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D.H. Lawrence. A Portrait

The Times, 3rd March 1980, Joan Bakewell

Once upon a time there was a miner’s son called Bert who became a schoolteacher in Croydon and couldn’t keep order in class. He stole another man’s wife, loved her with a fierce and quarrelsome passion, led a nomadic existence in the world’s most beautiful places and died of TB 50 years ago. But he also saw into the human heart, recognised the needs of the human spirit were being denied by the growing materialism, and confronted certain truths about human sexuality that were shocking in his day and brought his books a certain notoriety. In the fifties his work was fashionable and he was a guru of early sexual liberation. Nowadays he is not widely read by the young, and on the anniversary of his death the media are finding it hard to strike any coherent tone in assessing him.

This programme was claimed by its authors, Richard Hoggart and Ronald Draper, to be a portrait rather than a biography. As such it promised a concentration on Lawrence’s character that it never delivered. There must surely be enough evidence from both those who loved and those who hated him to furnish an incisive and challenging picture. Instead, despite its disclaimer, the programme was built upon a biographical structure. It combined old photographs, personal; reminiscences, dramatic presentations of scenes from novel and plays, reading from poems, and a slight and therefore superfluous introduction from Richard Hoggart who didn’t even declare his role as a key witness in the ‘Lady Chatterley’ trial. As a portrait, the programme offered no more convincing definition than the opening statement of this review.

But it had strength. Michael Pennington, looking handsomely Lawrence-like and nursing a straw hat, was thus halfway to impersonation. But his reading of the poems was calmly and intelligently his own. He stopped the programme in its tracks with their power, and one had time to marvel at the exactness of Lawrence’s poetic observations. The programme could and perhaps should have had the courage to stay with the poems themselves. Instead, with an understandable but mistaken eagerness to cover more ground it moved into too many directions and styles. And as a major BBC contribution to the Lawrence anniversary, it had no right to be tucked away on BBC2 at 7.30 on Friday. I bet you missed it.

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