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The Thursday Post: Tony Harrison Film Poem Season

(c) Sandra Lousada
(c) Sandra Lousada

‘I am convinced that Tony Harrison is one of the truly great poets writing in English today.’
Melvyn Bragg

One of the UK’s leading poets and dramatists Tony Harrison comes to Edinburgh ahead of a season of his rarely shown ‘film poems’ at Edinburgh Filmhouse.

On Monday, 19 November, 6.30pm, Harrison will take part in a live event at Filmhouse with long-time collaborator, the filmmaker Peter Symes. The event will consist of an interview where the duo will discuss the making of their mould-breaking films and their themes: class, war, and how Greek mythology can inform our understanding of Europe’s tortured past and present.

Film poems are documentary or experimental films where poems have replaced conventional commentaries. One of the earliest and most famous, Night Mail, paired W.H Auden and the GPO Film Unit.

The season of films, which were all originally produced for the BBC and Channel 4 and date back to the 1980s and 1990s, have been rarely screened since broadcast if at all. The retrospective brings together Harrison’s short films into three programmes plus there will be a screening of Prometheus, a full-length film directed by Harrison himself in 1998.

The season includes Harrison’s controversial V. Originally screened in 1987 on Channel 4, V was attacked by the tabloid press for its ‘torrents of obscene language’ and ‘streams of four-letter filth’. A group of Conservative MPs proposed an Early Day Motion titled ‘Television Obscenity’ condemning Harrison and Channel 4. The Conservative MP Gerald Howarth called Harrison ‘Probably another bolshie poet wishing to impose his frustrations on the rest of us.’ When told of this, Harrison retorted that Howarth was ‘Probably another idiot MP wishing to impose his intellectual limitations on the rest of us.’

The Tony Harrison season consists of

  • An Evening with Tony Harrison (19 November, 6.30pm).
    Buy tickets here.
  • Programme 1: Greek Tales (The Gaze of the Gorgon, A Maybe Day in Kazakhstan, Metamorpheus) (20 November, 6.05pm)
    Buy tickets here.
  • Programme 2: State of the Nation (V, South Bank Show: Crossings) (26 November, 8.35pm)
    Buy tickets here.
  • Programme 3: Lives and Memories (Black Daisies for the Bride, Witness: Shadow of Hiroshima) (29 November, 8.45pm)
    Buy tickets here.
  • Prometheus (3 December, 5.40pm).
    Buy tickets here.

Tony Harrison was born in Leeds in 1937. His collections of poetry include The Loiners, which won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1972, V, which was made into a film in 1987, winning the Royal Television Society Award, and The Gaze of the Gorgon, which won the Whitbread Poetry Prize in 1992. Recognised as Britain’s leading theatre and film poet, Harrison has written for the National Theatre, the New York Metropolitan Opera, the BBC and Channel 4.

Peter Symes says, ‘I am thrilled that there is a season of Tony Harrison’s film poetry, most of which has only been seen once.  It will offer everyone the chance to reassess and enjoy his innovative and powerful contribution to the genre, and hopefully may lead to the work becoming more easily available.’

As a director, Peter Symes’ credits include The Blasphemers’ Banquet (a defence of Salman Rushdie after the fatwa, nominated for the 1989 Prix Italia) and Black Daisies for the Bride (a film poem about Alzheimer’s, awarded the 1994 Prix Italia), both made with the poet Tony Harrison. While at the BBC he was the commissioning editor for the BBC2 documentary series Picture This which was instrumental in introducing new directors. In 1990 he was a founding member of the first UK documentary festival, the Sheffield International Documentary Festival.

The season of Tony Harrison’s film poems is curated by David McLachlan in partnership with the Scottish Poetry Library and Edinburgh Filmhouse.