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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.