Breathing life into dead poets

Melvyn Bragg may deprive ITV of its reputation as the stupid channel

<strong>The South Bank Show</

Difficulty became the unexpected theme of an excellent opening on 18 February to the umpteenth series of The South Bank Show (Sundays, 11.10pm). John Mapplebeck's documentary on W H Auden was a rebuke to the BBC for having gone overboard last year on John Betjeman's centenary while giving Auden's a wide berth. It was also an explanation of why it was safer to ignore him.

He was not, said his half-hearted defender and fellow Yorkshireman Alan Bennett, a cosy or attractive person: he was untidy, probably smelly, shambolic. "He was a bully, was Auden, all his life," Bennett said, and also a serial betrayer. The firebrand who supported the Spanish socialists fled Britain on declaration of war in 1939. It was, pointed out Melvyn Bragg, a betrayal not merely of his country, but of his countryside. Bragg had opened the film on Hadrian's Wall, quoting Auden's long "New Year Letter" (1940). "Those limestone moors that stretch from Brough/ To Hexham and the Roman Wall,/There is my symbol of us all". It was written from New York.

If the intelligentsia could forgive his failure of patriotism (and they did: he returned to Oxford as a celebrity don in the late Fifties) they could not forgive his later work - the "silly verbose stew", as Philip Larkin called "The Age of Anxiety". At some level, Andrew Motion suggested, the British could not accept his homosexuality, either. Even his face was awkward. Then there was the poetry itself.

"I am lazy," said Bennett, admitting that he could not pick up a volume of Auden and enjoy it as he could Larkin. "You have got to really concentrate on it to find out what it means . . . I don't get as much pleasure out of Auden as I do Larkin or Betjeman. But," he added fatally, "he probably has more clout, and not just because one does not always understand him."

"Why then?" asked Bragg, reminding me of how good that other Bragg is, the forensic interrogator who conducts In Our Time on Radio 4, in contrast to his Sunday-night persona. "Oh, Melvyn," chided Bennett, "I don't know." After a bit of bluster he concluded that it was the difficulty that made the difference.

The South Bank Show is a popularising programme and is not prone to admitting that the artists it celebrates are hard work. In consequence, we saw the funeral from Four Weddings where "Stop all the clocks . . ." is read. At the National Railway Museum in York, children recited Auden karaoke-style in front of TV screens showing Night Mail. After 9/11, we were reminded, Auden's "September 1, 1939" became "the mourning song of New York", not least for these words: "I and the public know/ What all schoolchildren learn,/ Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return."

Yet here came more difficulty, for Auden later removed this crowd-pleaser from his official oeuvre. In a splendid, smoke-filled clip from a 1973 edition of Richard Crossman's chat show Crosstalk, the former NS editor upbraided him for censoring its punchline: "We must love one another or die." "The rhetoric is too high-flown," Auden replied, pleading that he had been too much influenced by Yeats. "To say we must love one another or die is untrue. We must love each other and die."

By now the programme had moved from getting us to join the Auden branch of the Dead Poets Society to intellectual engagement with him. I began to feel cerebral excitement, an emotion not often associated with ITV1. I like to think that Bragg's new boss, Michael Grade, was cheering his old pal for making a show that not only confronted difficulty but was at times difficult itself. At one point, Bragg seemed to forget whom he was broadcasting to. "Who can see any footage of any of the century's monumental inhumanities," he wondered rhetorically, "without almost hearing as a soundtrack, as it were, his 'Musée des Beaux Arts'?" (The names Ant and Dec sprang to mind.) But if TSBS, which I often complain looks old-fashioned and complacent, can do programmes like this, it truly deserves an earlier time slot and repeats on ITV3 or 4. It might even deprive ITV of its reputation as the stupid channel.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Pick of the week

25 February, 9pm, BBC1
Tony Marchant's saga about brain damage. David Tennant stars.

Confessions of a Diary Secretary
28 February, 9pm, ITV1
The Prezza affair, and, incredibly, it's not just played for laughs.

28 February, 9pm, Channel 5
Eddie Izzard plays a sozzled chef in this week's third superior drama.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.