into straightaway, e.g The Merchant of Venice and Henry V, while others are clearly great but somehow slip through my fingers, my fault I’m sure, e.g Measure for Measure and The Tempest.

When I was young I was all for tragedy. If the play didn’t end badly I wanted to know why. In those days I looked down on comedy and particularly on musical “shows,” where you were obliged to leave your brain in the foyer, yet recently I sat watching Mamma Mia! on tv and singing along to the words at the bottom of the screen. O, what a fall was there, as Mark Antony said over Caesar’s corpse. But as there is now less time left I am looking, in Betjeman’s phrase, for the bonus of laughter.

The edition of Shakespeare I’m using is a single volume with double column format, coming in at 1380 pages, which is effectively 2760 pages. The trouble is I fell asleep the other night while reading Henry VI Part 3 and woke up at 2 am, dazed and disorientated, with the book on my face. If it had been a rugby match I would have been taken off for a concussion assessment.

All was going well in the Maida Vale studios in late September, and we were three quarters of the way through recording the Betjeman plays, when I had a call at 11 pm saying that Ben Whitrow had had a fall at home. The next day, September 28th, he died. We met in the green room, shocked almost beyond words. Yesterday Ben was there, right there, with us, giving his final performance. Today he was gone.

In order to complete the second play, Bruce Young, the director, has re-ordered the scenes so that it works when Robert Bathurst takes over being Ben being Betjeman.

It feels as right as it could be. Ben Whitrow and Robert Bathurst were friends. Indeed they played golf together on the St Enodoc course in Cornwall, where Betjeman himself occasionally played, and they liked to quote bits of his poems at each other, only a few shots from the churchyard where he lies. Near the lych gate.

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