The Song of Lunch, BBC2’s filmed version of Christopher Reid’s long poem, was excellent. I had some misgivings because a poem’s own words should be able to take care of themselves without the help of images and it’s an abomination to put music behind a poem, but I found it effective and poignant. I didn’t know the poem and so did spend the first viewing trying to work out the form. I could hear rhymes in couplets but the line lengths seemed to be irregular.
The poem is narrated by Alan Rickman, who plays the fifty something man who meets his former lover for lunch after fifteen years separation. I love Alan Rickman and he is absolutely right as the embittered copy editor and minor poet with his face of an affronted falcon and the voice that delivers words with precision but can go gravelly and sneer ironically. Emma Thompson is the ex-lover and she has much less to say. She looks exactly as an ageing failure would hate to see his ex-lover looking – contented and elegant, with news of her marriage to a successful novelist, the boys she has by him and their life together in Paris. Her face and eyes get across her pity, her familiar exasperation and her sense that when she had dumped Alan Rickman and gone off with her present husband she had made exactly the right choice.
A poem dramatised like that can fall into an awkward literalism. Alan Rickman’s internal monologue deals with his ex-lover’s shapely wrist, and so the camera rests on the wrist. (Fortunately when the narrator of the poem describes what his pee looks like the camera just showed his back view in front of the porcelain.) However, this was well judged and conveyed what happens when we go through such events. Our senses are heightened and we remember the smallest detail, as when travelling in a foreign country, the foreign country being for the Rickman character the present, a hostile place, and at this lunch through his behaviour he banishes himself from the lovelier past.
It is a poem about ageing and disappointment and how we inflict wounds on ourselves as Alan Rickman pours more wine and screws up yet another important happening in his life. The final word which clinches how time has moved on with death coming into sight, is a shock, like coming across your own tombstone.
I don’t know how many poems would lend themselves to a filmed treatment of this kind. Tony Harrison’s “V.” which Channel 4 filmed amidst a lot of controversy because of its four letter words was pretty good, though more of a montage of images against the words than a dramatisation. I have heard long dramatic poems like Tennyson‘s Maud done on radio successfully but you couldn‘t do The Wasteland for instance. There has to be some dramatic situation to give the scenes tension and suspense, and characters you can be interested in. I thought The Song of Lunch was inspired and hope the Beeb does something similar again.