One knight in Canterbury

The Canterbury Tales BBC2; The BBC's new cartoon version of Chaucer has its roots in Russia

Oddly perhaps, given that it is one of the world's great narrative poems, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales has rarely been adapted for the screen. Pier Paolo Pasolini made his version in 1972, "telling stories for the simple pleasure of doing so", he said, making it appropriate for him to cast himself as Chaucer. The Pasolinian Racconti were, as one might expect, a fairly idiosyncratic piece of work - though an Italian retelling did remind us where Chaucer found his model - in Boccaccio's Decameron. He was attracted to the bawdier aspects of the Tales, with lots of nudity, pigsties, whipping, dancing around in the mud and fornicating in stables. There was also a BBC television adaptation at around the same time, which had somewhat less nudity and considerably less style than Pasolini.

The latest attempt to interpret a great classic of European literature comes in the form of three animated films, the first two of which are being shown on 21 and 22 December. As it happens, the form proves very effective. The script, by Jonathan Myerson, does once again tend to emphasise the bawdy bits and loses some of Chaucer's finer qualities, but the films, animated in various styles, compensate a little for the lost poetry. The story of the pilgrimage, which links the six tales (three per episode), is a puppet animation, made in Moscow by Aida Zyablikova; while the tales themselves are mainly in two-dimensional, cell animation. In this way, the film is able to speak in different voices for the different narrators. The picture-book charm of Dave Antrobus's Nun's Priest's Tale, with its witty satire on medieval scholarship, is succeeded by the more ethereal Knight's Tale, animated by Antrobus and Mic Graves, then by the dynamic lines of Joanna Quinn's Wife of Bath's Tale. In the second episode, as the pilgrims draw near to their destination, Valeri Ugarov's Merchant's Tale is a jolly cartoon, contrasting with the darker mood of Sergei Olifirienko's Pardoner's Tale and the more stylised Franklin's Tale directed by Damian Gascoigne. None of the films uses a pseudo-medieval idiom, imitating manuscript painting or stained glass.

The animated Tales are unlikely to bring unalloyed pleasure to Chaucerians. Chaucer himself speaks, in the voice of Bob Peck, with a wry, slightly carping tone that may not correspond to everyone's idea of him or the voice that speaks through his work. And Myerson has ditched the poetry: even the versions dubbed in Middle English, though the lines are taken from the original text, avoid any rhymes. This means that some perfectly metrical lines are left hanging, which gives an irritatingly bathetic effect. But the series is not designed for people who have read Chaucer, but for those who might not otherwise know his work.

They belong, in fact, to a slightly improbable enterprise of adaptation. It began 10 years ago, when someone suggested to Chris Grace, then head of planning at the Welsh fourth channel (S4C), that he might like to do animated versions of Shakespeare. Animation, easy to dub, relatively cheap to produce, is something that a minority language channel can do well. But Grace decided that for something as prestigious as the Shakespeare series, he had to get away from any hint of Disney or Warner Bros cartoons. So he looked east, towards what was then the Soviet animation studio, Soyuzmultfilm. This was set up in the mid-1930s, as the USSR's answer to Disney - around the time when Sergei Eisenstein, who had met Disney in Hollywood, was hailing him as "the unique master of the cartoon film".

But the two studios, and the traditions of animation that they came to represent, were fairly well insulated from each other by political circumstances. Walt Disney himself was deeply hurt by the critical reaction to Fantasia (1940), his attempt at an experimental animated film that would please the adult and art-house audience, and in the postwar period turned increasingly to his other interests, live-action wildlife films and theme parks. Disney Studios concentrated on fairy-tale animations and, after The Jungle Book (1967), more or less gave up animation, returning to full-length cartoon features only in the mid-1980s. The history of Soyuzmultfilm was quite different. As Hollywood animation declined, so Soviet animation prospered. A state industry, in a country with a huge cinema-going audience, it enjoyed all the benefits of protection, while seldom attracting the attentions of the censor. As a labour-intensive, low-tech craft, it was well suited to a Socialist economy. From the 1960s, the leading animators of Soyuzmultfilm were honoured as People's Artists of the USSR, their work was regularly discussed and promoted in journals such as Soviet Film, and they had licence to experiment. They made animated films for adults, as well as children, and they developed a variety of techniques, apart from cell animation (where the pictures are painted on celluloid sheets): they made three-dimensional, puppet animations, and experimented with painting on different surfaces. They pioneered still more unusual techniques, such as that of painting on glass (used by Natasha Orlova for her Emmy-award winning film of Hamlet, in the Animated Shakespeare series).

At this point, I should declare an interest. My wife is a Russian interpreter who has been involved from the start in the Shakespeare films and those that followed; and I have been, for almost as long, a privileged observer. We know and are friends with many of the Russian directors; so when I watch Aida Zyablikova's pilgrims, I am reminded of our visit to her studio in Moscow, where we handled the puppets and photographed Aida. And in the landscape background to her film, I can recognise elements from a walk we took with her, two summers ago, on the South Downs, following the Pilgrims' Way.

Soyuzmultfilm has almost entirely given way to the private enterprise company Christmas Films, but the collaboration with S4C goes on. There have been animated operas and Bible stories; Moby Dick is to come and Beowulf will be on BBC2 on 23 December. Unlike live action adaptations of books, they have no pretensions to replace the original works; they are "readings", interpretations, visualisations, often by remarkable artists - closer to book illustrations than to feature films.

And they do fill a definite need: the Shakespeare series is used in 90 per cent of British schools. Perhaps, after all, a dedicated Chaucerian could find something here to applaud.

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