British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Six Centuries of Verse

2013. GB. 2 x DVD. 400 minutes. Network Distributing. Certificate E. Price: £19.99

james_mcgrathAbout the reviewer: Dr James McGrath lectures in Cultural Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University. His poems appear in various literary magazines. James’s first academic book, The Naming of Autism, considers the changing social, cultural and medical meanings of ‘high-functioning’ autism in relation to adult identities. This will be one of the first extended studies of autism from an interdisciplinary Humanities perspective, and will be published by Rowman & Littlefield International in 2016 (he discusses the book in this video). Previously, James has previously published on the work and relationship of John Lennon and Paul McCartney (the subjects of his PhD), as well as on Asperger’s Syndrome and literary theory; disability and poetry; working-class avant-garde culture; Emily Brontë; Walter Benjamin; R. S. Thomas; Richard Hoggart; Lord Woodbine; U. A. Fanthorpe; Bob Dylan; Joy Division; The Durutti Column; U2; and The Smiths. James is interested in the relationship of Literary Studies to other fields, and has also taught History, Creative Writing, Music, Media, and Journalism at university level.


… The series was instigated and presented by John Gielgud

For anyone debating the relationship between Literature and Media Studies, the 1984 Thames Television series Six Centuries of Verse, now on DVD, is noteworthy. Written and compiled by poet and critic Anthony Thwaite, it comprises sixteen half-hour episodes and remains among the most substantial poetry broadcasts to date on commercial television. It was shown to broadsheet acclaim in Britain, Canada and Australia.

The series was instigated and presented by John Gielgud. Over seventy poems across the series are recited by actors including Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Anthony Hopkins, Ian Richardson, Gerrard McAuthur and Lee Remick. Episodes combine standard syllabus texts with related, lesser-known poems.

Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth receive full episodes. Other instalments focus on Old English poetry; the Medieval to Elizabethan period; the Metaphysicals; and the Restoration. Two episodes focus on the Romantics and three on late nineteenth-century poetry in England and America. Eliot’s The Waste Land dominates the penultimate instalment, though commentary on Modernism as concept or movement is vague. The seven-hour series devotes just ten minutes to poets alive in 1984: Philip Larkin (then aged 62) and recently-appointed Poet Laureate Ted Hughes (54), though the poems used were already decades old. Thwaite’s descriptive narrative is characteristically eloquent. Sometimes, such as when commenting on Shelley’s ‘Masque of Anarchy’, it is more stirring than most recitals.


If considering this DVD for classes, note Gielgud’s introduction: the series presents poetry not through ‘lessons’ but ‘a series of entertainments’. The emphasis is more theatrical than literary. Subtitles – absent from review copies – could have shown how stresses and line-endings are handled by professional readers. As it is, the actors play the craft of verse-recital close to their chests (literally), clutching the poems in neat folders, leaving texts invisible. The performances, while dramatic, seem unlikely to demystify poetry as a form that many find intimidating.

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