Ariane Bankes

Friends reunited

Zanzotti’s in Soho: redolent of surreptitious lunches fondly remembered, with its red gingham cloths and crusted tricolore paintwork, its ‘chianti-in-a-basket./ Breadsticks you snap/ with a sneeze of dust...And Massimo himself/ touring the tables / with his fake bonhomie.’ An old haunt, and the setting, in Christopher Reid’s poem ‘The Song of Lunch’, for a reunion between former lovers, ten years on — or could it be 15?

Friends reunited
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Zanzotti’s in Soho: redolent of surreptitious lunches fondly remembered, with its red gingham cloths and crusted tricolore paintwork, its ‘chianti-in-a-basket./ Breadsticks you snap/ with a sneeze of dust...And Massimo himself/ touring the tables / with his fake bonhomie.’ An old haunt, and the setting, in Christopher Reid’s poem ‘The Song of Lunch’, for a reunion between former lovers, ten years on — or could it be 15?

Zanzotti’s in Soho: redolent of surreptitious lunches fondly remembered, with its red gingham cloths and crusted tricolore paintwork, its ‘chianti-in-a-basket./ Breadsticks you snap/ with a sneeze of dust...And Massimo himself/ touring the tables / with his fake bonhomie.’ An old haunt, and the setting, in Christopher Reid’s poem ‘The Song of Lunch’, for a reunion between former lovers, ten years on — or could it be 15?

Earlier this year Reid won the Costa Book Award with A Scattering, a haunting series of elegies on the death of his wife, which came out to great acclaim in 2009. Soon after, he published ‘The Song of Lunch’, a very different animal: this wry, subversive evocation of one dicey London lunchdate can be read aloud in under an hour, yet it conjures up whole lives within its brief compass. Now, this slim and diffident volume, published by the tiny literary press CB Editions, will be transposed to prime-time TV on National Poetry Day (7 October), with a cast that most writers would kill for.

Reid seems somewhat surprised, if gratified, by the turn of events. Is it the first time that a narrative poem like this has been adapted for screen? I wonder. ‘I think so,’ he says. ‘Poets such as Tony Harrison and Simon Armitage have written for television, of course, but I can’t think of another instance like this — though if you say that indignant readers are bound to come up with all sorts of examples.’ And what inspired it — is it at all autobiographical, or based on people he knows? ‘Absolutely not,’ he replies. ‘Several people wonder if it’s me, but it isn’t. I set out to write a simple, knockabout comedy, but it darkened on me, almost without my knowing.’

A series of chance meetings and coincidences lay behind its discovery by the BBC. When Reid left his post as professor of poetry at Hull last year, his MA classes were taken over by Martin Goodman, who used ‘The Song of Lunch’ to teach his Literary Form module and he was immediately struck by its cinematic qualities. These he extolled to an old friend and neighbour, the actor Greg Wise, who told me, ‘He thrust the book into my hand, said, “Give it a read,” and I just saw it all immediately. I was working a lot with the BBC at the time, so I knew whom to take it to — Janice Hadlow, controller of BBC2. And since they didn’t at that stage have anything planned for National Poetry Day, she told me I was pushing at an open door.’ As for casting: well, Wise is married to Emma Thompson, and her old screen nemesis, Alan Rickman, leapt at the part of her erstwhile lover. ‘Watching them was a masterclass,’ the director Niall MacCormick told me.

Greg Wise has overseen the project as its executive producer, and he’s adamant that the intention is not ‘to educate or inform, to lecture or imply poetry is somehow “good for you”. It’s to convey the warmth, the humanity, the humour of this very human story — and it lends itself beautifully to being reformatted as script, with its combination of action, voiceover and dialogue. We’ve been absolutely faithful to the original — the actors speak the words Reid gave them, but the challenge has been to keep the tempo on screen flowing during the narrator’s commentary.’ As much humour and pathos lies in the voiceover as in what we see on-set — indeed it provides a vital counterpoint to the action. Reid himself is struck by a possible parallel with Posy Simmonds’s Tamara Drewe, another unlikely source for a current film. ‘Are they both comic forms smuggling tragic matter past the reader’s or viewer’s defences, perhaps? Is there as much comic strip as cinema in my poem? Speech-bubbles and thought-bubbles side by side...’

Zanzotti’s, no longer what it once was, is almost as important a player in this drama as the former lovers who meet there — though the set is actually a restaurant in Tottenham, Soho being far too expensive. The nostalgic stracciatella-and-pollo-sorpresa joint that the lovers remember has reinvented itself as a sassy purveyor of pumpkin ravioli and carpaccio with its ‘chrism of oil’; Massimo’s reliable ‘pirate crew...some of whose names he knew’ have morphed into nimble youths ‘arabesquing/ from table to table/ like bees between blooms’ — and they are not even Italian. The film deftly conjures the whiff of lunches past, now overlaid with a veneer of acquired sophistication — a potent factor in our anti-hero’s bitter, bibulous trajectory of self-destruction.

Producer Pier Wilkie confirms that ‘as the audience engages with the drama, we hope they are going to pick up the texture and richness of the language. It’s such a multilayered work, and Christopher handed it over with great generosity, saying whatever we made of it would interest him.’ Luckily, he seems pleased with the result.

The Song of Lunch is on BBC2 on 7 October. For more information about poetry readings, slams and events throughout the country: www.nationalpoetryday.co.uk