Two anniversaries - one great documentary

A N Wilson exposes the less cuddly side of John Betjeman

We now find ourselves in the middle of the celebrations to mark the centenary of John Betjeman's birth and, as you would expect, the BBC is providing wall-to-wall programming. I'm trying to avoid most of it. It's not that I don't like Betjeman; I do, in small doses. No, it's his fans - a truly soppy and deluded bunch - that I find off-putting. They allow their idol light, but no shade. To them, his many affectations were simply endearing eccentricities, his nostalgia for the past a sign of good taste and right-mindedness, rather than his own insecurity. This is wrong. Betjeman was weird, troubled, snobbish and - let us not forget - a friend and admirer of John Osborne.

Thank heavens, then, for A N Wilson, his latest biographer. Wilson isn't having any of the "nation's teddy bear" nonsense, as he proved in Doubts and Demons: the inner John Betjeman (28 August, Radio 4), a brilliantly distilled version of his new book. Here, the abiding tone was shade; the light, a mere chink.

As a documentary, it was perfect: crammed with anecdotes and plummy voices. These voices mostly belonged to admirers of the poet, so it was not a hatchet job. Somehow, though, the truth still seeped out: as Wilson suggested, Betjeman was layered like an onion. His friends peeled and peeled but, in the end, they only ever knew the person he wanted them to know.

It was wonderful to hear an old recording of the poet's famously strident wife, Penelope, as she talked of their physically tetchy relationship. "We used to kick each other," she said. Once, they kicked each other into their bathroom, catching their guests, Cyril and Jean Connolly, somewhat by surprise (the Connollys were sharing a bath, an image that - if you know what Cyril looked like - lingers horribly in the mind). Great, too, to hear the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire - aka Debo Mitford, the sister-in-law of Betjeman's lover, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish - describing Betjeman's "grubby" trousers. Only a toff could invest the word grubby with such meaning. It made you wince.

Best of all were tales of Betjeman's teddy, Archie, which he took with him wherever he went. A secretary described how she once dared to mention the bear, to be rewarded with a filthy look: for her, an employee, Archie was a taboo subject. Betjeman's producer at the BBC explained that when Archie was "depressed" the production team would have to cheer him up. Archie, by the way, was a strict Baptist with pro-Hitler views. Charming, or creepy? The fans say charming, I say creepy - though this shouldn't change how one feels about the poems.

On Radio 2, another anniversary. A Kind of Magic (26 August) was a tribute to Freddie Mercury, who would have been 60 this month. Oh dear. This was of a different order altogether. Presented by Paul Gambaccini, it promised, in the manner of a cloying Hollywood trailer, a great deal - but delivered almost nothing that you hadn't heard before. First, Liza Minnelli was dished up in her capacity as a "good friend" of the singer. Liza is - how shall I put this? - not exactly known for her great insights into the male psyche. Then Queen's 1975 album, A Night at the Opera, was described as a "work of genius". Oh, Gambo. Please. Calm down.

Don’t miss . . .

Kite Festival, Bristol

Not since Mary Poppins has kiting been so cool. One glance at all the sky-borne geckos, killer whales, mermaids and angels and you'll see why this festival's motto is: "Flying high after twenty years."

This year, highlights will include kite competitions, choreography and a flight by the largest kite in the world. Two arenas host a concoction of kite-related fun, including demonstrations of how to fly a traditional Indian fighter kite and how to knock opponents out of the sky in Japanese kite aerial combat. Who said it was child's play?

At Ashton Court, Bristol from 2-3 September.

Pick of the week

The Reunion
3 September, 11.15am, Radio 4
Those responsible for the 1993 Great Rail Sell-off get together. Why aren't they all in hiding?

Afternoon Play: the Mironov legacy
5 September, 2.15pm, Radio 4
Helen Mirren stars in a play about her grandfather, a Tsarist officer who was exiled to Southend.

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