Just so there are no recriminations later, before I suggest you should watch it, I should spell out exactly what The Song Of Lunch (BBC Two, Friday, 9pm) is, up front. It’s best to go in with your eyes open.
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No, wait, come back. There’s more, and it’s best to get it out in the open. Not only is The Song Of Lunch a 45-minute dramatisation of a poem. It’s a poem about – brace yourself – an editor at a London publishing house, having lunch in Soho with an old flame he hasn’t seen for 15 years, who now lives in Paris with her successful writer husband. And, there’s no use in trying to deny this: the main roles are played by Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson.
So, that’s Severus Snape and Nanny McPhee, two of the most chilling outriders of luvvie apocalypse, as literary London sorts. Yaw-yawing at each other. About relationships. While they eat. In verse. Short of an introductory tweet from Stephen Fry and a nodding round-table discussion for afters, it’s difficult to picture how a programme could present as being any more nauseatingly middle-class, precious and pleased with itself. The kind of thing, all in all, designed to make people who watch it feel classy for being the kind of people who would watch it.
Now, having given fair warning, I feel I can say with impunity that it is also superb. This is partly simply because it is the one thing on television this week that isn’t like anything else on television this week, carving out its own lulling little space in the schedules. But by any measure, it’s a fine piece of work, and one that succeeds despite heavy odds, and not merely the initial danger of choking on its own apparent highfalutin smugness.
Adapted by director Niall MacCormick, Reid’s poem is a slender but deeply observed and felt tale of regret, melancholy, bitterness, jealousy, impotence, chances lost and thrown away, time passing and getting drunk – the sort of thing you could imagine Mad Men’s Don Draper writing when he hits his mid-50s. It’s presented as the inner monologue of Rickman’s character, a man curdling in on himself. A failed poet, he manages to be idiotic, pompous and yet slightly heroic, as when describing his day job, sullenly editing other people’s books:
“It’s an ordinary day/ in a publishing house/ of ill repute/Another moronic manuscript/ comes crashing down the chute/to be turned into art/ This morning it was Wayne W***er’s/ latest dog’s dinner/ of sex, teenage philosophy/ and writing-course prose/ Abracadabra, kick it up the arse/ and out it goes/ to be Book of the Week/ or some other bollocks.”
Most of all, Rickman’s wounded narrator is appalled to see that, while he festers and raves at getting older in a world that keeps turning and is increasingly filled by idiots, his old love seems to be flourishing. Worse, not only is she perfectly happy without him, she also seems to feel slightly sorry for him. And so the long-awaited lunch lurches from anticipation to disaster, the downward slide lubricated by each mouthful of wine he knocks back.
The site of their brief encounter is an Italian restaurant where the two used to meet as lovers. Formerly a bustling, noisy little hideaway trattoria with its own character and characters, he’s dismayed to discover it has also betrayed him by changing, to become a sleeker, soulless modern establishment, patrolled by efficient young staff who stare through him. The raffia-wrapped Chianti bottles and kitschy gingham cloths that once covered the tables are gone:
“The very table linen/ has lost its patriotism/ Plain white: we surrender.”
Deceptively straightforward, funny and aching, the poem takes a narrative form, but in the opening minutes comes the sinking feeling that the film is merely going to unravel as a string of painfully literal visual translations of every single word and phrase. For example, when Rickman says, “He shuts the door,” there comes a shot of him shutting a door. “He taps the lift button,” is accompanied by a close up of his finger giving the lift button a tap, and so on.
The great danger is that the spell of the language gets diluted. As the pictures pile up, they merely get in the way of words that were so painstakingly put together, torn apart, chopped down, and then put together again for the page; even – indeed, especially – when they are pictures of the very things the words describe.
Soon, though, the sound and weight, the rhythm, pathos and humour of the writing, beautifully delivered by Rickman in particular, assert themselves and take dominance. (Thompson is also brilliant, but one of the points of the poem is that her character doesn’t get quite so much to say.)
The solidness of the images begins to melt as the voice takes over. The situation and characters are very familiar, but the perspective is acute, the telling hypnotic. Intimate and demanding concentration without ever seeming to demand it, it’s very much like the idea of “radio with pictures” in a way that most TV isn’t.
Commissioned to mark National Poetry Day (October 7, as if you didn’t know), the programme recalls an extended version of the idents the BBC made last year for its Poetry Season – those little trailers where Lauren Laverne or Phil Jupitus would be sitting in a cafe, then suddenly lapse into rhapsodies of verse.
Not every piece of poetry could stand the approach without being greatly reduced, but Christopher Reid’s writing survives; light, unforced and standing on legs of cement. The whole thing just works. BBC Two controller Janice Hadlow has said that she hopes it “will inspire people to get writing themselves”. I’m not so sure about that, but it should certainly send more people off to read the original poem.
It can’t all be poetry, of course. As evidence, there is Human Target (Fiver, Thursday, 10pm) a new, all-action, high-octane American import, based on a comic book. Our chiselled, reckless hero is Christopher Chance (Mark Valley), a kind of extreme private bodyguard, who basically puts himself in the line of fire in the place of various threatened clients every week. This week on a high-speed train that’s about to derail! Next week, on a jumbo jet that’s going to crash and he has to fly upside down!
Along the way are fights, bangs, bullets, regular wisecracks and general flinty-but-twinkly manly maverick behaviour. Imagine a dumbed-up 24, with a sense of humour. As entertaining as beer.