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The legend of King Arthur

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Abigail Appleton Abigail Appleton | 09:48 UK Time, Thursday, 9 July 2009

It's not often I discuss Drama on 3 with my four year old let alone consider playing him an extract.  But before any regular listener thinks of calling the child protection squad, don't worry,  this is not one of our more challenging contemporary plays.  Instead I've been listening to a new radio version of Tennyson's epic telling of the legend of King Arthur, Idylls of the King, which we're broadcasting this Sunday.   Tennyson was himself fascinated by the Arthurian legends from an early age and the Idylls were written over many years.  It's a huge and sometimes rambling work but for Radio 3 the poet Michael Symmons Roberts has stripped it down to focus on the central story of Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere.  For my four year old there are lines in Tennyson's descriptions of Arthur and Lancelot to thrill but as a whole this is a drama very much for adult ears.   Across two hours it tells of the rise and fall of Arthur's kingdom and through the narrative runs a tone of aching sadness as society and values crumble.    Since listening I've been haunted by the description of the Arthur's terrible 'last, dim, weird battle of the west' when, as Tennyson describes it, a mist lies across the sand and sea so that the knights are fighting blind: 

For friend and foe were shadows in the mist,
And friend slew friend not knowing whom he slew:
And some had visions out of golden youth,
And some beheld the faces of old ghosts 
Look in upon the battle; and in the mist 
Was many a noble deed, many a base...

Now imagine it read by Tim Pigott- Smith.  I hesitate to say this radio adaptation improves on the original but I think it's a very intelligent edit of an unwieldy text and powerful production.

This summer we're marking the bi-centenary of Tennyson's birth in strength on Radio 3 (and there'll be programming on Radio 4 as well) and we've found Tennyson has many fans amongst writers and artists today.  As well as Drama on 3, we've a special commission on this Friday's edition of The Verb, as composer and producer William Orbit, who's worked with Madonna and Blur amongst others, will be giving a live performance of his new setting of Tennyson's great poem of grief and friendship In Memoriam.   Later we've Andrew Motion and Fiona Shaw reading Tennyson in the Proms Plus on August 2nd, as well as a Sunday Feature and series of The Essay from contemporary poets talking about his poetry and influence.   

I've been surprised by the feeling with which people have come out for Tennyson.   Perhaps it's the very personal tone of so much of his work, or the tension between engagement with the world and withdrawal.   When, in advance of our Poetry Season I asked Radio 3 presenters if they'd like to recommend any poem that meant a lot to them Philip Dodd came straight back with Tennyson's Tithonus which begins with those echoing lines 'The woods decay, the woods decay and fall'.  For Philip the poem counts the costs of desire at the same time as it conjures up the sensuous glory of the world.  

Does Tennyson speak as powerfully to you? 

Abigail Appleton is Head of Speech Programming and Presentation for BBC Radio 3.


  • Comment number 1.

    >>Does Tennyson speak as powerfully to you?

    I much enjoyed the Do3 of Enoch Arden a few years back and have the text of Idylls but have never ventured in :-)

    Someone was asking on the A&I board about how you would cut such a huge text. I'll direct them here.

    Don't think I can quite take Maud very seriously - I don't know why ... but perhaps A, Lord T can do something with it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5JeJep_7FaM (mmm, no link, you have to copy and paste).

  • Comment number 2.

    Thanks for the link french frank. I'm off to watch this now...

  • Comment number 3.

    I wonder what language he's speaking in? :-) The attempted lip-synching doesn't help much either. These are the words, apparently, tailing off a little at the end:

    She is coming, my own, my sweet; Were it ever so airy a tread,
    My heart would hear her and beat, Were it earth in an earthy bed;
    My dust would hear her and beat, Had I lain for a century dead;
    Would start and tremble under her feet, And blossom in purple and red.

    Anyway, that's Tennyson.

  • Comment number 4.

    I missed it so went to listen again but the beginning is missing, presumably because it started early. So I went to its predecessor, The Choir, reasoning that the beginning would be at the end of that. However, that hasn't yet been updated (but it does have the new programme entry, confusingly). All I have to do is wait then splice them together. From what I heard this will be worth it!

  • Comment number 5.

    But apparently you'll have to go to the beginning of the Sunday Feature to get the very end of it :-/

  • Comment number 6.

    Hello - we are looking into these issues. There was a fault with iPlayer over the weekend.

    We'll look into the issues above.

    When these things go wrong, as they do from time to time, we post information on the site here:


    Apologies for any inconvenience,

    best wishes


  • Comment number 7.

    Thanks, Roland. Being a pessimist I've bookmarked the page!

  • Comment number 8.

    And, thanks to all concerned. All is now working.

  • Comment number 9.

    Thanks for the thanks french frank! We've made a few changes to the website today. Hope it's all looking much clearer. I'm particularly keen for people to make more of the archive that's been very buried for the last 18 months or so. The homepage promos now link through to new sections of the site that have been added this morning to make navigation easier. What do you think french frank? I'll try to blog about it soon.

    As from Friday we'll be using the blog a lot to pull together activity from down at the RAH.

    best wishes

    (Editor, Radio 3 Interactive)


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