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Poetry Television Broadcasting at the BBC

AHRC/CHASE Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD studentship in collaboration with University of East Anglia and the BBC

Advert Title:  AHRC/CHASE Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD studentship in collaboration with University of East Anglia and the BBC

Poetry Television Broadcasting at the BBC, 1932 to the Present.

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Qualification type: PhD
Location: [Norwich/UEA]
Funding for: UK Students / EU Students
Funding amount: AHRC stipend: for the academic year 2019-20, the stipend will be £15,559. This includes enhanced stipend to cover additional travel costs relating to the project.
Closes: Friday 3 May 2019, 12 noon


One hundred years ago, new broadcast media transformed how poems were composed, and opened them up to new audiences: not just readers, but listeners and viewers. Thus far, most scholarship in the field has centred around radio. This Collaborative Doctoral Award, between UEA and the BBC, will shift the focus, resulting in the first scholarly history of poetry in television broadcasting.

As public service broadcaster, the BBC has supported poetry in many ways: as a non-commercial, 'highbrow' artform that brings prestige; as a way of exploring the formal possibilities of radio and TV; as a key part of the UK's literary heritage; as a means of promoting British 'soft power' abroad; and, more recently, as a means of exploring and representing the diversity of voices in modern Britain, providing a platform for BAME poets. The PhD will thus situate the BBC's poetry television output within its broader cultural 'mission'; moreover, writing a history of its poetry output will provide the basis for a critical evaluation of the relationship between mission and reality.

 The PhD is open to students with backgrounds in both Literature and Media Studies, and with a particular interest in modern British poetry, and the relations between broadcast media and technologies, the transformations across the last century both in the demographics of the UK and its place in the world, and the ability of poetry to reflect on these changes and engage with them. Supervised by researchers from both UEA and the BBC, you will get access to BBC Archives, undertake interviews with commissioners, producers, and poets, and have the opportunity to develop ideas for features on BBC broadcast and online platforms.

 The studentship

This CHASE Collaborative Doctoral Award will lead to the first scholarly history of poetry in television broadcasting on the BBC, 1932 to the present. As well as providing a comprehensive account of this history, it will use this history to reflect more broadly on the developments in British poetry culture over the same period, asking how the BBC has both responded to and shaped this culture. Together, the two partner institutions, the University of East Anglia and BBC History, will provide a doctoral student with a first-class research experience as they complete their PhD, offering them privileged access to unique research materials, equipping them with a diverse range of transferable research skills, and providing them with invaluable and extensive practical experience in archival work and public engagement.

 Open to both Media and Literature students, the CDA intervenes in the burgeoning field of 'Broadcast Modernism'. Where earlier work on modernism and radio had focused largely on radio as medium that permitted sonic experimentation with disembodied and machinic voices, in the last decade has given more concerted attention to broadcast as a form of public dissemination. Broadcast poetry is situated in a circuit of institutions, commissioners, producers, technicians, and the viewing and listening habits of a public only partly overlapping with habitual readerships of new writing.

Many of the major studies in this field have focused particularly on the BBC, in particular due to its role as a public service broadcaster, with its 'Reithian' founding principles: ‘Inform, Educate, Entertain’. Poetry was central to the BBC's cultural mission, and the BBC became central to many poet's livelihoods from the mid-20th century onwards, providing them with both patronage and a platform. It transformed poets like Dylan Thomas into major cultural figures, and promoted experimentation with new sound technologies and the development of new forms of drama and documentary feature which incorporated what the celebrated producer Douglas Cleverdon called 'the poet's visualizing imagination'.

The focus of this work so far has been on radio. By turning its attention to television, this CDA will ask how poetry adapted to a visual broadcast medium, one associated with 'entertainment' rather than 'culture', and therefore located within a much more competitive ‘economy of attention’. Where the BBC has held a near-monopoly on literary radio programming, BBC television has long been one channel among many, while other producers of poetry programming (notably GPO Film Unit/Crown Film Unit and Channel 4) have also, at different times, been subsidised by the state. The project will thus introduce new research questions about the relationship between poetry and public service broadcasting to an increasingly important scholarly field.

Similarly, most research in this field is based around modernist and mid-century writing. The focus on television means the PhD will be engaged with a different period of British history, characterised by decolonisation, the Troubles, and the development of a multicultural society. Indeed, during this period, the demographics of poetry broadcasting changed beyond recognition, as the BBC started to promote poetry as a mode of expression accessible to all, and a way to fulfil a public service remit of representing the diversity of voices in modern Britain. A central question for the project will therefore be to evaluate the success of the BBC in providing a contemporary platform for poets from underrepresented groups, especially those from non-metropolitan regions and BAME communities.

The research will be concentrated around three different kinds of material:

(1)   Poets and poems as the subject matter of television programmes and segments. These can include documentaries, such as the seminal Ken Russell feature for Monitor, John Betjeman: A Poet in London (1961), or a more recent, celebrity-driven programme such as Robert Webb’s My Life in Verse (2009), as well as poetry features in cultural and literature programmes such as The Late Review or Performance Live.

(2)   Poems and poets on current affairs or entertainment programmes, from Pam Ayres’s famous appearance on Opportunity Knocks (1975) to Tim Key’s comic poems in Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe (2009). Of particular interest in these instances how they build on, and contribute to, the social construction of the poet-figure, and thus indicate British cultural attitudes towards poetry more broadly.

(3)   The use of television in broader BBC's poetry activities, such as poet residencies (John Agard was BBC's first TV Poet in Residence, during the Windrush season in 2008) and poetry campaigns like National Poetry Day or The Nation's Favourite Poems.

As well as producing a research PhD, the successful candidate will have the opportunity to build up extensive experience in public engagement and digital dissemination. It will leave them well placed both to pursue a career in academia or to use their research expertise in areas such as cultural industries, public archives, or broadcasting.

The PhD is supervised by Dr. David Nowell Smith and Dr. Jeremy Noel-Tod at UEA, with Robert Seatter, Head of BBC History and himself a prize-winning poet. The successful candidate will have access to all UEA CHASE training opportunities, and will receive additional support in working with archives and developing a public engagement profile.

The candidate:

The successful candidate will work both with the supervisory team at UEA, and with partners at BBC History and at the BBC Written Archives Centre. A large amount of the PhD will be archive-based, going through staff files, internal memos, and files dedicated to individual TV programmes and series. The candidate will also conduct interviews with a range of parties, including poets, directors, and producers, and then transcribe these interviews. As well as completing the thesis, the candidate will be expected to present work at conferences and to develop ideas for features on BBC broadcast or online platforms.

Essential skills/attributes:

  • Good degree and postgraduate work in either Modern/Contemporary Literature, with particular interest in poetry, or Media Studies, with particular interest in Broadcast Media

  • Strong written expression

  • Capacity for independent study and self-motivation

  • Good time management

  • Interest in archival work

  • Good oral communication

  • Good interpersonal skills

Desirable skills/attributes:

  • For Media students, a grounding in 20th century and contemporary British and Commonwealth poetry

  • For Literature students, a knowledge of the history of British broadcasting and some acquaintance with broadcast media theory

  • A track record in archival work

  • A track record in public engagement

How to apply

Applications for this studentship must be made via the UEA application form here

Terms and conditions

The studentship is subject to UKRI eligibility criteria, and will cover home or EU fees and stipend at UKRI rates for a maximum of four years full-time, or eight years part-time study, subject to institutional regulations.

Informal enquiries

Informal enquiries about this collaborative project can be sent to David Nowell Smith,

 Full advert can be viewed here