BBC documentary on Ivor Gurney

Originally posted on War Poetry – the blog of Tim Kendall, Professor of English.

My documentary on Ivor Gurney, directed by Clive Flowers, will be broadcast this Sunday, 30 March, at 9pm on BBC4.

Several years ago, a number of scholars specialising in the First World War were invited to a jointly-organised AHRC/BBC event in London. We discussed our work, and gave our views on how the BBC might mark the forthcoming centenary. There I met an executive producer, Mike Poole, who, as luck would have it, had always wanted to commission a programme about Gurney. So he approached Clive, making him the gift of a rather startled academic with no previous TV experience as presenter.

The filming process, although exhausting, was an absolute joy. Locations included the Somme (where Gurney was shot), Passchendaele (gassed), the Royal College of Music, and some of the hills around Gloucester which inspired Gurney’s greatest poetry. Thanks to Ryan‘s stunning camerawork, it is easy to appreciate why Gurney loved these landscapes. We were also lucky to interview such eloquent experts, my biggest regret being that, for an hour-long documentary, so much superb material ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Lost in the no-place of the asylum for the last 15 years of his life, Gurney complained constantly that he had not received the ‘honour’ that was due to him. Wishing for death, he felt forgotten, betrayed, exiled from his native Gloucestershire and condemned to lingering torture. I thought about that a great deal as I was helping to make this documentary. The programme is intended as some small and belated recompense, a homage to an extraordinary genius who remains underappreciated even today.

Hilary Mantel reads her latest piece

Hilary Mantel (centre) flanked by Professor Nick Kaye and Professor Helen Taylor

Hilary Mantel CBE, one of the country’s most distinguished living novelists and a University of Exeter honorary graduate, read from her latest Man Booker Prize winning novel Bring Up the Bodies to a packed Alumni Auditorium last Thursday, 11 October. Bring Up the Bodies was announced as the latest winner of the prestigious literary accolade on Tuesday 16 October.

Bring Up the Bodies is the sequel to Mantel’s previous Man Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall, which is a study of Thomas Cromwell, the man who engineered the dissolution of the monasteries and the execution of Anne Boleyn. Wolf Hall won not only the Man Booker 2010 but also the inaugural Walter Scott Prize and the US National Book Critics Circle Award. Testimony to Mantel’s gifts as a great storyteller, Wolf Hall is also the biggest-selling Booker prize winner to date.

The evening was introduced by Professor Helen Taylor, the College of Humanities Fellow for Arts and Culture. Professor Taylor gave an introduction to Hilary Mantel, talking about her career in general and her recent successes. When asked what she would spend her Booker Prize money on, Hilary replied “sex, drugs & rock ‘n’ roll”, before acknowledging that there wasn’t much of this to be found in East Devon so she would pay off her mortgage instead.

Hilary read an excerpt from Bring Up the Bodies, humorously bringing the characters to life. There was time for a few questions from the packed audience, which comprised of members of the public, students and staff of the University, and members of the University Council, including Chair of Council and alumna Sarah Turvill. Hilary spoke about how her recent works are being adapted for the stage and BBC television, and how she would like to work on more big historical fiction once the Cromwell trilogy is completed.

Mantel, a former teacher and social worker, is only the third double winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize, and was made an honorary graduate of the University in a ceremony at the Streatham Campus on July 17 2012. She moved to the westcountry in the spring of 2011.

Professor Helen Taylor said: “Hilary Mantel’s literary output is the most brilliantly original and varied of any contemporary writer. In 2011, Hilary Mantel became an honorary graduate of the University of Exeter and we in the College of Humanities are delighted to appoint her as Honorary Visiting Professor.”