Despite being something of a duffer Betjeman was a fan of Coronation Street, the Ogdens in particular. He visited the set and met Bernard Youens who played Stanley Ogden. Michael Parkinson, Russell Harty and Sir John Betjeman formed the British League for Hilda Ogden, with Laurence Olivier as it’s president.
The New Musical Express in April 1974 ran an interview with Sir John Betjeman. Not much on the rock ‘n’ roll stakes was Betjeman but interviewer Andrew Tyler admitted he was as drunk as a boiled owl by the time he staggered out of Betjeman’s house.
Betjeman was just about to release his first LP, at the age of 67. It was released on the Charisma label, home to the likes of Monty Python, Van der Graaf Generator and Vivian Stanshall, and was called Banana Blush.
The idea for Banana Blush came from producer Hugh Murphy, who would later work on Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street. Murphy paired up Betjeman with composer Jim Parker. Initially, the poet laureate was sceptical about the project, protesting that he possessed the kind of singing voice that could bring up bodies from the murky depths of the Thames. “Just imagine you’re Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady,” he was told.
Betjeman was never the most reliable critic when it came to his own work. Upon completion, he dismissed Banana Blush as a “vulgar pop song record, a serious lapse in taste”.
It opens with Indoor Games Near Newbury, the clippity-clop of frisky tea-room jazz as the backdrop to Betjeman’s flashback, here concerning young, unconsummated love played out in a dark cupboard during a kids’ Christmas party. A love “that lay too deep for kissing”. To a temperate music hall knees-up The Flight from Bootle tells of a Liverpool lady mislaying her virtue in a seedy Piccadilly Circus hotel.
Since the album Morrissey has referenced Betjeman’s 1937 poem Slough on Everyday Is Like Sunday and chose Child Ill for his 2004 NME compilation Songs to Save Your Life. Nick Cave, Suggs and British Sea Power have all cited Betjeman as an inspiration, whereas dance producer Andrew Weatherall has covered his music. Jarvis Cocker is known to play selections from Banana Blush on his BBC 6 Music show.
Betjeman never expected his work to endure. As early as 1961 he confidently remarked: “I will be completely forgotten in five years from now.”