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Last Updated: Monday, 7 July, 2003, 13:07 GMT 14:07 UK
Love and Death in Hull
Love and Death in Hull
Newsnight Review discussed Love and Death in Hull and Love Again, a documentary and a drama about poet Philip Larkin.

MARK LAWSON:
John Harris, have they done to Larkin's life what famously he said your mum and dad do to you?

JOHN HARRIS:
No, I don't think they have. I really enjoyed this documentary. I am glad Larkin didn't end up in the top 10 of the Great Britons, because it was such a relief not to see Alan Davies saying: "It was here in 1955, that there were talking heads, relevant to people". It fleshed out his life beautifully and took me back to the later work. My first acquaintance with Larkin was when I did my O-levels. I wasn't familiar with the 'Old Fools'. I have read them today and both poems are thrillingly bleak. Never has someone captured the 4am horrors so much as Larkin. It incorporates the work really well into the documentary. It was seamless.

MARK LAWSON:
Deborah Bull, Ever since the biography came out, we have seen him as talking about Nazi father, racist, women, and so on. Have they got beyond that?

DEBORAH BULL:
In the documentary, they came out as themes, but not overriding themes. What came out was the man caught within a web of his own creating, but almost as a victim rather than the driving with any kind of malicious intent. Again, also for me what came out was the validity of the form, this way of presenting a documentary on a person without a presenter, allowing people who really knew about the guy to speak for himself. It was interesting, the talking head, the single writer sitting on a chair by a window, there were shots going back to 1964, but you expect to receive information when you see that and it works.

MARK LAWSON:
High quality, Martin Amis, representing his father, every line a sound bite. An extraordinary saying that the moment of death he thought would be like an orgasm.

MICHAEL GOVE:
Yes. Most of the figures who were there were broadly sympathetic to him. There was no devil's advocate there trying to damn him. We heard the tape, which is a scoop for the documentary, which showed Larkin and his girlfriend singing that rather unattractive ditty, and that ends the film, and it begins with the revelation about Larkin's father's Nazi past. I thought, "Oh, my God, here we go, a standard reputation uncovered." In fact it was a much fuller and rounder portrait than that, and exactly as John and Deborah said, it encourages you to go back to the work.

MARK LAWSON:
John Harris, the tape they played, it was two very drunken people. How much does it matter, that tape? Some people will use it in an argument against even teaching his poetry?

JOHN HARRIS:
By that point of his life, I think Larkin was emblematic of the society of the "silly old sod". It's two rather sad people, very drunk, singing this song. There was an article about Larkin's alleged racism. It said: "Shamefully unexamined, average, these spots of commonness he failed to shed them." It's no great surprise, because to me the character who sings that song is like someone lurking in the background of the Whitsun wedding.

MARK LAWSON:
There was an extraordinary paradox, a man who wrote about weddings but never married. The Whitsun wedding is about not getting married.

MICHAEL GOVE:
My heart sank at the beginning when it said: "A man whose poetry has great beauty but who was himself miserable." You could say that of almost any creative artist over the last 2,000 years! It's the poems that are read in the course of it that send you back to the work, and a greater complexity of character unravels during the course of it than may have been led to at the beginning.

Love Again

MARK LAWSON:
Love Again on BBC 2. We have established the life in some detail as the documentary did, is this a dramatisation of it, how impressive?

MICHAEL GOVE:
Pretty impressive. I think Hugh Bonneville must be emerging as one of our best actors. He is excellent here at Larkin. I have to say the three women play a larger role than the flirty secretary, are all sympathetically drawn. The thing is that the characterisation allows you to see that Larkin was a selfish, fouled-up sod, at the same time he was an empathetic figure, struggling with impulses and the artistic impulse to create. In that respect, Bonneville's capacity to hold on to that and to convey it, is I think, a great success.

MARK LAWSON:
John Harris, because of the order they go out on TV, two weeks apart, a lot of people will watch the documentary and then this drama. One does become a commentary on the other?

JOHN HARRIS:
I think they are complemented each other well. I was a huge fan of the Smiths in the sixties, I thought he was like an O-level Morrissey then, the drama fleshes that out really well. I recognised Larkin as actually very similar to a deeply modern creature, a commitment-phobic modern male, Nick Hornby in High Fidelity is not a thousand miles away from this. That was what was nice about it, I came away from watching both things with a very, very rounded whole understanding of the man.

MARK LAWSON:
Deborah Bull, I thought a problem they had, I saw the Tom Courtney stage show, he had a huge range of poems in, but here they could only have poems relating to sex and death, which are the themes, so it was restricted in that way, I thought.

DEBORAH BULL:
I think that is right. We benefited from having seen the documentary we had a chunk of it in advance. I think that what carried it were the portrayals which absolutely convinced you of the characters and of the relationships and particularly the way those characters were able to grow. I thought Tara Fitzgerald was fantastic the way she aged through it. I thought this film was made in a very short space of time and on a small budget, I think the quality of it compared to the quality of the film we spoke about at the beginning of the programme, which had money coming out of it...

MARK LAWSON:
This was like 'Philip's Angels', is about three women too.

MICHAEL GOVE:
I think the point that John makes is absolutely right, Philip Larkin is portrayed as an emotional fuckwit. The three characters now wouldn't put up with that behaviour from a character like Philip Larkin. That puts it in its time.

MARK LAWSON:
There is an incredibly bleak breakfast time where Philip and Monica are opening their post and are smoking heavily, we are told he was on a bottle of sherry at that stage, I thought it was horrendously depressing, you got a sense of the darkness?

JOHN HARRIS:
He made his own fear of death all of the worse. There are ways and means of approaching death, this was hardly the ideal way to choose. Maeve Brennan meets him and then years later asked him if this relationship was going anywhere.

MARK LAWSON:
We didn't get the information in the documentary on who he slept with and we got all of that information?

JOHN HARRIS:
He said that Maeve suggested that he hadn't suggested it but in the film they did.



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