Judge William Lee can say more with Old Spice than Old English.
Poetry's greatest hits brought to life.
"There are probably more people writing poetry today than ever before.
Most of it will never be published. Most of it is not very good. But that's
always been the case. The best survives as you will learn and see in the
programs that follow."
Facts of the Case
Produced by Thames Television in 1984, Six Centuries of Verse is a survey of English poetry read by a roster of respected actors. Chronologically ordered, the 16 half-hour episodes are spread across three discs.
• Chaucer to Ted Hughes, 1384-1984: an introduction to and
overview of the series.
The ambition of the series is suggested in the title and to most people it will seem rather intimidating to hear such an immense catalogue of classic poetry in one program. Fortunately, the program moves through the time periods quite briskly and the half-hour format is just the right amount of time needed to introduce the works without testing viewers' patience.
Poet and writer Anthony Thwaite, recipient of the Order of the British Empire in 1992 for his services to poetry, is the writer and compiler for the series. Sir John Gielgud (The Loved One) serves as host, introducing the featured poets of each era. The script sticks to the relevant biographical notes on each writer and rarely strays into gossipy details of their personal lives. If the material can seem a bit dry at times, at least it moves along quickly.
Most of the readings are presented simply as that: an actor reads a poem to the camera. On the whole, this works just fine and allows viewers to appreciate the words as spoken by exceptional voices. The performers include Peggy Ashcroft (A Passage to India), Lee Remick (Days of Wine and Roses), Ian Richardson (Hogfather), Julian Glover (The Young Victoria) and Anthony Hopkins (Slipstream), among others. Where appropriate, modest dramatizations of the narratives are staged—as with the episode on The Canterbury Tales—or other cut away visuals complement the readings. The added production elements break up the static visuals without distracting from the words and voices.
Six Centuries of Verse is presented more like a "greatest hits" line up than a series of lessons. The program is designed to whet appetites and it will be a useful classroom tool for introducing students to classic works of poetry. So much from these poems have permeated English language popular culture that we're often oblivious to the origins of specific lines, phrases, and styles of speech. Recognizing those familiar bits and hearing them in their original context is very satisfying. It is also immensely pleasing to listen to these works read aloud by distinguished actors.
Acorn Media dusts off this television series for a respectable DVD release under its Athena brand of documentaries and educational videos. Included in the package is a Viewer's Guide booklet with 17 pages of text. Each episode has some accompanying notes and questions to prompt further research. There is also a section outlining the evolution of English poetry and a short glossary to complete the booklet.
The video quality leaves something to be desired but it holds up well enough considering the source and its age. The image is fairly grainy and there is a constant dance of dust and specks across the screen. The picture is slightly soft but the warm color palette remain consistent throughout. It definitely looks dated but the video is still viewable. Audio is delivered in a basic mono mix with just a low amount of ambient hiss. More importantly, the voices have a strong and clear presence.
Each disc includes different text screen supplemental material. The authors have biographical notes and the actors reading the works have some paragraphs on their careers and a list of film credits (updated to include 2010 productions).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Two early episodes focus on Beowulf and Chaucer, which necessitates hearing some Old English and Middle English respectively. While there are excerpts read in the original pronunciation (with accompanying subtitles), the bulk of the readings are translated to a more familiar tongue. This is probably the right presentation decision so as to keep the material accessible for general audiences. However, I really enjoyed hearing the original versions and wanted more of it.
The series may look dated, but the classics never go out of style. It covers a lot of material in well measured and briskly moving doses. The readings are great performances that bring to life the beauty of the language. This set is a treasure for anglophiles and a useful video tool for English classrooms.
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