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29 October 2014
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Stars line up for modern retelling of The Canterbury Tales for BBC ONE

"The Tales are the most fantastic stories full of comedy, tragedy and the full range of human emotions." Kate Bartlett, producer of The Canterbury Tales

Stars line up for Canterbury Tales

Press pack available

Canterbury Tales has gathered together an outstanding cast which includes Julie Walters, James Nesbitt, Om Puri, John Simm, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Paul Nicholls, Dennis Waterman, Keeley Hawes, Billie Piper, Indira Varma, Andrew Lincoln and Jonny Lee Miller, in six single dramas for BBC ONE.

Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales are retold for a modern audience by some of Britain's best known contemporary writers (Tony Marchant, Peter Bowker, Sally Wainwright and Tony Grounds) as well as two writers new to television drama (Olivia Hetreed and Avie Luthra) in one of the most ambitious adaptations undertaken by the BBC.

Each of the tales is updated to the 21st century and set along the pilgrims' route to Canterbury.

The journey begins in Southwark, going on through Gravesend, Rochester and Chatham to Canterbury.

For two of the executive producers, Laura Mackie and Franc Roddam, their Canterbury Tales journey began in spring 2001 in Phoenix, Arizona, when they were looking for locations for Auf Wiedersehen Pet.

"We were held up in Roy's Bar until the snow storms cleared over the Grand Canyon," says Roddam.

"I had just taken over from Jane Tranter as Head of Drama Serials and I told Franc about the projects we were developing and that we were looking for a piece that reflected life in the new century," says Mackie.

"Franc is a brilliant ideas man and he mentioned The Canterbury Tales and what enduring stories they were. We discussed how it might be possible to update them to the present day and that sowed the seed of the idea.

"The diversity of characters in the Tales reveals everyone's vanity and false humility and the morality of life in the 14th century," says Roddam.

"We recognise with this retelling that the 21st century is no different from the 14th in that human weakness plays havoc with the human heart and that there is still room for us to wise up.

"I wanted the new season of tales to entertain but also give us a little kick in the butt."

When Laura Mackie returned from Arizona and discussed the idea with Jane Tranter, BBC Controller of Drama Commissioning, the response she received was to "aim high".

So once Mackie had signed the producer Kate Bartlett, the process of choosing which tales to adapt and the writers to update them began in earnest.

"Kate really grabbed the concept and drove it with great energy," says Mackie. "We got together a wish list of established writers and also some newer writers.

"This was a vital element of the mix because I believe it's important that new writers are given a chance to work on original concepts as well as on returning series.

"We wanted to have a good mix of stories," says Mackie, "so we balanced some of the saucier, more comedic tales with the more serious and darker stories.

"We also wanted to match those tales with the different writers' strengths. For example, Peter Bowker is brilliant at comedy so we sent him The Miller's Tale, while Tony Marchant is wonderful at darker, more emotionally charged territory.

"We wanted to make sure we had a range of different stories so that each one felt unique whilst at the same time complementing each other."

For Kate Bartlett, remaining as faithful to the original themes as possible was crucial to the overall concept.

"I wanted to be as faithful to the stories and spirit of the Tales as possible and we have tried to achieve that.

"They're not issue-based reality dramas. We often had to introduce sub-plots and secondary stories because we always wanted the dramas to work on two levels.

"They had to appeal to those more familiar with Chaucer but also work in their own right as single films, to an audience unfamiliar with Chaucer, and this was important to all of us.

"The Tales are the most fantastic stories full of comedy, tragedy and the full range of human emotions," says Kate Bartlett.

"The stories embody the timeless themes of love, lust, greed, power, anger and bigotry – these emotions are as relevant today as they were 600 years ago.

"The characters too are timeless. The Wife of Bath, for example, is a wonderful, feisty, bawdy, independent woman who is very much alive and living in the 21st century. Society might have changed, but human emotions and characters have not."

After a year in development and armed with the scripts finally ready for shooting, Bartlett began searching for directors and a cast that would carry the tales to the screen.

"We always wanted to be ambitious with the casting," says Mackie. "Because each film involved a short commitment of two or three weeks, we were able to attract top-class artists like Julie Walters, Jimmy Nesbitt, Om Puri and Jonny Lee Miller, as well as some terrific new talent like Nikki Amuka-Bird and Billie Piper.

"The six films offer very different viewing experiences," says Mackie. "Some will appeal to audiences who like comedy drama while others will appeal to an audience who want a more challenging narrative.

"Hopefully the audience will be drawn to one for a particular piece of casting or storyline and come back for more."

For Kate Bartlett, the whole experience of making six contemporary, individual, single films has been an extraordinary challenge.

"Every shoot was completely and utterly different with a new cast for each film and four different directors and crews.

"Each tale was set in a different location, so filming ranged from the amazing experience of townships in South Africa to the harsh reality of Wandsworth prison, from historic Rochester Cathedral to a run-down karaoke pub.

"The challenge of making six films, each scripted by a distinctive and original writer, with a strong and individual directorial style for each film, was hard work but incredibly exciting and rewarding," says Bartlett.

"However, ultimately we have to thank Chaucer for writing such good stories 600 years ago."

Canterbury Tales is produced by Kate Bartlett (The Stretford Wives).

The directors are Julian Jarrold, John McKay, Marc Munden and Andy De Emmony.

The executive producers are Laura Mackie, Franc Roddam and Sally Haynes.

Canterbury Tales starts on BBC ONE on Thursday 11 September at 9.00pm with The Miller's Tale.

Notes to Editors

Canterbury Tales press pack is available below in PDF format.

You may require Adobe Acrobat Software to read PDF files which can be obtained here.

Tip for users: when in the PDF files use the "Zoom In" tool to magnify the text.

The Miller's Tale (482 KB)

The Knight's Tale (811 KB)

Information about The Knight's Tale is also available in sections
The Tale and Credits (319 KB)
Interview with Tony Marchant (272 KB)
Cast interviews (358 KB)

The Pardoner's Tale (588 KB)

The Wife of Bath (645 KB)

The Sea Captain's Tale (1.06 MB)

Information about The Sea Captain's Tale is also available in sections
The Tale and Credits (331 KB)
Interview with Avie Luthra (280 KB)
Cast interviews (600 KB)

The Man of Law's Tale (688 KB)

Get writing with BBC ONE's Canterbury Tales (189 KB)

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