THERE is, says John Agard, a poetic germ that infects certain areas of the BBC. "It's a healthy germ, though," he adds swiftly. John is the BBC's poet-in-residence; he has just started in his new post, and is settling in very happily, thank you, though things are "hectic and frenetic". One of his first appearances was a surprise slot on Newsnight two weeks ago. The poem was about numeracy, literacy and ministers getting their sums wrong. "I came on just after Kirsty Wark looked at the papers," he explains. "Then last week, on the panel, they invited Adrian Mitchell to give his views on the situation in Iraq - a poet, and a pacifist! It was very exciting. And they mentioned Siegfried Sassoon in that programme as well. In just two weeks Newsnight had found a real poetic chemistry."

Already prolifically published and a winner of the Paul Hamlyn Award, John now contributes creative ideas to programming - in particular, to the BBC's Windrush season, which will come out in the early summer to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the troopship Windrush, which brought the first post-war settlers from the Caribbean to Britain. But he will also produce new poems that complement existing transmissions. "Poems don't come to order; a chord in the poet must be struck. But if I am inspired by cooking, gardening, science, computers, anything, and I can contribute something, it reaches a wider audience than those people that might switch on an arts programme about poetry. This way poetry can become part of the fabric of life. Ariel may be the mascot of the BBC, but it also needs the voice of Caliban."

One surprising source of inspiration was the death last week of Enoch Powell. John, who came to Britain from Guyana in 1977, was intrigued to discover that Powell himself was a poet, and, in particular, by a line of his that refers to migrant birds as poems. "Those comments that fuelled prejudice were written by a man who wrote poems in his youth. I have read that he was a brilliant man; how could he not take that final step and see migrant humans as poems, too? At this time in the world we are seeing a great need for redemptive gestures on a global level - South Africa, Japan. It is a time for healing of the psyche." To that end John wrote a poem that he hopes "puts Powell into a wider context of human flawedness. The scholar in Powell himself might have read it, had a smile and recognised in himself the need for redemption." Entitled "Professor Enoch Powell", this is how it goes:

In the name of Alpha and Omega

I address you, Professor Enoch Powell.

Shall I forward this to heaven or to hell?

What's immigration like in the afterlife?

Did St Peter hassle you at the pearly gates?

Or Satan question your right to immigrate?

Flash your British passport if you must.

Use another name. Say you're Herodotus.

It must be a supernatural culture-shock,

even for a classical scholar,

to meet angels in turbans and halos of dreadlocks

carousing along eternity's corridors

And clovenfoot men in bowler hats

waving their tridents like Union Jacks.

But since you yourself were not averse to verse,

where paradox blesses, and purity is a curse,

I'll quote, Professor, from your own words:

"The flocks of migrant birds,

They are all poems ... " But alas

your view of migration could only embrace

those feathered immigrants of space -

an example of what happens, Professor,

when intellect's shining mirror

is cracked by a terror of the Other.

But as translator of the New Testament,

Paradise may yet grant you some reprieve,

and again with the classics up your sleeve

Dante's Inferno may prove your element.

Here, on earth, it's nearly spring.

February shimmers with rivers of blood

that still flow in the veins of black and white.

And migrant poems bloom in inner-city light.

I SAT through Titanic unable to take seriously a hero who looked about 12 years old. Others have been bothered by the fourth-funnel-that-isn't-really-a-funnel. For William MacQuitty, the problem lay in the writing. "There were a lot of cliches," he told me last week. William's opinion is worth listening to because he is one of the last people still alive who, as far as films about the Titanic are concerned, has been there and done that and got the water in his boots to prove it.

William, a sprightly 93-year-old, was the producer of the first Titanic film, A Night to Remember, in 1958, and last week he stepped out to his local cinema in south-west London to cast an expert eye over James Cameron's blockbuster. "It's a love story with the Titanic as the background," he said. "In A Night To Remember, the ship is the star. We tried to make it as accurate an account as possible. If you're telling the truth you don't have to make anything up, but if you're making a love story to hit the audience in America and the world, it's quite different. I enjoyed it very much."

William's involvement with the ship goes back to his childhood in Belfast, where it was built. "There was enormous enthusiasm for it. My father would drive me past the boatyard, and I would wonder how such a mountain of metal could get into the sea." Through his father's connections with the local paper, the seven-year-old William was invited to Titanic's launch with his family. "The ship started to move with just a gentle little push, all the ships sounded their sirens - it was most exciting, something one would never forget." Then, 10 days into the ship's maiden voyage, news came of its sinking. "It was a very dramatic moment for the people of Ulster. It sent a great shockwave through them, and through me, too. I realised I was not immortal, and from that day on I used it as my yardstick for living - I have no tomorrows and I put nothing off."

The technological gulf between A Night to Remember (cost: pounds 2m) and Titanic ($280m) is as wide as the Atlantic. "We had no computers," William recalled. "We had to do it all mechanically. We wanted the main set, the middle section of the ship, built at Pinewood studios, so they had to lay an acre of concrete. They used 4,000 tons of steel girders, and built the set at an angle, so by tilting the camera we could film it on the level or at double the angle. We could only build one side of the ship - the other was done by putting a mirror on the camera, so all the writing had to be backwards."

The other sets were put on hydraulic rockers so they could be shaken about as required; but some scenes were truly lo-tech. "We filmed the lifeboat sequence in Ruislip Reservoir. It was only four and a half feet deep, but fortunately the ship went down at night and we were filming in black and white. We had 500 extras, and they all got wet and frozen. We had a drying room on the shore, with very hot blowers."

William, a former head of Ulster Television, now runs his own picture library and has produced 17 books, including William MacQuitty: A Life To Remember, and William MacQuitty: Survival Kit - How To Reach 90 And Make The Most Of It (both published by Quartet, and available to order, he is keen to make known). "Retirement is the worst word in the dictionary. So many of my friends have gone to the green wildernesses, and suddenly the garden is too much for them. They only speak to the milkman and the postman - and then they die."

Cheeky strangers on a train

RICHARD Branson claims he likes a joke, but not, it seems, unless he's the perpetrator. Last week, the police were called when Mark Thomas, frontman of Channel 4's Mark Thomas Comedy Product, together with his producer, Ted Dowd, decided to have a day out at Euston Station. First they covered Virgin trains' nameplates with slogans: 10,000 COMPLAINTS UNANSWERED, 25 PER CENT OF VIRGIN TRAINS LATE, STICK TO BALLOONING, and the like. Then Mark concealed himself in a Virgin train lavatory for the duration of the journey (in itself a heroic act) and, using a walkie-talkie connected to speakers in Ted's bag, broadcast live but alternative Virgin information along the lines of the above throughout the trip. "The staff thought we'd tapped into their tannoy somehow; they couldn't make it out. And the passengers loved it, they were roaring with laughter," says Ted Dowd. On their return to Euston, they were met by a number of policemen, and received a formal written warning for "displaying printed matter" and "disorderly behaviour" (and a portentous warning of the consequences had their light cardboard signs blown off the trains and caused serious injury to an innocent passer- by). No worries, though: a postscript to the warning complimented the show and requested a video copy of last week's episode.

THE TROUBLE with traditional country pubs has always been, of course, that outside rural areas they're thin on the ground. Not any more. "Come and get hammered in a 17th-century way," invites John Willmott of the Quintessential English Pub Company. The Acorn, in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, is, apparently, both 300 years old and brand new. Using traditional timber frames, thatched and tiled, finished with a mix of lime and local sand, its construction mirrors the methods and materials of the century before the century before last. Its location, however, is slap in the middle of a modern housing development, Horeston Grange.

"There are still many traditional English country pubs," explains Willmott, "but they're often tucked miles away, deep in the country. Our aim is to honestly recreate one of the best assets of the English countryside, the country pub, but create them in accessible locations." Quite. The Quintessential Pub Company is already planning to expand: look out for fur- ther examples on roundabouts in the middle of dual carriageways somewhere near you.

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