Metro-land was a widely praised and fondly remembered documentary for BBC television by the then Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman (1906–84) and Eric Simms (1921- ). It was directed by Edward Mirzoeff and first broadcast in colour on February 26 1973. A DVD was released in 2006 to coincide with the centenary of Betjeman’s birth.
celebrated suburban life in the area to the north-west of London
that grew up in the early 20th Century around the Metropolitan Railway
(later the Metropolitan Line of the Underground
” was the slogan coined by the railway for promotional purposes in about 1915 and used as such for about twenty years, until shortly after the incorporation of the Metropolitan into the London Passenger Transport Board
in 1933. As Betjeman himself put it at the beginning of Metro-land
, “Child of the First War
, forgotten by the Second
According to Mirzoeff the programme was conceived in 1971 over lunch with Betjeman at Wheeler’s restaurant in Soho
. The two had recently collaborated on a BBC series called Bird’s Eye View
, which offered an aerial vision of Britain. Metro-land was commissioned by Robin Scott
, Controller of BBC Two
, with the initial working title of “The Joys of Urban Living”. As completed, it was a series of vignettes of life in the suburbs of Metro-land, drawn together by Betjeman’s commentary, partly in verse, whose text was published in 1978 , and inter-woven with black and white film shot from a Metropolitan train in 1910. It was 49 minutes long.
Locations in Metro-land
Betjeman’s first appearance in Metro-land
was over a pint of beer in a station buffet, reminiscent of the film Brief Encounter
(1945). This sequence was filmed at Horsted Keynes
, on the Bluebell Railway
Other locations included:
- Chiltern Court, over Baker Street station, the Metropolitan’s London terminus, which still contained a restaurant in 1972 (the year of filming);
- Marlborough Road, a station closed in 1939, whose booking hall had become an Angus Steak House;
- St. John’s Wood: surprisingly, perhaps, there was no mention of Lord's cricket ground, part of which had to be dug up in the 1890s to facilitate tunnelling for the Great Central Railway into Marylebone . Instead, Betjeman concentrated on St John’s Wood as a Victorian suburb and, in particular, the former residence of a clergyman, John Hugh Smyth-Piggott , “whose Clapton congregation declared him to be Christ,/a compliment he accepted”.
- Neasden, caricatured since 1962 by the satirical magazine, Private Eye, for which Betjeman wrote, as the stereotypical "contemporary urban environment" . Betjeman described Neasden as “home of the gnome and the average citizen” (the former a reference to the preponderance of gnome statuettes in suburban front-gardens, but possibly also a nod in the direction of the Eye’s fictional proprietor, Lord Gnome). Background music was provided by William Rushton’s recording of Neasden (1972) (“Neasden/You won’t be sorry that you breezed in”), another Private Eye “spin-off”. Betjeman visited the Neasden Nature Trail, where he met its creator, the ornithologist Eric Simms;
- Wembley, site of the British Empire Exhibition in 1924-5 and the stadium (demolished and re-built in the early 21st Century), which first hosted the Football Association Cup Final in 1923 and where England had won the World Cup six years before Metro-land was filmed. (Chants of "England!" could be heard in the background as Betjeman stood alone on the hallowed turf.) Betjeman recounted the partial construction on the site of the present stadium of “Watkin’s Folly” (after Sir Edwin Watkin, Chairman of the Metropolitan), demolished in 1907, which had been intended to rival the Eiffel Tower in Paris;
- Harrow: Harrow School and Grim’s Dyke, Harrow Weald, where, in 1911, the lyricist W.S.Gilbert, collaborator of Arthur Sullivan, was drowned in a pond;
- Pinner: Pinner Fair, described by Betjeman as “a mediaeval fair in Metro-land”;
- Moor Park Rickmansworth, on whose golf course Betjeman was filmed missing a tee shot. The fine club-house, an 18th Century mansion, was also shown. 34 years later, the Mail on Sunday recalled Betjeman's "hilarious" round, noting that many of the houses in private roads around Moor Park station were now owned by Indian businessmen. Accordingly, it dubbed one road in Moor Park, "Bollywood Boulevard of Suburbia" .
- Croxley Green: with a hint of irony, Betjeman referred to the Croxley Green "revels" as "a tradition dating back to 1952";
- Chorleywood, which Betjeman called “essential Metro-land”. He visited The Orchard, an Arts and crafts house (1899) designed by Charles Voysey (1857-1941), about whom he had written an article in the Architectural Review in 1931. Elsewhere in Chorleywood, Betjeman listened to a local resident, Len Rawle, perform on the Wurlitzer organ from the Empire cinema, Leicester Square, which had been installed in his house. (In 2006 the organ was still there and Rawle performed for a BBC film, Betjeman and Me, made by Dan Cruickshank to mark Betjeman’s centenary);
- Amersham, the terminus of the Metropolitan by 1973, where Betjeman visited High and Over (1929), a house designed by Amyas Connell in the moderne style ("perhaps old-fashioned today") that overlooked the town. (Thirty years earlier he had referred, rather contemptuously, to "an absurd admiration of what is modern, as though 'modern' meant always a flat roof, a window at the corner ... in fact not genuine contemporary architecture at all but 'jazz'" ). Of the former Metropolitan beyond Amersham, Betjeman remarked, “In those wet fields the railway didn’t pay/The Metro stops at Amersham today”;
- Quainton Road, a station in the outer reaches of Buckinghamshire that was finally closed to Metropolitan passengers in 1948, but has since become home to the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre. Betjeman reminisced of having sat there in the autumn of 1929 watching the Brill tram depart. (In 2006 his daughter Candida Lycett Green organised an excursion from Marylebone to Quainton Road, using the extant freight line from Aylesbury, to mark his centenary.)
- Verney Junction, near to the Claydons, the most distant outpost of the Metropolitan, closed since 1936, which, by the 1970s, had largely been reclaimed by nature. Betjeman appeared to close the programme here with the words, “Grass triumphs. And I must say I’m rather glad”, although the scene was in fact filmed at Shipton Lee, some five miles to the south of the former terminus .
was warmly and favourably received. Miles Kington
wrote to Mirzoeff that it was “just about the most satisfying TV programme, on all levels, that I’ve ever seen" . Clive James
, writing in the Observer
, dubbed it an “instant classic” and predicted accurately that “they’ll be repeating it until the millennium”. (In 2006 it was shown on BBC Four
in the same week that the DVD was released.) Christopher Booker
rated it as the best of Betjeman's television programmes ("Like others, I have been endlessly grateful … over the years for the more public activities of the 'outer' Betjeman") , while Betjeman’s biographer A. N. Wilson
recalled that it was “too good to be described simply as a ‘programme’” .
In a contemporaneous review for the London Evening Standard, Simon Jenkins launched into imitative verse: “For an hour he held enraptured/Pinner, Moor Park, Chorley Wood./’Well I’m blowed’ they said, ‘He likes us./Knew one day that someone should.”