Books: Lights, camera ... alliteration

Is it possible to merge poetry and film? John Tague goes to the Dome to find out
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P utting poetry and film together has always been a dangerous enterprise. Marrying the two forms has been fraught with risk, mainly because in the unforgiving realist light of movies, the rhythms and cadences of poetry come over as simply silly. But the latest project between poet Simon Armitage and Brian Hill, one of the UK's leading documentary film- makers, threatens to undermine this assumption.

Killing Time, the third in their continuing series of collaborations, to be screened on Channel 4 on New Year's Day, is about as ambitious and innovative a project as you can get. A meditation on the millennium, it stars Christopher Ecclestone and Hermione Norris (from Cold Feet), and is an intriguing mixture of poetry, documentary, animation and occasional improvisation. There are also substantial cameos from Keith Allen and the indefatigable Jon Snow, who delivers regular news bulletins in verse that take the psychic temperature of the country as it trembles on the verge of the next 1,000 years.

Armitage, in his collection All Points North, voiced some serious reservations about the often unhappy encounter of movies and poetry. "Far and away the worst flicks," he wrote "are the ones that dabble in poetry, with poetry `cast' in the same way an actor is, usually in a serious or sensitive role ... Add to this most actors' apparent mission in life to murder poetry by performing it when it only need be said, and the picture is a bleak one." His enthusiasm for working with Hill, then, might seem something of a contradiction in terms, but the record of their past projects illustrates that their approach to putting poetry on film bears little comparison with the doomed "poetic" attempts of the film industry.

"We first worked together," explains Hill, "on a film I did called Saturday Night, which was about a Saturday night out in Leeds. After I'd cut the film I thought something was missing, that it needed another voice, something like a voice of the city, and that needed to be a poetic voice. So I decided the voiceover should be poetry. I'd seen a film Simon had done about the Ashfield estate in Rochdale, which was where I grew up, so I got in touch with him and what he did worked incredibly well."

That first project involved Armitage writing and reading a commentary on the finished film. Its success inspired the two to work together again on another of Hill's documentaries, last year's Drinking For England (BBC2). A profile of several alcoholics, it wove the poetry more tightly into the fabric than in the previous film. Overturning the traditional sober verite documentary style, each of the subjects delivered a poem or song written for them by Armitage which went some way to commenting on their attitude to their alcoholism. A genuinely extraordinary and original piece of work, Drinking for England deservedly won the Best Documentary Award 1998 from the Royal Television Society.

With Killing Time the two have gone even further and created a full- blown poetic narrative adapted from the 1,000-line poem Armitage has written to mark the millennium. The poem started life as a commission from the Poetry Society and ENMEC, the company behind the Dome. After he had written just 100 lines, Channel 4 took up the chance to commission it as a film. It illustrates how Hill's and Armitage's collaborations have moved the poetry from the relatively marginal role of voiceover to the very centre. "If you look at our past work, you could say we've done this one arse about face," laughs Armitage. "There's been an interesting progression. In Saturday Night the film was shot before I wrote the poetry. With Drinking For England I had to write the pieces in the middle of filming. Now, with Killing Time, we're trying to wind the film around the poem." The filming of Killing Time has brought the whole cast and crew to a chilly rendezvous on a Saturday night on a disused piece of land in London's Docklands. Just across the river from where they prepare to shoot the film's climactic scene, the Dome itself looms massively in the moonlight. A huge bonfire is ignited as they get underway. Ecclestone and Norris toss various unlikely objects into the fire, while many of the people who have featured in the film press forward and offer their own sacrifices to the flames.

The slim narrative around which the film is structured sees Ecclestone as the "millennium man", travelling across the country, collecting diverse items that the (real) people he meets have decided to give up. Along the way he meets Hermione Norris, and the two join forces to continue the journey, a device which allows both the documentary and dramatic elements to co-exist comfortably. It is this strong documentary element that really sets the film apart from other works which have put poetry together with moving pictures, most recently Tony Harrison's Prometheus and his other filmed projects - including V, Black Daisies for the Bride and The Blasphemers' Banquet.

"Both Simon and I decided pretty early on that 1,000 lines of verse would be too much to take, in 60 minutes," says Hill. "People would just switch off. So we came up with the idea of mixing documentary and drama together - although this isn't docu-drama as it's traditionally understood. It's a pretty unique departure in film-making." The film's subjects include a former IRA man who has renounced violence, a terminal cancer patient, a man about to enter the priesthood and a heavily pregnant woman.

"We've been playing with documentary and drama aspects in our past work, and wanted to take that even further," explains Armitage. "In Killing Time some of the edges which divide the two have been blunted. At times it's hard to distinguish one from the other, and that excites me very much." Despite the crowd milling around the bonfire and the large outdoor set, there are no assistant directors enforcing control by shouting into loud-hailers. The budget for the whole 60 minutes has been very, very tight, and hasn't even stretched to wardrobe for the actors. There are few retakes. But the set vibrates with the buzz of people who know they are contributing to something genuinely new and exciting. "This is one of two of the best jobs I've ever worked on," enthuses Ecclestone. "Me and Brian share a sensibility, and we've really hit it off. Although delivering the poetry has been the difficult part for me, the whole has been very collaborative. Whenever bits of the drama strand haven't worked, we've altered it. It's been a riot. Hopefully that will feed into the piece."

Hill cut his teeth making the original docu-soap Sylvania Waters before moving on to make such notable films as The Club, a merciless exposure of the petty snobberies of a suburban golf club, and The State of Marriage, a profile of couples who shared their wedding day with Charles and Diana. Killing Time has been a rude introduction to working with actors. "The whole experience has been terrifying," he confesses. "I've lived in a state of panic for the past four months because as a film it's so unusual. But fortunately the actors have engaged with it a lot. Much more than I thought. They've been very helpful and supportive. I told them I had no experience with drama before and that I might make mistakes, and that seemed to disarm them."

The poetry itself, a characteristic Armitage mix of streetwise, contemporary references and subtler poetic allusions, is certainly among the best he's written. Unlike the oversized, over-budgeted Dome squatting awkwardly in the twilight across the Thames, Killing Time might be one of the few projects that justifies the whole mediated super-fuss about the millennium. Ecclestone is very excited about it. "The variety in the film is fantastic. It's like a snapshot of the UK, full of different people." Even Armitage himself enthuses a little. "I don't know if you're allowed to be excited by your own writing," he smiles, "but this has pulled something out of me. I feel like I've taken on a public role. It's been very exciting to see that evolve."

`Killing Time', the poem, is published by Faber on 6 December; the film will be shown on C4 on New Year's Day

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