English File: Poetry Backpack: William Blake. BBC2 daytime educational program for television. Broadcast Friday, 23 May 1997.
Poetry Backpack is another daytime educational strand, made for older schoolchildren. Television rarely makes me very angry: this managed it. It was supposed to be a bright, punchy, accessible, undemanding yet invigorating romp around William Blake. He was, we were told a difficult poet, but worth it. We were told this by Nigel Planer, the actor who was the hippie in The Young Ones—an inspired choice of interlocutor[e] for a metaphysical poet. Blake is rather a good poet for young teenagers. He also could be good television. This was frightful. Beyond parody or invective.
Where Blake is mystical and imaginative, this treatment was remedially literal and as unimaginative as bathroom scales. Imagine making the illustrations for Songs of Innocence and Experience come alive for young minds by explaining the technical process of etching. They did. It’s like trying to explain Newsnight by taking the back off your television. And then there was some woman who was called a poet but who could easily have been the understudy for the naughty yellow cow lady. She helpfully pointed out that Blake’s special magic was all in the words, and in particular, how the words were arranged. And some people thought the rose that wasn’t feeling too well might be suffering[e] from wormy sex, but it didn’t have to be: it could be anything you liked. And then Nigel got on a Tube train and[e] looked at the stripy seat, gave us a knowing look and made the vast metaphorical leap to a Tyger. Geddit? Give me strength. What an immortal eye.
It wasn’t just that it was bad television, failing all three Es—there’s tons of lousy television. What is maddening is when lazy, dumb, patronizing programs go and stamp all over another medium of culture. Poety is the greatest prize for bothering to learn English, and Blake is one of English poetry’s supreme pleasures. God, I pitied the poor English teachers who will have to resurrect some interest in him after this travesty. The box is continually accused of being moronic. It isn’t. But when education programs actively de-educate, it’s difficult to defend. I ardently hope an invisible worm finds the heart of everyone guilty of this terrible pile.
[Reprinted by permission for The Sunday Times, London, Television and Radio, Sec. 11, p. 31]