Narnia's Lost Poet: The Secret Lives and Loves of C S Lewis: TV review - behind closed doors with a man as magical as his classic Chronicles


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The Independent Culture

Poor Clive Lewis. The past month has seen newspapers, televisions and books stuffed like foie gras geese with retrospectives about the killing of Kennedy. The spectacular of JFK's death naturally overshadowed the deaths of two sexagenarian writers, but it's a shame that Lewis and Aldous Huxley's deaths became part of a trivia question (all three died within the same couple of hours), rather than events in themselves.

While Washington DC's streets filled for the day, Lewis's funeral was attended by almost nobody. His alcoholic brother forgot to tell people when it was and the notices in the newspaper were drowned by news from Dallas. Thankfully, amid the 50th anniversary noise, Lewis hasn't passed unnoticed again. Last week he was honoured with a memorial in Poets' Corner on the 50th anniversary of his death from prostate cancer.

That, we learned last night, was an irony of sorts given that Lewis's poetry – especially his first big attempt, the narrative poem "Dymer" – isn't quite worthy of the pantheon. A N Wilson, a Lewis biographer and the presenter of Narnia's Lost Poet: The Secret Lives and Loves of C S Lewis (BBC4), certainly thinks so. His prose, said Wilson, is "electrifyingly readable, but his poetry? Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear..."

Wilson was a thoroughly good host, actually. A man who – as you'd hope I suppose – knows his subject inside out and used what was a comparatively short hour to tell Lewis's story. We saw him on an old Routemaster, driving through Oxford on the route Lewis took home from Magdalene College to his surrogate mother/possible lover Jane Moore (the mother of a dead friend from the First World War).

We saw him pootling around town on a basketed bicycle and aboard a South West Trains carriage talking about Lewis's dicky thumb (which is why he was bad at sports and thus hated boarding school). We even saw him being given a tour of Oxford in a VW people carrier. When the vehicle stopped outside Anstey Villa, where Lewis lived with Moore and her children, an exterior shot of the car as the rear window wound down made Wilson look like a mafia don. Albeit one who looked like Eddie Marsan playing his own stiff uncle.

Wilson, once an occupier of the Independent television reviewers' golden chaise longue, was in motion a lot. But so was Lewis's story. Lewis was a genius, by all accounts, and his story is worthy of his brains. Most know him for The Chronicles of Narnia, but we also learnt that he was reading classics at 17 thanks to his mentor W T Kirkpatrick (the inspiration for Narnia's Digory Kirke); that a chat with J R R Tolkien about Plato inspired the world of Narnia; and that he failed his driving test a whopping 17 times.

My favourite story was one told by the actress Jill Raymond. Raymond was sent as an evacuee to stay with Moore and a kindly man she was introduced to as "Jack" (as Lewis was known). Only after spotting shelves full of works by C S Lewis did she twig. As a fan, Raymond (later Freud, wife of Clement) spent the next few days in awe, unable to speak to him. Lewis later paid her fees at the Royal Academy, allowing her to become an actress.

As an Oxford and Cambridge don and the writer of the most famous of Christian allegories, I'd incorrectly assumed Lewis to be stern and didactical. This portrait showed him as a caring, religiously nuanced soul. A man who cared for his brother, a family he inherited from a wartime pact, and a wife who died of cancer. In fact, Wilson barely had to mention the joy brought into the childhoods of millions by the adventures in Narnia. One suspects we'll still be reading them on 22 November 2063.