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The Independent Culture
"I want to do everything I can to close the gap between his life and mine," said the poet Andrew Motion at the beginning of The Last Journey of John Keats (BBC1). Within reason, naturally. He obviously isn't going to contract TB, and I assume that he's prepared to sell rather more books than his subject did. But the prospect of a sea voyage to Naples, following the route of Keats's passage to Italy, was far less problematic for the poet's biographer. There was a nice scene early in the programme, when the boat pulled out of St Katherine's Dock (from which Keats himself departed) and you could see Motion's family lined up on the quayside, his children waving madly and his wife giving a wry tilt of the head, as much as to say "How did you wangle this, you crafty bugger?". The image came to mind again a little later when Motion was describing Keats's anguish over Fanny Brawne, his knowledge that he couldn't live without her, and the contrasting terror that "domestic life would drive the writing out of him".

Some sort of intuitive sympathy between a writer and his subject is essential, but this film intriguingly brought home the element of need in any account of a great life (the desire to close the gap may mean making Keats more like the biographer, rather than the other way round), and the difficulty there will always be in telling the difference between an inspired invention and the discovery of real biographical gold.

Clambering into his claustrophobic boxed-in bunk, similar to the one Keats would have occupied, Motion speculated on the poet's state of mind: "He simply must have felt that he was already in his coffin." Must he? Not necessarily, though the apprehension was artistically persuasive, a compelling detail in Motion's writing of the final voyage. Later on, the sea trip paid another dividend, after Motion got the blues in the Bay of Biscay and delivered a slightly rattled monologue about the ocean, its intimation of vacancy and nothingness. But again you didn't know whether you were looking at a rediscovered psychology or simply a revealed one - was Motion putting himself into Keats's shoes?

Keats stepped ashore in Naples on the morning of his 25th birthday, fully laden with thoughts of mortality, and the sadness of that ending pervaded Omnibus's film. As an elegy it worked well enough for you to forgive some memorably embarrassing directorial conceits - a Poets' Picnic in which several hapless writers had been persuaded to sit in the grass and talk about Keats (Wendy Cope and Simon Armitage, among others, had given up a day merely to appear nodding their heads and going "Mmm") and a priceless scene in which the actor Michael Maloney interrogated Motion about Keats's appearance in order to inform his reading of the poems. "Ardent eyes!" he said excitedly. "Have to work on that." The result was to make him read out the poems as if he was advertising cough syrup; he used that maddening reverential tone in which the voice cradles the poem as if it is a precious object, the purpose of which has been lost in the mists of time. Less time spent wondering in which direction Keats stroked his foot and more time spent on the text would have helped considerably.

There were also a few too many gimmicks in the Horizon (BBC2) programme about lying, in particular a court-room structure in which successive interviewees were called to the dock, and a taste for spurious menace, invoked by growling subterranean synthesizers and shuddering strings. These had an associative connection with the subject under discussion - theories about the evolution of lying and recent developments in lie- detection technology - but no explanatory purpose whatever. Another example, perhaps, of the increasing precedence that appearance takes over meaning.

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