Saturday, June 29, 2013

Metroland is the best listen in the history of television

Good news. Metroland, John Betjeman's 1973 film about the creation of London's north-western suburbs in the early part of the 20th century, is on the iPlayer.

When it first appeared Clive James predicted it would be repeated until the millennium. Miles Kington wrote to the producer and said it was "the most satisfying TV programme, on all levels, that I've ever seen". (These are both from its very good Wikipedia page.)

I watched it again last night and I think Miles Kington was right. It's remarkable what it gets from a combination of archive footage of the railways, commercial artists' illustrations of the suburban dream, old estate agents' adverts and shots of Betjeman wandering about, looking at contemporary suburbia and, very occasionally, addressing the camera.

In the end it's his script, intoned in a style unsuccessfully imitated scores of times since, which makes Metroland the best listen in the history of TV. That's what you get with a poet. Betjeman says "Hertfordshire" without the T. Instead of "golf" he says "gowf". As the camera looks up at the grandeur of the Victorian villas of St John's Wood his voice, down below, points out they were often used to house the mistresses of city men and wonders "what Puritan arms have stretched within these rooms to touch what tender breasts?" Another house belonged to a prominent clergyman "whose congregation declared him to be Christ, a compliment he accepted".

I'm going to listen to it again.


  1. Love Metroland. Betjeman manages to eke the exotic out of suburbia. I watch it every couple of years on DVD still.

    I first saw it on the BBC thirty odd year ago. It is the sort of programme that was used to plug odd periods between programmes.

    More of his 'stuff' is now available on DVD too.

  2. I watched it twice on the bounce. It *is* perfect - the economy of Betjeman's language and sculptured sentences. He's plainly enjoying presenting and relaying the tails. And what a snapshot of seventies England, The Neasden Nature trail is pure Python, the jobsworth capped security man, and Sunday morning men mowing lawns in mustard polo necks.

    A fave phrase 'Over the points by electrical traction,out of the chimneypots, into the openness' rendered with the rhythm of the train...

    You know you can catch a transcript here