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Tough Guys Recite: The 5 Best Poetry Spittin' TV Characters

Edward Woodward as Robert McCall in The Equalizer (1985) -- about to spew bullets? or Yeats?

Every generic hero on TV can finish a poetic quotation or identify a poignant quatrain (down to the line numbers). But few can spit Tennyson or Yeats with such venom as these guys.

While preparing for the upcoming video conference The Poetry and Poetics of Popular Culture (11-12 November 2011), Retro Remote naturally started thinking about all those TV heroes of the past still flickering through his static-filled brain, and one question always came to mind:

How did they know all that poetry that they could easily recite at the drop of a hat -- or the draw of a gun?

TV taught me pretty quickly that every generic hero could finish off a wryly delivered quotation (usually to undermine the original reciter) or identify a poignant quatrain (down to the line numbers), even though they never seemed to have much time for books in between knocking over stacks of empty boxes in car chases or making goo-goo eyes at the sole recurring female character. (The villains usually knew all the poetry, too, but generally didn't have the decency to keep it under their (black) hats, especially if they were Alan Rickman-style, Euro-types.)

It probably wasn't until early episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation that I started to recognise this as a contrivance of lazy writing rather than a secret universal knowledge of all the world's literature that I was unfairly excluded from (modern technology hadn't even eviscerated my capacity for memory, at that point). Writers seem to love literary references because it pays off for everyone: the characters look smart, the writers look smart, the producers and the networks get to feel smart, and audiences can smugly bathe in a reference to authentic lit-er-a-ture in between villain-smashings. Now, thanks to Google, a wealth of literary tokens are just clicks away for all kinds of sophistication-seeking writers (note: any and every literary or cultural reference in any series of the Law & Order franchise is officially the stupidest thing you will ever see).

Not to be picking on TV (Retro Remote kinda likes it, y'know); it's just that this kind of lazy use of poetry as a trigger for "sophistication" really just reinforces the needless divide between popular and literary culture, rather than truly suggesting that both realms might be able to build from each other. It's a bit like that clip of Steve Allen "reciting" Gene Vincent's (too-often taken-for-granted) "Be-Bop-a-Lula", which isn't mistaken in looking for poetry, it's just looking for the wrong kind.

But broad commentary about the state of television always misses the bright spots, and there's still plenty of literate heroes out there whose credentials don't seem to have been formed solely by lazy scriptwriters and three minutes spent searching on Google. So, in classic inverse Homeric hysteron proteron last-first "internet list" format (i.e., regular), here five great moments of poetry on TV...

5. Babylon 5

"The Parliament of Dreams" and Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Ulysses"

Babylon 5 tended to tiptoe that line between pop and pretension, but pretension can also be tied up with authentic ideals and worthy ambition. While much of Babylon 5 is heavy-handed, it also remains an intriguing example of long-form and multi-level television narrative, stretching its story over a pre-planned five-year arc before this kind of approach was widely embraced as part of most television narratives. Even now, with long-form narrative expected for high-end television, we rarely get the sense that the storylines are planned in any real depth for more than a year at a time (ongoing narrative is often the result of convenience, flukes, standard correlation, or Lost-style writing on-the-fly), so it's still exciting to see Babylon 5 set up some of its major conflicts long before they pay off (the big story doesn't really get moving until season three) and, best of all, flash-forward to one of its final scenes, years before it would actually air.

With that kind of lofty ambition ticking away behind the scenes, it seems suitable that space station Babylon 5's commander (in the first season, anyway) Jeffrey Sinclair (played by the underrated Michael O'Hare, who never quite got his "moment" in the series) spends some time brooding Batman-style in his quarters, pretentiously over-identifying with Tennyson's great poem "Ulysses" and wondering why he "metes and doles unequal laws" unto a savage space race.

To emphasise the point, generic sassy former-love-interest #1 wanders in and reminds him that he's been pretentiously brooding over that poem since college (in contrast to Jerry Doyle's Michael Garibaldi, who spends most of his time watching Looney Tunes cartoons). Sinclair should probably let it go (self-aggrandise much?), but such indulgences are clearly part of creator J. Michael Straczynski's serious attempt to draw some powerful and complex resonances from his space station story, and this poem, along with many other references, seem to be setting lofty, but sincere, goals. Straczynski was pushing for something big and, for the most part, it paid off (in ways that most of his later work so far hasn't been able to match). It's by no means a throwaway moment; Straczynski also draws on Tennyson's poem when, in pilot episode "The Gathering", Sinclair is asked to explain his motivations for persisting with Babylon 5; motivations that are, no doubt, both his and Straczynski's.

4. The Union Bank of Switzerland Poetry Campaign

Speaking of Tennyson's "Ulysses", what could be a better use for TV than to broadcast a John Gielgud reading of the great poem? Score one, television.

Of course, there's a catch.

Somehow, this time Tennyson isn't just calling us to consider the lofty ideals that Straczynski recognised above – he's also trying to tell us where to bank.

As part of a corporate re-branding for the Union Bank of Switzerland, the old poetry-equals-sophistication connection was pushed into high gear. Through advertising agency Young & Rubicam, ad-man Neil French gathered an extraordinary collection of some of the world's greatest living actors reading some of the world's greatest poetry. Sir John Gielgud read Tennyson's "Ulysses" and Shakespeare's "There is a tide in the affairs of men", Alan Bates read William Ernest Henley's "Invictus" and Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken", Harvey Keitel read Rudyard Kipling's "If", William Butler Yeats' "The Cloths of Heaven", and so on (take a look at Neil French's site for a full list with videos).

Somehow it all turns into something so very, very ugly.

Nothing wrong with the recitations of course, and there's nothing wrong with the poetry, but the smug, crass, and cynical appropriation of great poetry for the sole aim of targeting a higher class of client – described by Neil French as "the disgracefully rich, basically" – leaves the whole thing with a markedly unpleasant aftertaste. Maybe it's the overdone "artsy" production, the mediocre and unnecessary application of background music, or the cringe-worthy "thoughts that transcend time from Union Bank of Switzerland" label that opens the performance. Most of all, perhaps it's the terrible undercutting of any real value that's suggested by the great works in the ugly anti-poetry that closes each recitation: "Union Bank of Switzerland: Here Today. Here Tomorrow". The idiocy of the slogan is all the more apparent when placed after their production of Ben Kingsley reading Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias".

3. The Equalizer

"Bump and Run" and William Butler Yeats' "The Second Coming"

In the gloomy '60s UK series Callan (1967-1972), Edward Woodward was a tough spy with a working class demeanour and a cynical, downbeat attitude. When Woodward hit American screens in the '80s as a seeming extension of the same character in The Equalizer (1985-1989) he was a little more refined and cultured. So, while Callan probably knew his poetry as part of a standard British education (and was usually more interested in his model soldier collection), Robert McCall in The Equalizer was a US-TV "British" person, and thus classy, cultured, and a little bemused at, well, everything.

The Equalizer is a guilty(ish) pleasure of grimy '80s street-crime drama, offering the same joys as a Death Wish marathon, but without the ugliness and idiocy that permeates the sequels (the original is quite unfairly maligned!). A little too "neat", there's still an odd thrill in seeing debonair Woodward pull out an uzi and take it to some street thugs, and his "you are scum!" rant at a villain is a still a classic moment.

In one of the better entries of the first season, McCall discovers that a somewhat less-compassionate vigilante is hitting the streets and using his M.O. (creating the usual bad-vigilante/nice-vigilante contrast that modern Batman stories and the like generally use as a smokescreen to cover their hero's questionable behaviour). Sophisticated and frustrated like McCall, the faux-Equalizer is a public defender played by Brian Bedford who has seen a few too many of his guilty clients let off. Though fitting a standard reactionary depiction of "revolving door justice", the episode – thanks in large part to Bedford's performance – suggests a more honest and authentic human conflict in response to a legal system that is complex and carries unavoidable contradictions and compromises even when working effectively. The conflict between one man as both defence attorney and vigilante (as in the best "Daredevil" comics – but not the movie...) is never fully explored, but the hint of an interesting underlying conflict remains.

The delicate synchronicity between the two "Equalizers" is nicely demonstrated as they recite William Butler Yeats' "The Second Coming", the recitation acting almost as a bemused shrug at the moans of gloom and despair at a system "falling apart"; and yet, in a nice piece of understatement, we are also left to find in it their tacit agreement, even as they recognise the ultimate futility and state of impasse of the world described.

Bleak, gloomy, and full or foreboding, "The Second Coming" also found a place in Straczynski's Babylon 5, as G'kar (the excellent Andreas Katsulas) found some traces of wisdom in human culture:

2. Have Gun – Will Travel

"Comanche" and Edwin Markham's "Lincoln, the Man of the People"

Retro Remote's unapologetic nomination for The Greatest TV Show of All Time, Have Gun – Will Travel featured the urbane, witty and literate cowboy Paladin (played by Richard Boone) righting wrongs (for a fee) and quoting literature, theatre, and poems (usually for free) all over the old West (McCall in The Equalizer was something of a modern-day version, replacing Paladin's for-hire calling card with a newspaper ad).

Retro Remote has already written about the tough and confronting tone of Have Gun – Will Travel, and this toughness was always tied to a literary awareness that seemed to contextualise the stories in a larger historical, social and cultural context. Paladin's literary characteristics seemed to serve as a way to promlematise the stories that, according to the usual understanding of generic conventions, would usually end up deproblematised by the time the last bullet was fired. Where other cowboy heroes would take a victory and ride back into a stable and coherent society, Paladin would usually find a line of verse or two to make it clear that any simple resolution we might find in the doing away of a villain was illusory, and that cheap victories often came at a greater cost.

Though the episodes usually end with a killing, it's rarely the kind of clean ending that leaves all questions answered and problems solved: despite the "have gun" emphasis, Paladin's main weapon is almost always logic and language, and their failure always seems to be our failure as much as his. Far from delivering ideological enclosure (as is often said of episodic genre television), Have Gun – Will Travel used Paladin's literacy as a way to question the simplicity of generic conventions, even while delivering the expected thrills.

An epic quoter, there's no shortage of Paladin's literary quotations to choose from: Robert Browning, John Milton, John Keats, John Webster, John Donne, John Greenleaf Whittier, and, of course, Shakespeare and the King James Bible. Overwhelmed by the amount of literary quotation, I eventually started keeping a list: there's also a handful of other "quotes" I haven't been able to find sources for – no doubt writers disguising their own best stuff as great historical quotes! With quotes flying in just about every episode, who can say which is the best? But any scene in which Boone gets to recite at (relative) length is an extra bonus. Boone's brief recitation from Edwin Markham's "Lincoln, the Man of the People" is as good as any, even if it involves Paladin changing the words a little – something we can presumably forgive, given that Paladin recites it shortly after the Battle of Little Bighorn, some 25years before the poem would actually be written!

#1: Rumpole of the Bailey

"Rumpole and the Age for Retirement" and Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Ulysses"

Paladin's literary clout in Have Gun – Will Travel wouldn't be matched by a regular TV character for another 20 years or so, when Horace Rumpole, John Mortimer's crumpled and crass Old Bailey barrister, stepped up to defend all kinds of petty crims and working class "villains". Luckily, unlike Have Gun – Will Travel, someone online has already taken care of the cataloguing task, compiling a partial (in progress) list of Rumpole's poetic quotations.

British TV like Rumpole was standard viewing growing up in Australia, and Rumpole still seems to provide a perfectly balanced viewing experience, transcending the sense of enclosure and meandering aimlessness that fills so much generic British television of the time without launching into the sensationalism and ideological expansionism of the US equivalents (yes, I'm generalising horribly). Rumpole shows a world of dour – perhaps archaic – institutions and small-time tussles, without sacrificing the idea that there might still be higher ideas and ideals lurking behind the conventional constraints and street-level griminess. Rumpole fights without being a crusader, undercuts without being an iconoclast, and returns home to relative comfort (and claret) leaving the problems of the day behind him without being a sell-out.

As such, Rumpole is also an important antidote to the divisiveness and sensationalism of most legal dramas. Rumpole knowingly defends all kinds of career criminals, an (all too rare) example of a TV defence lawyer who's simply there to get the best results for his clients – guilty or innocent. It also juggles a mix of whimsical irresponsibility and social commentary, with Rumpole functioning happily within the confines of his profession, but never becoming blind to its deviations, contradictions, and injustices. While shows like Law & Order resort to vein-popping sensationalism to produce tabloid-style nonsense, the real tensions and conflicts in Rumpole play out quietly, easily and naturally underneath the everyday processes of law – something that makes Rumpole of the Bailey one of the great joys of television, and the perfect mix of popular and poetic realities.

As with Have Gun – Will Travel, scarcely an episode goes by without Rumpole delving into his Oxford Book of English Verse, so let's stay with the tried and true, and see Tennyson's "Ulysses" expertly woven into Rumpole's retirement speech:

* * *

For more poetry and pop culture, be sure to take a look at the online video conference "The Poetry and Poetics of Popular Culture", taking place November 11-12.

In the meantime, remember: tough guys recite, but they don't bank at the Union Bank of Switzerland.

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