John Betjeman gives a guided tour of the Metropolitan Line from Baker Street in London to Verney Junction in Buckinghamshire, and of architecture of the suburbs and villages that grew up ... See full summary »



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John Betjeman gives a guided tour of the Metropolitan Line from Baker Street in London to Verney Junction in Buckinghamshire, and of architecture of the suburbs and villages that grew up along its length since the line was opened in the 1890s. Written by Anonymous

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26 February 1973 (UK)  »

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A Poetic Meditation on Suburbia
22 February 2013 | by (Tunbridge Wells, England) – See all my reviews

I have an interest to declare. Sir John Betjeman was a cousin of mine. Admittedly, he was not a first cousin, but a distant cousin of my grandfather, and I never actually met him. He is, however, about the only celebrity I can claim as a kinsman, so I have always felt an interest in him.

Betjeman did not actually invent the term "Metro-land"; it was originally an advertising slogan coined by the Metropolitan Railway (today part of the London Underground) during the 1910s and remained current throughout the twenties and thirties to describe the suburbs and dormitory towns that grew up in Middlesex, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire to the north-west of London. Unlike other railways, the Metropolitan also functioned as a property development company and therefore had a vested interest in developing new housing estates to serve London's growing commuter population in locations convenient for its stations. By the early seventies, when this film was first broadcast on the BBC, the term had largely been forgotten, but the programme helped to revive it; it was, for example, the inspiration for Julian Barnes's 1980 novel "Metroland" (without the hyphen).

In the seventies Betjeman was Britain's reigning Poet Laureate, but he was at least as well known to the public as a broadcaster, conservationist and commentator on architecture. The film was written and narrated by Betjeman himself and celebrates suburban life in the area in which the poet himself grew up. The film consists of a series of vignettes of the various suburbs and towns of Metro-land, from St John's Wood to Amersham. As might be expected, given Betjeman's passion for the subject, architecture plays an important role; he covers notable domestic buildings such as Norman Shaw's neo-Tudor Grim's Dyke in Harrow Weald (the home of W.S. Gilbert), Moor Park in Rickmansworth, an 18th century stately home, today a golf club-house, "The Orchard", Charles Voysey's Arts-and-Crafts house in Chorleywood and Amyas Connell's Modernist "High and Over" in Amersham. Betjeman also covers grander structures such as Wembley stadium and informs us that it was built on the site of "Watkin's Folly", London's own version of the Eiffel Tower, named after Sir Edward Watkin, Chairman of the Metropolitan Railway. (The tower was never completed, and the section that was built was demolished in 1907, seventeen years after work commenced).

In the Seventies it was fashionable to decry life in suburbia as dull, conventional and bourgeois, and part of Betjeman' purpose was to counter such views. He also tries to dispel the idea that the North London suburbs are entirely composed of (in the words of Malvina Reynolds) "little boxes made of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same", by showing a surprising variety in the more humble types of domestic architecture. Another of his subjects is the sort of British eccentricity, which can exist behind even the most conventional of facades. We meet, for example, a man who has installed a Wurlitzer cinema organ in his semi-detached house and a birdwatcher who organises nature tours of Neasden, a place much derided as the archetypally dull London suburb. (It is not, however, dull in the ornithological sense; the said birdwatcher had seen the very respectable total of 92 bird species on his tours). An eccentric from the past was the Victorian clergyman John Smyth-Pigott, whose congregation declared him to be Christ. ("A compliment he accepted"). His magnificent villa in St John's Wood was known as the "Agapemone", or "Abode of Love", a name which was intended to refer to spiritual love, but could equally well apply to physical love, given Smyth-Pigott's many affairs with his female followers.

Speaking of "High and Over", Betjeman described it as "perhaps old- fashioned today", a description which forty years on looks prescient, but which at the time probably raised a few eyebrows among an architectural establishment unwilling to accept that Modernism was fated eventually to become just another historical style. In 1973, in fact, one of the programme's charms was its nostalgic celebration of life in the twenties and thirties, but today in 2013 it is just as likely to evoke another sort of nostalgia, that for the seventies.

I well remember the first broadcast of this film, which took place on 26th February 1973, my thirteenth birthday, as I was allowed to stay up late and watch it as a birthday treat. Today part of its appeal for me is the way in which it recalls the world of my youth- the cars, the fashions, the music. (Actually, the Osmonds, one of whose songs we hear blaring out, are a part of my youth I would rather forget). Indeed, the Betjeman himself is a very seventies figure, one of a series of kindly, avuncular, slightly eccentric but authoritative TV presenters who graced our screens during the decade; the last such, Sir Patrick Moore, only died earlier this year, but even before his death he seemed very much a figure from a bygone age. Even Betjeman's pronunciation ("restaurant" pronounced in the French manner, "brochure" stressed on the second syllable) often has an archaic air about it.

Since 1973 "Metro-land" has taken on the status of a classic piece of television; Betjeman's biographer A. N. Wilson said that it was "too good to be described simply as a programme", and this was a perceptive remark. It can be described as a poetic meditation on what might not normally be though of as a poetic subject, life in twentieth-century suburbia, and like many of Betjeman's broadcasts can be seen as being as much a part of his literary output as his poetry and his writings about architecture. 9/10

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