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"The kind of show people need to be watching": Benjamin Zephaniah on poetry's primetime BAFTA success

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Credit: BAFTA 2021

Professor Benjamin Zephaniah was a long way from the usual glamour of an awards night when he found out that he had won a BAFTA for his trailblazing poetry show, Life & Rhymes – putting his shopping through the till at his local garden centre.

“I put the phone down and said to the two ladies at the checkout, “I think I just won a BAFTA.” They just jumped up and said, “yay!”.”

It was an unexpected success for Prof Zephaniah and his team. Their show – shot on a tight budget in Battersea Park at the height of lockdown and aired at 10pm on a Wednesday night – was up against primetime heavyweights Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway and Strictly Come Dancing, which together with Britain’s Got Talent had claimed the Best Entertainment Programme gong every year since 2014.

"Thank you so much @SkyArts for being so brave and so pioneering, putting on British TV the first spoken word poetry show"
Giving voice to a community that needs to be heard with Life & Rhymes. #VirginMediaBAFTAs— BAFTA (@BAFTA) June 6, 2021

“It’s fascinating winning this because I genuinely didn’t think we would,” said Prof Zephaniah, who collected the award on stage alongside co-creator Isaac Nartey, a Brunel alumnus.

“But I kept saying to people, if there’s one judge that says, “you know what? In the year of lockdown, we need to think differently. We need to not necessarily think about glitz and glamour and sparkle, we need to think about something that means something to people.” If somebody said that, we’d win it. I kind of think that must be what happened.”

Aired over four episodes in November 2020, Life & Rhymes was billed as the first of its kind – a TV show solely dedicated to celebrating the UK’s best poetry and spoken word talent. Each week artists performed powerful works on a range of topics, tackling some of the most challenging and contentious conversations currently going on in the country. Prof Zephaniah said he resisted early pressure to make the show a competition because he wanted people to be themselves, and instead followed his gut to include a unique open-mic section, where one lucky audience member was drawn from a hat and called up on stage to perform a piece of their work.

“We gave voice to so many people that felt unheard,” said Prof Zephaniah. “They were just so pleased to be on stage and to have an audience to perform to.

“They did poems about mental health and poems about violence against women. They did poems about being cooped up in a council flat on the tenth floor. They did poems about sexuality, about kissing. The whole range. And people need to hear that.”

With light entertainment’s grip on the Best Entertainment Programme BAFTA now loosened and TV audiences emerging from months of gruelling lockdown, Prof Zephaniah said he thought the time could now be right for poetry to join singing and dancing as primetime entertainment.

“It is possible, I do think so,” he said. “Ant and Dec have their place, of course, that’s why they’re there, but if people would open up their minds to some literature and poetry it would be a great thing, you know.

“If our country is saying that after a year of lockdown we care about people’s health, we care about their wellbeing, that all lives matter, et cetera, then this is the kind of show people need to be watching.”

Prof Benjamin Zephaniah is Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University London.

Reported by:

Tim Pilgrim, Media Relations
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