thu 30/05/2024

Evidently John Cooper Clarke, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Evidently... John Cooper Clarke, BBC Four

Evidently... John Cooper Clarke, BBC Four

Timely tribute - with praise from talking heads galore - to punk's original premiere poet

John Cooper Clarke relaxes in suitably gritty surroundings

“You aren’t going to get another one of them, are you?” asks Alex Turner, rhetorically, with regard to John Cooper Clarke. He should know. The first explosion into the public eye by his band Arctic Monkeys, with their 2006 album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, owed a direct stylistic debt to the Mancunian poet.

But it turns out that Turner’s far from the only one who wishes to announce their fealty to Clarke – from Bill Bailey to Pete Shelley (of Buzzcocks), poet Paul Farley to Steve Coogan, DJ Mark Radcliffe to actor Craig Charles, they all lined up to express admiration.

As an opening salvo for BBC Four and BBC Radio Six’s forthcoming Punk Britannia season, John Cooper Clarke was a tasty choice for a doc. He had, says Coogan, “a spirit of dissent rather than a spirit of compliance”, yet we were shown how he’s ended up on the national school syllabus (with the poem “I Wanna Be Yours”) and been embraced by Plan B, who commissioned a new Clarke poem for his imminent film iLL Manors. Clarke is hot again and, despite the hagiographic nature of the doc, it’s hard to quibble. Clarke, like Mark E Smith, has one of those northern gobs that spits fire non-stop, holding the listener mesmerised. Unlike Smith, however, his manner is tempered, particularly latterly, with wry, fatalistic good humour.

On his decades lost to heroin, the tone was refreshingly unjudgmental

The hour-long film, directed by John Ross, started with ideas on poetic meter being borrowed from a school English teacher reading aloud Henry Newbolt’s preposterously patriotic "Vitaï Lampada", but moved swiftly into Clarke’s pre-punk years, playing to working men’s cabaret nights, way ahead of the game and completely bemusing his audience. Once punk arrived he swiftly transformed into the stick insect, wild-haired Keith Richards/Nikki Sudden figure, as he still is today at 63. After the working men’s clubs, he said punk “was a doddle” (and that The Ramones “made everyone else look like a waste of time” – a fine sentiment).

On his decades lost to heroin, the tone was refreshingly unjudgmental – as in, it was a complete waste of time but let’s not wallow in moralistic misery – illustrated by an excellent new poem about old age which we saw performed live called “Things Are Gonna Get Worse”. In case anyone’s in any doubt quite what a force to be reckoned with Clarke can be, having dipped into multiple poems over the hour, notably “Evidently Chickentown” and “Twat”, the final flourish was made up of collaged performances of his 1980 masterpiece, “Beasley Street” (though I wish they’d just run with the superb Old Grey Whistle Test live musical version – but then they were showing that straight after). It wasn’t one of those BBC Four geek heaven peaches, such as, say, Peter Green: Man of the World, where the viewer is left blown away, amazed by the insights and captured emotion, but as a snappy tribute to an underrated player it was a flavoursome, pithy pleasure to chew on for 60 minutes.

John Cooper Clarke performs "Beasley Street" on The Old Grey Whistle Test

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