New version of writer's expletive-laden 1980s poem to be broadcast in February as part of celebration of poetry
Warning: this story contains offensive language
BBC Radio 4 is likely to prompt one of the biggest controversies in its history when it broadcasts a new version of Tony Harrison's expletive-laden 1980s poem, V.
V, which was written during the 1984-85 miners strike, touches on religious, cultural and racial divides in the Beeston area of Leeds.
The poem, which focuses on the author's reaction to visiting his parents' graves in Leeds, only to find the cemetary littered with beer cans and vandalised by obscene graffiti, caused a furore when it aired on Channel 4 in 1987, even prompting an early day motion in the Commons.
Radio 4 controller Gwyneth Williams on Monday morning defended the decision to broadcast the poem in its entirety, despite its repeated use of words such as "fuck", "cunt" and "nigger".
According to V, these words feature in the graffiti Harrison finds daubed on the gravestones, which in some instances were racist taunts.
V will be broadcast in February as part of a celebration of poetry on Radio 4. The new version of the poem will be preceded by a documentary about the reaction it provoked in the 1980s, and will be broadcast between 11pm and midnight and preceded by multiple warnings about the language.
"The audience doesn't like swearing and I don't like it. I tell my children not to swear," said Williams. "But you cannot tamper with the integrity of the piece. We would never do it gratuitously."
Tony Phillips, arts commissioning editor at Radio 4, said it was particularly apt to repeat it now because Beeston was where one of the 7/7 London bombers grew up.
The station also unveiled plans to recruit its first ever "writer in residence" and a £1m tie-up with London-based arts organisation Artangel to find up to five new public art projects.
Unveiling a new season of Radio 4 programmes heavy on culture, Williams said she wanted to "throw some fireworks onto the network – colourful, unpredictable, original".
Of these, the revisit to Harrison's V, thought to be the most profane programme Radio 4 has ever broadcast, is likely to make the biggest noise.
Running to around 3,500 words, V, which stands for versus, first appeared in Harrison's Penguin Selected Poems in 1985 and was filmed for Channel 4 by director Richard Eyre two years later.
Describing the graffiti found in the cemetery where his parents are buried, Harrison wrote: "One leaning left's marked FUCK, one right's marked SHIT sprayed by some peeved supporter who was pissed."
Elsewhere in his poem, Harrison writes: "The prospects for the present aren't too grand when a swastika with NF's [National Front] sprayed on a grave, to which another hand has added, in a reddish colour, CUNTS.
"But why inscribe these graves with CUNT and SHIT? Why choose neglected tombstones to disfigure? This pitman's of last century daubed PAKI GIT, this grocer Broadbent's aerosolled with NIGGER?"
Leeds-born Harrison, now 75, has described the language as "an integral part of the poem. It is the language of the football hooligan and is seen and heard every day".
The Daily Mail described it at the time of its Channel 4 broadcast as a "torrent of filth", fulminating at the four-letter words, which it said would "pour out at the rate of two a minute". The Observer said it was "the most sexually explicit language ever heard on television".
Tory MP Gerald Howarth – still a member of parliament, now knighted – accused Channel 4 of trying to "assault the public [with] more effing and blinding" and described Harrison as "another probable Bolshie seeking to impose his frustrations on the rest of us". Howarth was unavailable for comment on Monday.
Radio 4's Phillips said: "It did cause a bit of a flurry of activity in the 80s when it first went out but we will find a way to put it on air without compromising Tony Harrison's poem.
"Yes it will present some challenges but I am sure we will be able to do it with enough signposting and messaging."
Phillips added: "One of the most interesting and powerful things about this poem for me – I'm also from Leeds – is that the area where Harrison's parents are buried, Beeston, is also the area where one of the 7/7 bombers is from.
"The V he is talking about is religious and cultural and racial oppositions. It strikes me as really poignant and potentially very interesting to revisit this poem, knowing that one of the 7/7 bombers would at that stage have been a very young child.
"Britain at that stage was just in the early stages of its own religious divide – fundamentalism was on the rise and the fatwa with [Salman] Rushdie came soon after that. It's a very interesting time to take Harrison back."
V will air on Radio 4 at 11pm on 18 February, read by Harrison himself on location in Leeds and in the studio. It will be part of an hour of programming that will also include a feature about the poem, presented by Blake Morrison.
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