TV UK, 24 July

It is an achievement that a 'drama' of Philip Larkin's life is even remotely watchable.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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Philip Larkin is much admired as a literary figure, but nobody wants to be him. It isn’t just that he has been exposed as politically incorrect, but that he was hopelessly unglamorous.

In Love Again, a new dramatisation of his life (BBC2, Saturday at 9pm), Larkin keeps quoting the critic Cyril Connolly, who said ‘There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’. But Larkin’s alternative to domestic conformity was not romantic or exciting. Instead he chose the life of a provincial librarian, with a couple of stilted affairs that in this telling seemed calculated to keep him unhappy rather than bring him any lasting joy. As the man himself reportedly put it, depression was to him what daffodils were to Wordsworth.

It is quite an achievement that this drama (if that’s even the right word) is even remotely watchable. The closest Larkin came to the excesses of the romantic artist was a penchant for dirty books and trad jazz, and Love Again lingers only on the latter. (Perhaps because even the thing that made Larkin happy makes everyone else depressed.) And there is only a brief reference to the poet’s racism, which might have given the drama some sort of edge. But ultimately Love Again succeeds simply as a portrait of the artist as an old git, a depressing exploration of what the pursuit of poetry means for the personal life of the poet, and those around him.

Of course, Larkin is possibly better known now for his colourful views on immigration. The poet’s use of the word nigger might be frowned on these days, but today’s political consensus on immigration is so reactionary that we can only discuss it euphemistically as ‘the asylum issue’, forcing immigrants to parade their victimhood as a qualification for entry.

You the Judge, shown as part of the BBC’s ‘Asylum Day’ on Wednesday, sounded suspiciously like an episode of Night Stand, the US spoof talkshow, in which would-be immigrants performed variety turns in the hope of winning a green card. (My favourite was the Bangladeshi Robert De Niro impersonator.) In the event, it wasn’t much better. The audience was invited to vote by phone or text message on whether four asylum seekers should be allowed to stay. In all four cases, viewers voted to send them back, making the official decisions look generous. (In real life two of the applications for asylum were eventually granted.)

For all that the BBC has made a big deal of opening up the discussion to the public, the asylum debate has been presented entirely in its own terms: do these people have absolutely no choice but to live in Britain? Just to take on the role of judge in such a debate is to endorse the anti-immigration premise, even if you chose to be a ‘soft touch’.

You the Judge was followed by a Panorama investigation billed simply as ‘Asylum’, but unveiled on the night as The Asylum Game. Claudia Murg went undercover as an illegal immigrant seeking asylum and trying to get by without benefits or the right to work legally. On one level this was a fascinating insight into the absurdities of the system and the ingenuity of the men and women who work around it, but somehow it didn’t come across like that.

Ordinarily I don’t bother checking the name of the narrator at the end of a documentary. But John Ware, who also wrote the programme, narrated The Asylum Game in such an unbelievably snide tone that it was impossible to ignore him, transforming an otherwise excellent piece of investigative work into a cross between You’ve Been Framed and Watchdog. They come over here, they sleep in our homeless hostels, they pack fish for the minimum wage. They must be laughing.

Maybe there is a solution. If they promise not to laugh, or to be happy in any way, we could let them in to be poets.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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