While the thought of putting a long poem about a lunch onto the small screen may not sound thrilling, this reading by Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson (talk about casting big guns) brings the work to life in a way you just wouldn't get if you read The Song of Lunch to yourself in your head. It comes as no surprise that Reid took James Joyce's Ulysses as an inspiration for The Song of Lunch, as that's another long piece of writing that gains immensely from being read aloud. The original poem The Song of Lunch has been praised for its cinematic quality, a quality which is plain even without watching Rickman acting out the words being intoned by his own voiceover.
What we have in The Song of Lunch is a slightly mournful reminiscing about past love, the fading of youthful promise and the remorseless march of time. Alan Rickman is beautifully cast as a failed writer stuck in a job editing other people's (in his opinion, worthless) prose. The lunch is question is with his old flame, Emma Thompson, now happily married (to a successful author, the agony!) with children yet still curiously affectionate toward a man she chastises for being overly fond of her. They're having lunch to catch up after fifteen (or so) years, and this is where the combination of small screen dramatisation and poetry really comes into its own. Aching moments are slowed down to allow for the poetic interior monologue of Rickman's thoughts and narration to pour out and colour the scene, filling in the blanks pulsing with heart-saddened meaning.
But The Song of Lunch is about more than just the lunch, and more than Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson. Okay, so it's a bit of an obvious metaphor that Reid goes for, but the restaurant itself encapsulates the overriding theme at work here. Remembered by Rickman's character as a niche and proudly Italian restaurant fifteen years ago, Zanzotti's is under new management...new waiters, new tablecloths, new menu (content and printing material), less satisfying wine (but, boy, does Rickman get through the stuff) and less impressive food. He's as disappointed by that as he is with his life since he last saw Thompson's character. Yet she is pleasantly surprised at the 'improvement', as she calls it. For her, none of Rickman's (gloriously expressed) contempt of white tablecloths – another case of Reid taking a leaf from Joyce and examining the minutiae of the mundane – and far less of the wine used as a coping mechanism. Thompson is assured and comfortable (both actress and character), humouring her old lover but reminding him of the boundaries; unlike him, she has moved on, thanks in part to that remorseless march of time thing.
Most impressive about the BBC's The Song of Lunch is the way in which dedicated acting brings to dramatic life a poem already vividly cinematic in quality. Although the final message does seem to be that, when meeting an old flame, drinking too much wine is unwise...you might end up sleeping it off on the roof.
The Song of Lunch may still be available via BBC iPlayer here.
Photos courtesy of the BBC and Digimist (weekends mostly).