BBC radio has commissioned 21 new takes on 'The Canterbury Tales'

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The Independent Culture

There's a DJ instead of a miller, Prince Charles instead of a knight. The road to Canterbury has become the M1 near Nottingham, and the narrator is a service station waitress.

There's a DJ instead of a miller, Prince Charles instead of a knight. The road to Canterbury has become the M1 near Nottingham, and the narrator is a service station waitress.

The BBC is celebrating the 600th anniversary of the death of Chaucer with 2000 Tales - a collection of new stories inspired by The Canterbury Tales commissioned to reflect the new millennium. Where Chaucer immortalised the merchant, sailor and prioress, 21 of Britain's most successful writers have created a range of characters as their 21st-century counterparts.

John Mortimer takes not a Rumpole-style lawyer, but a journalist as his narrator, while Liz Lochhead has a one-time house-husband as her hero.

The actor Joseph Fiennes is a teacher in a story by poet Glyn Maxwell, and Victor Spinetti takes the role of the shepherd in a modern version of Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale by Barrie Keeffe.

Joss Ackland, Frances Tomelty, Henry Goodman and Warren Mitchell are among the other stars in a cast of characters including a barber, a pleasure-wear sales executive, an actor's agent and a slapper.

The new Chaucerian-style travellers tell their stories one dark October night in the service station's Spring Carvery - an allusion to Chaucer's setting of his tales in April - as stormy weather closes the M1, cuts off power and thrusts a motley band of characters together by candlelight.

Kate Rowland, the BBC's head of radio drama, said: "The question of how they met was the key - the concept of pilgrimage now has changed so we spent a long time thinking about a suitable setting for the stories.

"Eventually we decided on a service station in the Midlands, which, after all, serves as a place where everyone has to stop, regardless of money, race, belief or class."

Barrie Keeffe, who wrote the film The Long Good Friday, said he had never been able to understand Chaucer at school. "But now I'm old - 56 next month - I suddenly absolutely love him," he said. "Read it out loud - it's meant to be spoken."

His Shepherd's Tale was inspired by a conman he met when he spent three months working as a host at the Dome to escape the isolation of being a writer.

Lin Coghlan, who recently held writing workshops for women prisoners, used the experience to write The Good Woman's Tale, about a kind old lady who loses her mind when a half-way house for ex-offenders opens in her street. Ironically, it is one of the ex-cons who befriends the pensioner.

"I thought it was the most incredibly exciting and liberating commission," said Coghlan. "What struck me about The Canterbury Tales was each tale carried a complex moral idea within a very simple story. What I wanted to look at is that there are good people in this day and age, but they are disguised in many different roles."

Sebastian Baczkiewicz chose a publicist for his character, but also helped weave the stories together for the Chaucer Season that takes place on BBC Radio 3 and 4 between 21 and 29 October.

As in the original Chaucer, he says the fun lies in the diversity. Alongside the "surreal" story of a Prince Charles figure who asks what it is that women want, there are tales of ordinary men and women - the rector, fisherman and banker.

"It would be lovely if people would go back to the original Canterbury Tales, but that's not the intention. The whole project is meant to stand on its own," he said.

Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, who joins a Radio 3 discussion on the opening evening of the season, said even for those who did not read Chaucer much, it was difficult to ignore his position as the father of English poetry.

"There is a sense of really phenomenal formal variety, a mixture of very high language that is working within a received tradition, and something that is absolutely new. What you have is a diversity which is what you expect to find in much contemporary writing."

John Mortimer said he had had little choice but to take part in the series as his son, Jeremy, was one of the producers. He said it was right that the BBC should celebrate Chaucer's anniversary. "I love Chaucer," he said. "This is interesting and important. Nowhere else in the world would you get programmes like these. Thank God they're still being done on British radio."

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