Bringing poetry back to the heart of Britain's rich cultural heritage

A new BBC2 show aims to revive the magic of verse for a new generation, says Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

Daisy Goodwin is late for this interview but, as you might expect from such a determined power player in the British television industry, she has been held up by nothing short of a diplomatic incident with a global superpower; she has been knocked off her bicycle by a driver from the Chinese embassy. The police have been called and everything.

When she arrives at Silver River, the independent production company she runs from offices behind London's Tottenham Court Road, she is resplendent in a bright pink outfit and remarkably unflustered. She later explains that, as a motorist as well as a cyclist, she empathises with the plight of the Chinese official. "When you are on a bike you think one thing, when you are in a car you think another," she says, all very stiff upper lip. "We are all fallible, I'm terribly fallible. I might have been crosser had he broken my leg."

Goodwin is anxious to talk poetry, of which she has established herself as something of a patron. She has made a series for BBC2, Off By Heart, which is central to a BBC poetry season that will also include Simon Schama bemoaning the lack of recognition for John Donne, and Armando Iannucci celebrating the work of Milton.

Off By Heart is an attempt to revive poetry recital by children, a tradition largely abandoned in schools, where learning by rote has become unfashionable. "It's reviving something," says Goodwin of her documentary. "There was a time when kids would have their parlour piece, stand up on the dining room table and recite (Marriott Edgar's) "The Lion and Albert". I think there's a lot to be said for that; get kids to see reciting a poem with a sense of achievement. I'd rather see a child reciting a poem than pretend to be Britney Spears and maybe there will be children reciting poetry on Britain's Got Talent one day."

The programme features children aged between seven and 11 and is set in the intimidating baroque surroundings of the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford ("this incredible building full of these tiny children", as Goodwin puts it). She is delighted by her range of finalists, chosen by their schools and winners of heats staged around the country. "The most surprising thing about the finalists – I hate to say the word diverse because it's such a horribly PC word – was what an interesting slice they represent of modern Britain," she says, pointing out that two of the 12 children have Iranian parentage and another is a Welsh speaker. "Sometimes you look at a line-up like that and think 'Oh, that's a TV producer casting' but actually this is entirely the product of the different heats."

As a format for television, Off By Heart appears to draw in part from films and programmes based on literacy competitions, such as Spelling Bee. Goodwin draws a distinction. "Spelling Bee was about feats of memory, in this they are also marked on artistic expression, interpretation and understanding. Poetry is another discipline."

The 12 finalists were all required to learn John Masefield's poem "Sea Fever". "A rollicking rhythmic poem with lots of wonderful images – every child gave a different interpretation," says Goodwin. They were also given coaching in their delivery by Patsy Rodenburg, head of voice at the National Theatre in London.

The winner was chosen by a panel of judges that included the author Philip Pullman, the poet Benjamin Zephaniah and Dawn Postans, from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Goodwin admits they were not best pleased at being chivvied along for the purposes of telly. "They had a really hard time judging it and were all furious with me for not giving them more time. We had to balance keeping the kids engaged and giving the judges time to do it." Nonetheless, the winner was a unanimous choice.

Goodwin has previously edited anthologies of poetry and made shows such as Essential Poems (To Fall in Love With) for BBC2. She claims a great deal for poetry, noting that Terry Waite's powers of memory helped him to survive his long months of incarceration. "If any of [the poetry finalists] get kidnapped it could be really useful in their prison cell," she says, rather dramatically. "Memorising stuff is good for your brain, it just is. It became very unfashionable a few decades ago but rote learning has a lot to be said for it."

It is also more relevant to modern life than some might think, she posits. "Think of a medium like Twitter, it's all about how much you can say in 140 characters. That's what poetry is about, packing the most meaning into the smallest number of words. New technology means you need to be concise and that's what poetry teaches you to do. Advertising slogans are about employing the same skills as poetry."

Goodwin's own love of poetry began as a girl growing up in the New Forest, reciting to her grandmother stanzas of Thomas Macaulay's "Horatius at the Bridge". As a "very romantic teenager" she progressed to "masochistic love poems like Yeats". She wishes there were more such romantic teenagers now. "When I was growing up everybody knew some Larkin, some Betjeman, some Tennyson. I just don't know that they do anymore, even in my office which is full of bright young things who study English."

At least those bright young things are helping her to make television shows, such as I'm Running Sainsbury's for Channel 4, taking "shelf-stackers and check-out girls and giving them the chance to show what they can do". The format was signed off by Justin King, the Sainsbury's chief executive. "He's savvy and I was amazed at how much time he spends going to every store," says Goodwin. "I do think that Sainsbury's has a really interesting attitude towards finding talent in its own organisation. The big businesses are as much an engine for social mobility as anything else in this country."

If she could get poetry on the supermarket shelves, she would. "Poetry is something we turn to in times of trouble, but we don't necessarily have it in our everyday lives enough. If kids are saying poetry can be enjoyable you have a chance of making it mainstream rather than a minority thing, and I'll get in trouble for saying this, as popular as morris dancing," she says

"Poetry needs champions to ensure it's still part of the nation's cultural heritage in a generation's time because at the present time I think that's unlikely. It's something I'm passionate about because poetry is one thing that this country does really well."

Off By Heart is part of the BBC's Poetry Season and will be broadcast on Friday 22 May at 9pm on BBC2