Poets’ Corner: Gyles Brandreth dives into the Radio Times poetry archive

The broadcaster looks back at Radio Times' poetry coverage for our 95th birthday

Gyles Brandreth in
heaven, surrounded by
bound volumes of past
issues of Radio Times (RT)

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” said William Wordsworth, the English Romantic poet who wandered lonely as a cloud and, famously, gave us all those golden daffodils. Wordsworth went on: “It takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”


This week I will be celebrating the importance of learning poetry by heart with the Duchess of Cornwall, Judi Dench and other poetry lovers on Poem by Heart. But, knowing that I have powerful feelings about poetry and that “spontaneous overflows” come to me quite naturally, Radio Times put me in a tranquil room with a cup of tea and every copy of the magazine there has ever been. That’s 4,918, including this issue that you’re holding. It was a fitting way to mark their birthday (this week) and National Poetry Day (next week).

Radio Times, described as “the official organ of the BBC”, was born 95 years ago, in September 1923, a year after the advent of BBC radio itself. What today’s Radio Times team know, but I didn’t until just now, is that poetry has been part of the Radio Times story from the start.

In the very first issue, at the front of the magazine, in pride of place, is a poetic epic entitled Adrift. Apparently inspired by a celebrated Chinese song cycle, it begins:

“We cannot keep the gold of yesterday;

Today’s dun clouds we cannot roll away…”

I’ll spare you the rest because it’s not a very jolly verse and, frankly, I’m not sure it has stood the test of time, but it does show that Radio Times had its heart in the right place from the get-go. In the early days, the magazine republished work by much-loved poets like Wordsworth and Robert Burns and commissioned new stuff, too. In 1933, for example, Walter de la Mare contributed a new poem exploring “love’s gaze”, the “heat-struck swoon of desire” and “the vineyards of romance”. The pre-war poetic offerings are mostly in a serious vein, and quite high-flown, but happily lighter verse does get a look-in:

“Many an evening, in the twilight,

you shall listen to a song,

If you’ve got a wireless set,

and if the tuning be not wrong.”

In the pioneering days of radio, getting a good signal was a challenge for many listeners and Radio Times did its best to help with technical advice – in verse.

From 1923 onwards, poetry was a particular feature in the weeks running up to Christmas. Radio Times devoted whole pages to Yuletide poems, sometimes humorous (“Oh! Hoppety, skippety, poppety, pippety…”), sometimes sacred (“I wish that I had kept that inn, that inn of old, in Bethlehem…”) and, in 1939, at the beginning of the Second World War, stirring:

“The spirit of our England lives

in courage and in laughter,

In saving what is good and true

for those who follow after,

But peace at last will crown the brave, 

and so, until that day,

God rest you merry, gentlemen,

let NOTHING you dismay.”

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Exactly 70 years later, the magazine commissioned a poem from the newly appointed poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy who, over two pages, in a variety of styles, provided her own take on the 12 Days of Christmas, reflecting on the issues of the day, from the war in Afghanistan to the role of bankers (especially Scottish ones) in the 2008/2009 financial crisis:

“We paid the bluddy pipers

But we dinnae call the tune.”

There have been seven different poets laureate in the 95-year history of Radio Times and every one of them has featured in its pages. In 2006, Carol Ann Duffy’s predecessor, Andrew Motion, celebrated the centenary of Sir John Betjeman, probably the most popular poet laureate of all, and defended him against the charge of being a lightweight jingle-spinner. “Take him seriously,” said Motion.

Betjeman was as popular on radio and television as he was on the page. As a teenager in 1968 I remember watching a wonderful documentary on BBC1 called Contrasts in which the poet took us on an evocative journey across London, from Marble Arch to Edgware, and provided the commentary entirely in verse. (The programme was shown on a Wednesday night at 10.45pm, just before The Weather Man and Close Down.)

John Betjeman was a true national treasure. Another, of course, was Terry Wogan. In 2010, when Radio Times asked Terry to choose his favourite poem, he picked Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1750). He simply “loved the language”. In the same issue, Spice Girl Geri Halliwell picked Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou (1978). “It’s pure girl power,” whooped Geri. “Maya Angelou is pure inspiration – I love, love, love her.”

8th April 1978: American poet and author Maya Angelou gestures while speaking in a chair during an interview at her home. (Photo by Jack Sotomayor/New York Times Co./Getty Images)
8th April 1978: American poet and author Maya Angelou gestures while speaking in a chair during an interview at her home. (Photo by Jack Sotomayor/New York Times Co./Getty Images)

I love poems and I love the way Radio Times has featured them at every opportunity for almost a century: love poems for Valentine’s Day; war poems for Remembrance Sunday; even, in 1969, in the Wales edition, a special poem in Welsh by E Gwyfad Evans to mark the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales.

For several years, the magazine had its own in-house poet (Roger Woddis) and, later on, a “poetry doctor” (Daisy Goodwin) who prescribed poems to help people with predicaments. I recall the year Daisy chose to publish Ogden Nash’s A Word to Husbands on what happened to be my wedding anniversary:

“To keep your marriage brimming

With love in the loving cup

Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;

Whenever you’re right, shut up.”

My wife loved the poem so much, she made me learn it by heart. Thank you, Radio Times.


Gyles Brandreth’s Poem by Heart airs Sunday 30th September at 1.30pm onRadio 4