TELEVISION REVIEW / Back to school for Betjeman and the boys

Jasper Rees
Friday 02 September 1994 23:02 BST

CLASS, you were asked to compose an essay in verse- or drama- or prose-form on somewhere familiar, yet foreign. Thank you for your efforts, which I now return with comments in the margin. Betjeman, you can hand them out, but before you do, just remember that there's no excuse for submitting a piece of work 30 years late.

Still, your verse offering on teatime in Marlborough, one of a series of films you've mislaid and collected as The Lost Betjemans (C4), was of an impeccable standard. You have set a benchmark for travel-writing laced with sweet-and-sour social anthropology that others in this class can only aspire to. Your observations on school life at Marlborough College were a shade uncharitable but, regardless of the sentiment, one couldn't help tapping along to the meter. 'Five years we shivered in exiguous shorts' is one of many beautifully rounded phrases, with an eye-catching melange of Anglo-Saxon and Latinate vocabulary.

Less intriguing was your submission of a rambling introduction explaining exactly how the work was lost and found. You may be a fine writer, but it's not as if you've unearthed a sonnet by Shakespeare here. The Lost Steptoes didn't get this red-carpet treatment. Still, concentrate on the poetry, and you could go far.

Ronald Frame, you too returned to your past in Ghost City (BBC 2), but in the form of a drama. Like Betjeman, you've captured the essential strangeness of a remembered childhood, and the sadness of its irretrievability. 'New money has no memory' - Betjeman could have written that melancholy line. But you do have a tendency to wallow in it a bit, don't you? No wonder you didn't hang around in Glasgow - it's not a place for polite souls who mope about their sense of not belonging.

The most successful sections of your essay about a novelist flying up to his native city to do a promotional tour were those which satirised the media circus that even, or perhaps particularly, authors of slight renown have to put up with. The PR in the Hermes scarf, the smug DJ who interrupts your pensive answers, the inept journalist who can't work her tape recorder, all were neat caricatures of types that you'll have to get used to if you ever take up this writing caper full-time. But if all your novels are this sombre and self-effacing, you won't be winning many prizes.

Last and, in literary value, least, Tom Vernon. Your Fat Man in France (BBC 1) was an enjoyable diversion. You've emphasised the foreign rather than the familiar, and have come up with a picture of Brittany that is, as we've come to expect from you, comfortingly middle- brow. There were rather too many references to your Falstaffian frame for some tastes, but with that figure you're to be commended for staying on a bicycle long enough to can the shots. 'On a bike you can't keep up with the crowd,' you say, but at least you kept up with the crew.

You are slightly more prone to cliche that your classmates. The visit to the Breton trout restaurant you described was somewhat generic, which is a shame because you do have a nose for untrodden pastures. The visit to the ostrich farm was a witty surprise, and your observation of Breton customs was restrained and precise. When you infiltrated the commune which is living in the old Breton way, you might have made more of the fact that one of its members was German and another was brought up in New York. This is a recurring phenomenon: the only people who practise the ancient crafts of the Tuscan peasantry were born within a three-mile radius of Harrods. But the work you submitted was amiable and easy on the eye; do the same prep for next week.

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