Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Melvyn Bragg's Travels in Written Britain

A new series by Melvyn Bragg is always a TV treat here at Cuthbertson Acres. On Sunday night on ITV1 we watched the first episode of Travels in Written Britain in which Melvyn guided us around God's Own Country (the North of England, of course) to the acompaniment of readings from writers inspired by the landscapes, from the Venerable Bede to Catherine Cookson in the Northeast by way of Wordsworth and Coleridge in the Lake District and W. H. Auden in the North Pennines. Oh and Daniel Defoe, who disliked the countryside, as did most people of his time, apparently.

But it wasn't all Eng. Lit. Lord Bragg, himself a native of Cumbria, showed us that Britain also belongs to the ordinary people who have shaped our landscape - farmers, miners, fishermen, workers in factories, shipyards and quarries, mothers, wives and children: people who rarely wrote anything down but whose voices can still be heard in ballads and folk songs as well as in books written by reformers who wanted to improve the often appalling working conditions of the poor.

The programme features the earliest known writing by a woman in Latin: the closing salutation and signature in the famous birthday invitation found at the Roman fort of Vindolanda near Hadrian's Wall. The writer was Claudia Severa, the wife of a Roman army officer and you can tell her untidy hand at the bottom of the second leaf below from the more elegant scribal hand above it.

There are reiver ballads from the lawless Debatable Lands on the English-Scottish border (including the rousing Lock the Door, Larriston which is featured in the programme), the extravagant Cursing Stone of Carlisle, and an exquisite poem about dry-stone walls by the Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson.

There are 3 more episodes: on London, Scotland and the Midlands. I wish there were more (what about Wessex, the West Country, Wales, East Anglia and the South East?), but it seems that ITV doesn't have a great deal of money to make documentaries on this scale, alas. There doesn't appear to be a book of the series, either. I wish the BBC would poach Lord Bragg - they would give him an 8-part series and a book. I know they would. It may be a question of loyalty, or televisual politics, who knows?

Oh, and I see that Melvyn Bragg's latest novel, Remember Me, the fourth in a loosely autobiographical sequence, has just come out. This is a must-read for me - I enjoyed the first three which chronicled the life of a boy growing up in working-class postwar Cumbria and making it to Oxford. And as if all this wasn't enough, he continues to present the arts programme The South Bank Show on ITV and the ever-excellent history-of-ideas series In Our Time on BBC Radio 4.

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