Keats anniversary inspires BBC to stage day of poetry

Romantic revival: Media's literary feast overshadowed by fears that poet's 'neglected' London home may be forced to close

A thing of beauty is a joy forever, and will be so several times a day on the BBC as the corporation aims to replace the nation's embrace of Jane Austen with a passion for John Keats.

As the dramatisation of Pride and Prejudice draws to a close, the corporation is to mount a bi-media celebration marking the 200th anniversary of the Romantic poet's birth next Tuesday.

Keats will be the first poet ever to have his work read at regular intervals throughout the day on BBC Radio. In addition there will be an Omnibus special, a dramatisation of one of his poems and other programmes. The BBC will even put a John Keats research site on the Internet.

James Runcie, who is directing the Omnibus special, said of the Keats season: "This really is public service broadcasting in its best traditional sense.

"We all tend to think that because we have studied Keats at school we put him in a trunk and think we've done that. But people are reading Keats for the first time every day."

However, the celebration of the poet on radio and television could coincide with the closure of Keats's house to the public.

The house in Hampstead, north London, needs pounds 250,000 of work. Its curator said yesterday that the state of the roof meant it could not survive a bad winter, and if work was not carried out, it might have to close.

Keats' biographer, Andrew Motion, said that the financial neglect of the house was a national scandal. "It is the only place you can go and hear him breathing. He is fascinatingly and vividly there. It is disgraceful that it is in this state. Can you imagine this in any other country?"

Christina Gee, who runs the house in Keats Grove, said that Camden council had been negotiating for 18 months to transfer the funding of the building to the City of London and no money could be spent on it while these negotiations were progressing.

"There has been no work done on the house for eight years," she said. "It needs a new roof. I'm not certain we would stand a bad winter. If there was danger to any of the manuscripts, books, letters or furniture on show we would have to protect them and close. It is a shrine to Keats and it is our duty to protect those things."

Because the house is the subject of negotiation between two councils, neither has applied for Lottery funds which could have easily covered the cost of renovation. Meanwhile, in the Omnibus programme next Sunday, Andrew Motion retraces the poet's last journey to Italy. A number of radio programmes include a dramatisation of his poem The Eve Of St Agnes on Radio 4, starring Michael Maloney as Keats, and, most notably, readings of six of the odes next Tuesday throughout the day on Radio 4.

A BBC spokeswoman said that the odes had been chosen to suit the moods of the programmes that followed, adding curiously, that the Ode to Indolence was on long wave only as it was not felt appropriate in tone to precede a news bulletin on FM.

Keats: Ten key facts

1. Keats was a certified apothecary and studied at Guy's Hospital, but turned to poetry after being sickened by primitive surgical methods.

2. The restaurant in Guy's Hospital, until recently named in Keats' honour, has recently reopened as a McDonalds.

3. Keats was the only author to feature twice in the recent Top Ten Poems survey organised by the BBC. The Ode to a Nightingale came ninth, and To Autumn was straight in at number six.

4. For pounds 489 Keats fans can spend three nights in his former house, now in the care

of the Landmark Trust, in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome.

5. Keats died aged 25, four months after his engagement to Fanny Brawne. Her love letters to the poet were buried with him in Rome.

6. Despite writing to his brother in 1817, "I think I shall be among the English poets after my death," Keats came to doubt that his short life would be long remembered. His own epitaph reads: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water.''

7. His frequent sore throats led doctors to diagnose syphilis. He attempted to combat the symptoms by taking mercury.

8. Keats' own diagnoses were more certain. He recognised soon after contracting TB that the blood he was coughing up was arterial, and gave the grim verdict: "That drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die".

9. The Spin Doctors' Chris Barron gains much of his inspiration by repeatedly listening to tape-recordings of Keats' poems.

10. A deeper insight into Keats' life can be gained at the British Library's exhibition, which runs until 28 January.

Compiled by Ben Summers

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