It's 25 years since the broadcast of Tony Harrison's poem v. on Channel 4 caused a storm of protest regarding its torrent of four-letter words. The Daily Mail, Tory MPs, Mary Whitehouse: the usual mob popped out to express their outrage. The real obscenity, of course, was the occasion that sparked the poem: visiting the cemetery where his parents are buried in Leeds, Harrison found it had been sprayed with the words "fuck" and "cunt", but also, more poetically, "United".
Reading the poem today is to be transported back to the world of the miners' strike, Harp lager, the National Front and the telly shutting down at night. The language which was such an issue is everywhere now, but Harrison's visceral attack on the perpetrators, and the words he gives them in return, still have the power to shock. Summoning up an imaginary skinhead to berate, he writes: "'Listen, cunt,' I said, 'before you start your jeering / the reason why I want this in a book / 's to give ungrateful cunts like you a hearing!" And the reply shoots back: "A book, yer stupid cunt, 's not worth a fuck!"
"If you go into the graveyard where your parents are and it says 'fuck' and 'cunt' all over their graves, you have to take the words on board and think, why are they there? And you're offended. I'm not offended by bad language, but I think: my parents are buried here; it's not appropriate here. It made me angry,' says Tony Harrison, holed away in a quiet corner of the National Theatre. We've met here for convenience but Harrison seems faintly uneasy to be at the scene of so many of his theatrical triumphs. "I don't like being here if I'm not working here," he mutters, looking around. For a literary legend, he is surprisingly low-key.
During what he calls the "brouhaha led by rent-a-howl Tory MPs", he lay low. "I just closed my shutters and waited for it to die down when the storm happened. I'm not the sort of person who reads much about himself."
He was well-known as a dramatist before v., but did the poem make him famous? He pulls a face. "I suppose so, if being denounced on the front page of the Daily Mail is being famous. I don't know, it's not as though I keep a tally of these things."
The man who took the flak was the Chief Executive of Channel 4 at the time, Sir Jeremy Isaacs, who will appear with Harrison at the Chester Literature Festival on 27 October. Isaacs's outrage is still fresh and vivid. "[The language] was not an issue for me," he says firmly, "and I knew from the word go that we wanted to do it, given what we already knew of Tony Harrison's work. We had picked up at least two extraordinary things he'd written. One of them was his version of the mystery plays at the Lyceum; we televised that and were absolutely overjoyed to have it. And the other was Peter Hall's direction of his translation of The Oresteia. I thought that Tony's ability to write verse that would bring these great masterpieces to life and to a bigger audience was a huge achievement and something we could only benefit from associating ourselves with. So when v. came along, there wasn't any question that we would want to do it. And of course, we were very lucky to get [the director] Richard Eyre involved.'
The subsequent denunciation came as no surprise to Isaacs. "Not at all, because the moment C4 started, we caused a bit of a fuss. Not with the nation and not with the preponderance of critical or journalistic output, but always with the same blinkered, ignorant chaps who reacted to anything they could think of as obscene as the bull does to a red rag. They had been battering at us from the very day we started."
Does he relish a good battle? "Aaaaah … I got used to it," Isaacs laughs. "I was rather frightened at the start of my time in telly, but after a time we learnt that if you say beforehand, 'the following programme contains images or language you may be offended by', all it meant was that somebody went to the bottom of the stairs and called, 'Granny, come down! There's something interesting on!' Because there was this terrible blandness about television in those days.'
Both Harrison and Issacs concede that the only effect of the row was to "double, treble, quadruple" the audience for the poem and the film, which went on to win a prestigious prize. The Independent ran the poem in full on its news pages, with an introduction by Blake Morrison, for which Harrison remains eternally grateful. "I think poems belong as much in the news pages as the literary pages. A lot of people throw aside the literary pages! Whereas everybody looks at the news section," he says with a mischievous grin.
He last went back to the Leeds cemetery about five years ago, he says. I remind him that he wrote in v.: "I tell myself I've got, say, 30 years. / At 75 this place will suit me fine." "And I am 75," he nods. When I say that he doesn't seem ready to take his place in the ground yet, he says: "I'm not! I'm not!" He has new knees, which recently enabled him to tramp up and down the steep steps of the auditorium at Delphi; and a comment on the Laureateship brings out the old fire. "I don't like sherry," he says, referring to the "butt of sack" payment, "but I wouldn't do it even if you got paid in champagne. Would I fuck!"
"[Tony]'s a great man. It was an honour to work with him and part of the bliss of making television programmes is of choosing collaborators like him," says Isaacs, adding forthrightly: "We can't let the must-nots dictate to us what we have on the television screen." That remains the noble lesson of v.
Tony Harrison and Sir Jeremy Isaacs will be in conversation at the Chester Literature Festival on 27 October at 7.30pm. For more information see: chesterliteraturefestival.co.uk
Extract from 'v.' in Tony Harrison: Selected Poems
'The language of this graveyard ranges from
a bit of Latin for a former Mayor
or those who laid their lives down at the Somme,
the hymnal fragments and the gilded prayer,
how people 'fell asleep in the Good Lord',
brief, chisellable bits from the good book
and rhymes whatever length they could afford,
to CUNT, PISS, SHIT and (mostly) FUCK!'