Books: A blaze behind the screen

A Week in Books; Boyd Tonkin Could a poet pack your cinema? Tony Harrison wants to
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The Independent Culture
WITH HIS voice of thunder, Ted Hughes spoke for Deep England. Before him, in the Laureateship lists, the warbling flute of John Betjeman piped up for Middle England (always excepting Slough). Next time, if talent by itself could fix the choice, the job might pass to the greatest living cheerleader for Visionary England - to the rebel bard who occupies the rugged turf where Blake, Milton and Shelley stood.

Of course, it's most improbable that Tony Harrison would ever want to wear any court flunkey's outfit, however loose. Besides, the spin doctors would mark down the mischief-making Yorkshire classicist on every count. To any chaser of suburban votes, he seems both too posh (in terms of prosody and allusion) but too defiantly plebeian as well: a scholar and a scally, all at once.

Yet, watching the premiere of his Prometheus at the London Film Festival earlier this week, it struck me that Harrison's work for screen and stage already amounts to a hugely rich corpus of public verse. In addition to the stunning theatre adaptations that began with The Mysteries for the National, his ten film-poems for television fuse word and image to illumine a vast array of subjects from blasphemy to Alzheimer's, from the hooligan violence of v. to the post-Communist confusion of A Maybe Day in Kazakhstan. No topic, however dry or difficult, can elude his clangorous diction and fiendishly cunning rhymes.

In Prometheus, Harrison has for the first time directed as well as scripted a film. A feature, not a direct TV commission, it now has to find the cinema exposure it deserves before an eventual small-screen outing on Channel 4. Next week, Faber publishes the screenplay (pounds 8.99), with an idea-stacked essay that explains Harrison's long fascination with the myth of the flame-stealer who liberated mankind - which dates from the days when young Tony "learned to dream awake before the coal-fire in our living room".

Setting out from the social and physical wreckage of the forsaken South Yorkshire coalfield, the film - and the nimble octosyllabic couplets of its script - crosses Europe to explore the meaning of the Titan's theft of fire from Zeus. The frame for this voyage, from Hull through bomb-blasted Dresden to pollution-poisoned Romania and Greece, lies in an abandoned cinema. Here, Zeus's supercilious enforcer Hermes (Michael Feast) trades political insults and barbed verses with a wheezing retired pitman (Walter Sparrow). For Harrison, the half-inched benefits of fire imply not just energy and manufacture but - above all - humanity's creative insubordination. As the fag-toting miner chortles to Hermes, "Diso-bloody-bedience got us over/ t'barbed wire fences of Jehovah".

Cloth-capped but silver-tongued, Harrison can transcend the dull duality that forever sets Pop against Posh, Dylan against Keats (subject of a fine Harrison poem about the classroom misery of a "wrong" accent). In his work, the arts of the study and the street clash and wrestle as Parnassus comes to Pontefract - but they never once merge into middlebrow pap. For that reason, Prometheus ought to burn bright in your local multiplex as well as in art-houses. This poet belongs in the Palais, if not in the Palace.