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The Song of Lunch, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

The Song of Lunch, BBC Two

The Song of Lunch, BBC Two

Alan Rickman is superb in Christopher Reid's narrative elegy

'You're out to lunch at your own lunch': Alan Rickman in Christopher Reid's 'The Song of Lunch'

On the set of Downton Abbey I recently put some questions to Maggie Smith. She was reflecting on the end of her incarceration in Hogwarts. “Alan Rickman and I ran out of reaction shots,” she said, in exactly that mock-baffled tone you’d expect of her. “We couldn’t think what sort of faces we would pull. I remember him saying he’d got up to about 360-something and there weren’t any left.” On the glorious evidence of The Song of Lunch, Rickman was keeping some back.

This was as audacious a piece of thinking outside the box as the BBC drama department has committed in years. You wonder whether it slipped out as a result of a clerical mishap, of someone mistaking the proposal for an expenses slip. Miraculously, there was neither corpse nor bonnet within a thousand yards. The Song of Lunch (BBC Two) was, believe it or not, a dramatisation of a poem, Christopher Reid’s narrative account of a disastrous meeting between former lovers at a trattoria where they once held hands and made eyes and refuelled before and/or after what Rickman's old soak called “the polyrhythmic riding he’ll never know again”.

In the space between them, memories stubbornly refused to be conjured up as more than ethereal phantoms

You knew you were in for the rarest of treats as Rickman’s brontosaurian publisher slipped furtively out of his office in “leafy literary land that by some dispensation has been left to stand amid the road drills and high swivelling cranes” and snaked towards Soho in conspiratorial anticipation of the flame whooshing priapically back to life.

His first shock was that the corny old tratt had had a makeover: no more Chianti in baskets, checked tablecloths and insincere over-attention from genuinely Italian waiters; instead, he was impersonally “eyebrowed” to his table and handed a “twanging laminated card” proffering wine overleaf and pizzas by the yard. “Things are different, after all, under new mismanagements,” he sighed.

By this point Rickman had barely uttered a word. As his beady commentary unspooled in his head, his facial expressions performed a bewitching pas de deux, brows twitching, mouth moueing, those slow, hooded eyes betraying contempt, weariness, anger, terror in ever such intricate disharmony. A bottle was brought - “His quick nose wants to pick up the escaping bouquet” - and that haughty proboscis carefully leant in to capture uncorked aromas.

“What will she look like?” he wondered as he kept watch on the door, part prowling hunter, part watchful prey, as he dangerously guzzled barely aired plonko rosso. This overture could have gone on forever, but then Emma Thompson suddenly materialised, inexpressibly peachy in angelic white, and it was clear that time’s wingèd chariot, to quote Reid quoting Marvell, had been kinder to one than the other. “Her hair looks better behaved,” he noted.

emmaIn the physical discrepancy – she in golden bloom, he crumpled and seedy – the ghost of Rickman’s erotic appeal as the heartless seducer who had weak-kneed ladies queuing overnight to catch him in Les Liaisons Dangéreuses was thus summoned. Time had here transmogrified him into a sex-obsessed goat who eyed the long near-naked legs of the waitress, a kohl-eyed temptress who wields the peppermill as if administering a hand job - “the head of the wooden phallus scattering seed”. He subjected Thompson’s creamy wrist to leering Nabokovian scrutiny: “You’re an everything fetishist,” she said. In one lubricious moment of comedy she stroked his hand and even clasped it, triggering a tumescent reaction that spread barely suppressed panic in his eyes.

And sure enough his hopes for the rendezvous were vastly overplayed. In the space between them, memories stubbornly refused to be conjured up as more than ethereal phantoms. With the wounded male’s gift for sabotage, he brooded and sulked and pitied himself – “You're out to lunch at your own lunch." Thompson, with much less to do and say, embodied beautifully the ex who has sensibly moved on to a happy marriage with a younger, more handsome, more successful writer – in a nice in-joke, we saw a picture of Greg Wise, Thompson’s actual husband, on the jacket of one of his books. She was by turns patient, breezy, motherly and finally direct as the subject of Rickman’s “modest volume of 36 wounded and weeping lyrics”, riffing autobiographically on the theme of Orpheus seeking to exhume his dead lover Eurydice, came up for pointed discussion.

The Song of Lunch was an everything elegy – an elegy for writerly London, for sexual potency, for the life not lived, for the decentralisation in our culture of the poetic art. I’ve not heard an actor taking quite so much acute pleasure from words since Lindsay Duncan read "The Eve of St Agnes" on the radio a couple of Christmasses back. Beautifully directed by Niall MacCormick, this was the perfect marriage of words, pictures and sound - the audio effects were deftly expressive. It was ineffably sad, horribly comic and, more than anything you will see from television this year or any other, true.

As his beady commentary unspooled in his head, Rickman's facial expressions performed a bewitching pas de deux

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Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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