Film ID:
YFA 3249

A POET GOES NORTH: SIR JOHN BETJEMAN DISCOVERS LEEDS

1968

Visitor Tabs

Description

This is a BBC film of John Betjeman discussing the architecture of Leeds. He unfavourably contrasts modern buildings and design with the Victorian heritage, especially in relation to the skyline. Among the places he visits are the City Square, the Town Hall, terraced housing in Armley, Spenfield House, Woodhouse Cemetery, Thorntons Arcade and Seacroft.

Title - A Poet Goes North

Title - Sir John Betjeman Discovers Leeds

Opening with a jazzy version of 'Ilkley moor ba' tat', John Betjeman looks out at Leeds as he arrives by train. He walks across the City Centre Square to stop and talk about the statues, 'Morn' and the 'Black Prince'. He contrasts the Queen's Hotel with a new British Rail building, and also the Midland Bank with another modern high rise block. He talks about how the late Victorian Unitarian Church and the Post Office have more respect for the skyline, and compares this with a critical view of modern large buildings, with the example of the Norwich Insurance building, which only say 'cash'. The film then shows some more of the statues in the City Square in close up.

John Betjeman stands on the steps of the Town Hall, which he says symbolises the civic pride of the North of England. He discusses the architect, and the architecture, of the Town Hall. He quotes from an essay by Asa Briggs on the Town Hall, on how it was designed to attract people from all over, especially to the music of Leeds. The film shows in detail the lion statues outside and the organ inside.

Betjeman re-emerges, walking across the roof of what used to be a flax spinning mill, with its cone shaped skylights. It is now a mail order service, shown in operation. He discusses the Egyptian style of the building. He looks across from the roof to a chimney tower and says, "Isn't that Giotto's Campanile from Florence?" He then discusses the design of St Paul's House, with its Arabian influence, and Marshal's Mill and the other Yorkshire brick mills. From on top of the roof he points in one direction at the skyline, with the University tower and other chimneys. This is the old Leeds skyline. He then turns around and points to the skyline in the other direction, built since the War, stating that here is "the battle of the cubes". On one side an old building is being demolished.

Betjeman walks past rows of terraced housing, including one with the street sign 'Strawberry Fields', towards the Church of St Bartholomew in Armley, which he discusses before sitting on the steps of one of the back-to-back houses. A cobbled street of terraced houses is shown, with washing draped across the road. Betjeman points out some advantages of this housing in allowing parents to be able to see their children out playing, and being part of, "a kind of village life". It shows the street signs for 'Strawberry Grove' and 'Strawberry Mount'. He comments that this terraced housing is being destroyed. The film moves along showing the housing, much of which being derelict.

Betjeman goes on to discuss the alleys of central Leeds, down one of which is Whitelocks, with customers sitting outside the pub in the yard. The film shows the tiled interior and the shining bar of the pub as Betjeman discusses some of its features, such as the stained glass and the harvest festival display.

Then on to show the stained glass windows at Spenfield in Weetwood Park. He points out that no expense was spared on it, and shows some of the features, such as the inlaid wood on the staircase, the brass lamps and the marble pillars at the bottom of the stairs. At this time it is under the care of the City Waterworks, who have kept it intact. He goes into the Ladies' Drawing Room, and discusses at length the design, especially the fireplace.

He leaves Spenfield and turns up at Woodhouse Cemetery, walking past the tall grave stones, reading out some of the names. He stops at one stone, 'to the memory of a fisherman', William Taylor, and shows the headstone in detail, with his fishing basket at the bottom. He points out that the cemetery is now part of Leeds University, who have preserved part and turned the rest into a new landscaped park; and he turns to look at the new Leeds University building.

Next Betjeman is in Thorntons Arcade, with shoppers, including a West Indian couple walking by. The film shows some of the architectural features in close up. It then shows some old public clocks in Leeds, including Dysons Clock, and then a digital one at Seacroft. He walks around the new shopping centre at Seacroft and points to the tower block. He states that these were built with the best intentions, but wonders whether if one were living in one, you wouldn't look back with regret to the old terraced housing and feel a bit lonely. Walking through the shopping centre Betjeman says, "Speaking personally, I feel it is rather like compulsory shopping, compulsory pleasure, compulsory leisure, compulsory art"; as he stops to look up at a modern statue.

The film closes with Betjeman making his way back through the gates of Leeds Railway Station.

End Credits
The BBC wish to acknowledge the co-operation of the Leeds Civic Trust in the making of this film.
Film Cameraman Arthur Smith
Film Recordist Malcolm Hill
Film Editor Peter Marsh
Producer John Mapplebeck
BBC North