When a film version of Tony Harrison’s epic poem, V, was scheduled to be screened by Channel 4 in October 1987, it provoked a furore in both the press and parliament. Harrison’s poem, which described a visit to his parents’ vandalised grave in Leeds, was originally published in the London Review of Books, and made reference to the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike which was ongoing during the period it was written.
By this time, Harrison had long been a major poet and playwright of international repute. His verse adaptation of Aeschylus’ Greek trilogy, The Oresteia, directed by Peter Hall at the National Theatre with a score by Harrison Birtwistle, had also been screened by Channel 4. As too had Harrison’s adaptation of The Mysteries, also seen at the National Theatre in a production by Bill Bryden that cast Brian Glover as a Yorkshire-accented God in a fork-lift truck. It was V, however, that put Harrison on the front page of the tabloids.
“I first saw V when I was a student in Newcastle,” says David McLachlan, curator of The Tony Harrison Season, a four-part programme of Harrison’s film-poems presented over the next few weeks at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh. “It was that time when you could still get things like that on mainstream television, and it had a huge impact on me.”
McLachlan wasn’t the only one. Such was the hostility towards Richard Eyre’s film of V, that a small group of Conservative Westminster MPs put an early day motion to the House of Commons titled Television Obscenity. The only MP to oppose the motion was the Labour member for Paisley South, Norman Buchan, who suggested that those condemning the poem had either failed to read it or if they had then hadn’t understood it.
Screened in partnership with Filmhouse and the Scottish Poetry Library, The Tony Harrison Season opens with a live appearance by the now 81-year-old writer in conversation with director Peter Symes, who worked on eight films with Harrison.
“It’s been fascinating going back to the films, if slightly nerve-wracking,” says Symes. “In television now you’re told everything in the first two minutes, to the extent sometimes that there’s no need to watch what follows. The film-poems weren’t like that.”
The idea of film-poems as a genre had been explored by Harrison and Symes the same year as V appeared by way of a series of four films for a programme called Loving Memory.
“It was an accident how we started working together,” says Symes. “We realised we needed someone to bring things together and give our films coherence, and my researcher had seen a programme called Arctic Paradise which had been part of The World About us on BBC 2, in which Tony had done a commentary in verse. I phoned him up to ask if he was interested, and he said he would do it on two conditions. The first was that he wanted to very involved in the whole process. The second was that the whole thing should be done in verse.”
Despite initial reservations, Symes convinced the powers-that-be to take on Harrison’s requests.
“We went for it,” says Symes, and that started a whole journey of exploration and experimentation with form.”
Symes would go on to collaborate with Harrison on several more film-poems, including The Blasphemer’s Banquet in 1989 and The Gaze of the Gorgon in 1992. Their most recent film, Metamorpheus, appeared in 2000.
“Tony had a room next to the cutting room,” says Symes, “and that enabled us to merge his writing with our images. He would change things in response to what we did, and we would change something in response to his words. He was enormously generous in that way, and was happy to explore things and throw stuff away, and we worked out a system that worked for both of us.”
This should be made evident by each of the four themed programmes that make up The Tony Harrison Season. Greek Tales features Metamorpheus, A Maybe Day in Kazakhstan, made in 1994, and The Gaze of the Gorgon. V forms the centrepiece of the second programme, that comes under the State of the Nation banner. It features a 2002 edition of The South Bank Show that focuses on the 1936 film, Night Mail, for which WH Auden penned a poem about the overnight mail train service from London to Scotland. This is juxtaposed with Crossings, Harrison’s response to mark the service’s closure, alongside an interview with Harrison.
The third programme, Lives and Memories, features the 1995 film, The Shadow of Hiroshima, as well as Black Daisies for the Bride, a moving meditation on Alzheimer’s first seen in 1993. Finally, a screening of Harrison’s epic 1998 version of Prometheus will close the season. Directed by Harrison himself, Prometheus opens in a post-Miners’ Strike Yorkshire wasteland, and uses the Greek myth as a metaphor for the destruction of the British working class.
Curiously, only V has been shown a second time on television since its original broadcast, when it was screened as part of Channel 4’s 25th anniversary in 2007. Given the social and political significance of Harrison’s film-poems as much as as their artistic worth, that such a major body of work has all but disappeared from view is both a major loss and cause for concern which The Tony Harrison Season aims to address.
“These are truly unique pieces of work,” says McLachlan. “They were hugely collaborative things, and there’s a complete parity between film and verse in the way they’re made. Coming from the man who is perhaps the greatest living poet in the English language, that makes these films very special. I’m not sure they’ve been airbrushed out, but TV has changed so much, and they’ve fallen by the wayside. It would be great if we could develop this season into a touring programme, and also if the British Film Institute could pick up on it and try and put out a box set so they have a wider reach.”
While McLachlan and Colin Waters of the Scottish Poetry Library are working to try and screen Harrison and Symes’ Loving Memory films at some point in the future, the BBC have declined access to the pair’s 1989 film, The Blasphemers’ Banquet. Written and produced as a passionate defence of novelist Salman Rushdie following the attack on his novel The Satanic Verses, even after almost thirty years, it seems, Harrison and Symes’ film-poem remains too contentious to be seen.
“The films are still hugely relevant,” says McLachlan, “We need Tony Harrison now more than ever.”
The Tony Harrison Season runs at Filmhouse, Edinburgh. An Evening with Tony Harrison, November 19; Tony Harrison Shorts: Greek Tales, November 20, State of the Nation, November 26, Lives and Memories, November 29; Prometheus, December 3.
The Herald, November 13th 2018