The Song Of Lunch: Making a poem into a drama

Thursday 7 October 2010, 11:15

Greg Wise Greg Wise Actor

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One of my oldest friends, Martin Goodman, now the professor of creative writing at Hull University, thrust a little book into my hands about six months ago saying he thought the poem contained within, The Song of Lunch, would make a great film.

Martin had just taken over the professorship from Christopher Reid, the author of the poem.

The Song of Lunch in itself, is quite a brief story: man leaves his office, walks through town to a restaurant and has lunch with an old flame. However, as with all things great, it is also a huge story.

It is mythical - it is a Greek tragedy - it is Orpheus and Eurydice - it is a man trying to bring back to life his dead wife.

And is that possible? You will have to watch to find out...

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Before I had even finished reading it, I could see that this piece of narrative poetry would, indeed, be able to be transformed into a film: and most excitingly, nothing would need to be added - it was all there - the location described, the action relayed, the interior narrative and the dialogue was all present in the original writing.

I met up with the marvellous Christopher Reid at a local pub for a slightly boozy lunch and he kindly allowed me to put my case to the BBC.

I know Auntie gets a kicking a lot of the time, but all I can say is God bless public service broadcasting. I know no other broadcaster would have the vision, the bravery and the commitment to undertake a piece of work such as this, and for that the BBC should be praised.

Allegedly, nobody had ever witnessed a quicker commission - partly as I thought the piece should be broadcast on National Poetry Day (which was fast-approaching) and partly because our two stars, Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson had a tiny window of availability (also fast-approaching).

Within a couple of weeks of my 'pitch' I was working with an executive, Sarah Brown, and a producer, Pier Wilkie - carefully going through the poem, putting it into script form, and finally working with our wonderful director, Niall MacCormick.

We were all in utterly uncharted territory, for, as far as we were aware, a poem had never been made into a film before: how were we to transpose verse into film - what were the rules, what was the grammar, how do we move from the interior monologue to dialogue?

Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson in The Song Of Lunch

Working closely with Christopher Reid, who, thankfully, sanctioned various cuts in the piece, a shooting script was put together and we embarked on 10 very hard days of filming. The filming coincided with the 30 degrees plus heatwave we had in London over the summer, and sitting in a heavily-lit restaurant, poor Emma got heat exhaustion on the first day of the shoot.

Air-conditioning units were wheeled in for the remaining days, gallons of water drunk, but it was still like an oven on set.

My job, as far as I saw it, was to try and launch the piece - persuade the BBC to make it, ask my old chum, Alan Rickman, if he'd like to do it, thankfully also have my wife, Emma, fall in love with the piece, work on the script up until the shoot - and then just to let all the wonderful people get on with it - for I thought there is nothing worse than having an executive producer (for that was my title) get in the way of the filming process.

The result is thrilling: a film full of hope, despair, regret, drunkenness, verbal dexterity, but above all, humour. The humour of life, of the absurd.

From the outset, I was adamant that this piece had to stand up in its own right, shouldn't be seen as a rarefied intellectual exercise, that we, as the audience, should forget that this is a poem, until a rhyming couplet suddenly jumps out at us - above all, we should be taken on a wonderful journey, surrounded by words: words seamlessly moving from voice-over narration into dialogue, back into narration.

We should wallow in a sea of words: hear them, taste them, smell them.

I am so proud of everyone connected with this film and I hope the joy I feel is shared by all who watch it.

Greg Wise is the executive producer of The Song Of Lunch.

The Song Of Lunch is on at 9pm on Friday, 8 October on BBC Two and BBC HD.

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