Saturday, 9 October 2010

The Song of Lunch on BBC Two

Alan Rickman & Emma Thomson in the BBC's screening of Chris Reid's poem, The Song of LunchWhen Christopher Reid, writer of The Song of Lunch recently dramatised by the BBC, was teaching at my University he always came across as an advocate of the idea that poetry had to be read aloud to be fully appreciated. The BBC's staging of his long poem The Song of Lunch does great service in defence of this idea (but don't be put off reading it aloud yourself – like radio, the pictures may be better and/or more personal that way). Interestingly, it was Reid's successor at the University of Hull, Martin Goodman, who suggested The Song of Lunch be dramatised in the first place.

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 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 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).


  1. This poem saved my life! I had begun to believe it was impossible for anything new and fresh to appear on the television. The prose were familiar, the restaurant also and the actors were familiar and exceptionaly suitable. Thank you.

  2. Do we know if this is set for a DVD release any time soon?

  3. The English were very fortunate to have TV shows of such quality. I just found this short film, it is a marvel. I am French I do not speak perfect English but A. Rickman and E. Thompson is so talented that the language barrier is crossed. This story reminded me of memories, finally ...
    Thank you for this time of poetry