© The Financial Times Ltd 2014 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
August 15, 2014 6:28 pm
The BBC’s mini-poetry season (see also Sunday TV) presents a jeu d’esprit on, of all things, “Piers Plowman”, that 14th-century visionary poem recounting how a working man falls asleep and dreams about England: the state, the people, religion and the church. Not much jeu, one would think, still less esprit. But Radio 4 has thought up a way of breaking the ice on this rather forbidding prospect: giving the back story of how a serious programme on a medieval masterwork comes to be made. The result is Piers the Plowman Revisited (Sunday, 4.30pm), a cheerful exercise in pill-sweetening that manages to avoid dumbing down.
The writer Ian Sansom receives a call from the corporation accepting his proffered idea of a programme on William Langland’s poem. However, his BBC contact – the real thing in a real phone call, though it sounds like a snippet of reality TV – needs an angle to persuade his colleagues of the artistic potential of a man snoozing in a field (shades of Bob Newhart’s baffled businessman faced with Walter Ralegh pitching tobacco). Sansom agrees to write a presentation of a version. His rather drastic method – writers with deadlines will sympathise – is to retire for two days’ seclusion in a curfew tower in Antrim. It belongs to Bill Drummond, artist, writer and provocateur famous for burning £1m of his own money; artists of various sorts can stay there free, a more sociable way of producing the same effect. Sansom consults scholars, performers and a fair field filled with media folk, most of whom make the task seem more daunting: pre-Chaucerian English, three different texts, biblical and theological references, and Langland’s tendency, despite soapbox oratory, to leave questions unresolved.
Comparisons include Ginsberg – is the poem the 14th-century “Howl” for abrasive social comment? – and Beckett, because nothing ends. During Sansom’s sojourn much noisy shouting ensues as well as a medieval dinner served on trenchers. Supportive chums advertise a public performance by Sansom for the delectation of the locals – these are the sort of friends without whom a hack could well do. How much Sansom has actually achieved is left doubtful. Presumably the finished article is in some BBC pipeline. England expects.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.