~ Poet: Tony Harrison ~

V. by Tony Harrison

An epic film-poem produced by the U.K.’s Channel 4 in 1987, the airing of which was apparently a bit of a cultural watershed in Thatcherite Britain. Let me start by quoting the Wikipedia entry on Tony Harrison:

His best-known work is the long poem V. (1985), written during the miners’ strike of 1984-85, and describing a trip to see his parents’ grave in a Leeds cemetery “now littered with beer cans and vandalised by obscene graffiti”. The title has several possible interpretations: victory, versus, verse etc. Proposals to screen a filmed version of V. by Channel 4 in October 1987 drew howls of outrage from the tabloid press, some broadsheet journalists, and MPs, apparently concerned about the effects its “torrents of obscene language” and “streams of four-letter filth” would have on the nation’s youth. Indeed, an Early Day Motion entitled “Television Obscenity” was proposed on 27 October 1987 by a group of Conservative MPs, who condemned Channel 4 and the Independent Broadcasting Authority. The motion was opposed by a single MP, Mr. Norman Buchan, who suggested that MPs had either failed to read or failed to understand (V.). The broadcast went ahead, and the brouhaha settled quickly after enough column inches had been written about the broadcast and reaction to the broadcast. Gerald Howarth said that Harrison was “Probably another bolshie poet wishing to impose his frustrations on the rest of us”. When told of this, Harrison retorted that Howarth was “Probably another idiot MP wishing to impose his intellectual limitations on the rest of us”. Thom Yorke, the frontman and lyricist of Radiohead, considers Harrison as one of his heroes, describing V as both “straightforward and wonderful”.

The comments at YouTube convey some of the emotions this stirred in the British public. I asked the friend who originally shared the link with me to try to describe the impact that the broadcast had on her. Here’s what she wrote:

When Tony Harrison’s V was eventually broadcast on British television, to view it seemed like a devotional act. Or certainly to me who felt an outsider both for loving poetry and for coming from a conservative background and holding grimly, determinedly, to socialist ideals — and this during the violent eviscerations of the Thatcher years. Here was a poet, a long-form poem, a political poem far beyond the merely polemical. A poem that, in its planned presentation on the dominant medium of the time, domestic television, had the political, intellectual and cultural “arbiters” howling with rage and scorn. I still remember the incantation of regional vowels (unusual then, though not now) as the poet paced the snow of the bleak cemetery. A spell-binding of so many disparates — class and culture, poetry and popularity, word and image. It was, I remember, a promise and an affirmation.

The British Council’s Literature website describes Tony Harrison as “Britain’s leading film and theatre poet.”

His films using verse narrative include v, about vandalism, broadcast by Channel 4 television in 1987 and winner of a Royal Television Society Award; Black Daisies for the Bride, winner of the Prix Italia in 1994; and The Blasphemers’ Banquet, screened by the BBC in 1989, an attack on censorship inspired by the Salman Rushdie affair. He co-directed A Maybe Day in Kazakhstan for Channel 4 in 1994 and directed, wrote and narrated The Shadow of Hiroshima, screened by Channel 4 in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the first atom bomb. The published text, The Shadow of Hiroshima and Other Film/Poems (1995), won the Heinemann Award in 1996. He wrote and directed his first feature film Prometheus in 1998.