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

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
booksPhotographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years - but he says it wasn’t all fun and games...
News
i100
Sport
Aguero - who single-handedly has kept City's Champions League dreams alive - celebrates his dramatic late winner
footballManchester City 3 Bayern Munich 2: Argentine's late hat-rick sees home side snatch vital victory
News
Muhammad Ali pictured in better health in 2006
peopleBut he has enjoyed publicity from his alleged near-death experience
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
News
news
News
peopleSinger tells The Independent what life is like in rehab in an exclusive video interview
News
The assumption that women are not as competent in leadership positions as men are leads to increased stress in the workplace
science... and it's down to gender stereotypes
Arts and Entertainment
Inner sanctum: Tove Jansson and friends in her studio in 1992
booksWhat was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Singer songwriter Bob Dylan performs on stage
films
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel your sales role is l...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Guru Careers: PR Account Manager / PR AM

£28 - 34k: Guru Careers: An ambitious PR Account Manager is needed to join a c...

Guru Careers: Web Content Editor / Web Editor

£35 - 45k: Guru Careers: A Web Content Editor / Web Editor is needed to join a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital