It might be good drama, but it certainly isn't Chaucer

There is a danger that the original texts will increasingly be seen as completely dispensable

I have a soft spot for The Canterbury Tales. They and I go back a long way. When I was a teenager, I had a part as an extra in Pasolini's film of Chaucer's masterpiece. For a few moments stardom beckoned. The Master came up to me and asked me to dance. Not many people had asked me to dance; indeed not many have since. Now I come to think of it, Pier Paolo Pasolini was probably the first person ever to ask me to dance, which is some sort of claim to fame, if a decidedly kooky one.

He wanted me and a few of the other teenage extras to do "English folk dances". We stared at him, flummoxed, and found a pidgin Italian phrase for "you gotta be kidding". "But you are English!" he exclaimed. Then he walked off, his shrug showing how his faith in young Englishmen's pride in their cultural heritage hd been rudely shattered.

This week I returned to The Canterbury Tales, this time the BBC version, and I was a viewer, not a participant. The BBC's updated version, with Julie Walters' Wife of Bath a soap-opera actress, was very entertaining, well cast, occasionally moving and often funny. And that worries me.

It worries me because I can sense the BBC feeling rather pleased with itself. It worries me because it may well tell the Government at charter-renewal time that it has delivered upmarket programmes, not least in the cultural arena, and even had on a successful version of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. It worries me because, excellent as last Thursday's programme was, it had very little to do with Chaucer. It worries me because no television station in a million years would risk putting on an adaptation containing Chaucer's original language. That would be almost as radical an idea as using the language of, say, Shakespeare.

For, yes, we've been here before. A couple of years ago ITV was immensely proud of itself for putting on an adaptation of Othello. Andrew Davies's script, set in the present day, made Othello a black police commissioner. It was a diverting drama and was to be the first of a whole series of dramas based on Shakespeare's plays. Thankfully, that idea seems to have been dropped. For all ITV's crafty and frequent use of the word Shakespeare in its publicity at the time, this Othello gave viewers no sense of Shakespeare at all. Neither Shakespeare, nor indeed Chaucer, is just the sum of their plots, which in Shakespeare's case were largely "borrowed" anyway. The vital ingrediens are the language, the verse and the prose on which the tragedy, comedy, romance and character depend.

Not everything is lost in these updatings. The BBC's Wife of Bath contained some of the pathos of the character in Chaucer's original. And the BBC may well have encouraged some viewers to turn to that original. All praise to BBC1's controller for that. But there is a danger that the original texts will increasingly be seen as completely dispensable. Television schedulers who would rather die than put on an Ibsen or Chekhov play will be able to appease their consciences and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Chekhov's Three Sisters with Patsy Kensit, Denise Van Outen and Geri Halliwell isn't that far away, I suspect, and there won't be a word of Chekhov in it.

What we have had with The Canterbury Tales and the Othello updating are some good modern dramas, and some fine performances, with storylines cutely brought forward a few centuries. It's been a clever exercise. But it changes nothing. The woeful neglect by TV of classic drama, British, American, European, both ancient and modern, continues, with the supposed cultural havens of BBC2 and Channel 4 far more guilty than BBC1 and ITV. Let's not pretend that we have had either Chaucer or Shakespeare on TV. We haven't.

*Earlier this year the estimable Paul Daniel, music director of the English National Opera, was introduced by the company's chairman as "the man who runs the music side of the business". That would have been enough to make most music directors run out of the building screaming about the state of the arts in Britain. I was glad to see when I met Paul Daniel yesterday that he was his usual cheerful and erudite self, chatting about music and not about business. He and I were debating the policy of the ENO on Radio 4's Today programme. I gave my view that, necessary as surtitles might be, even for (the sometimes unintelligible) opera in English, if the ENO were to introduce them the only logical conclusion would be to perform the operas in their original language, which is not ENO's remit. Paul Daniel's reply intrigued me. He abhorred, he said, the idea of surtitles "on a big screen". That would never happen at the English National Opera. But why did he particularly use the words "big screen"? Could it be that, as rumoured, ENO is indeed considering introducing surtitles but on small screens on the backs of seats, so each member of the audience has one in front of them. Paul Daniel's choice of words makes me wonder if an announcement is imminent.

d.lister@independent.co.uk

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