Canterbury Tales (BBC-1 2003, Keeley Hawes, James Nesbitt)

A series of six separate dramas reworking Geoffrey Chauncer’s medieval Canterbury Tales into a modern setting. the uniformly excellent cast included the likes of Keeley Hawes, John Simm, James Nesbitt, Dennis Waterman, Bill Paterson and Andrew Lincoln.

When Geoffrey Chaucer created the Canterbury Tales he was exploring eternal human themes that have as much relevance today as they did in the 14th century. So why not take six of his best tales and adapt them for the small screen? the collection of contemporary yarns that emerged from the experiment is British television drama at its best. If Chaucer were alive today, he’d be writing telly scripts like this.

Because each story is self-contained, actors did not have to commit to long shooting schedules in order to be part of canterbury tales. this meant the producers were able to attract top performers to the series. Julie Walters, James Nesbitt, Om Puri, John Simm, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Paul Nicholls, Dennis Waterman, Keeley Hawes, Billie Piper, Indira Varma, Andrew Lincoln and Jonny Lee Miller head the talented cast. Tony Marchant (Holding On, Crime And Punishment) and Sally Wainwright (At Home With The Braithwaites) were among the six writers engaged to transform Chaucer’s original stories into compelling TV.

The plays range in style from a comedy drama Wife of Bath, featuring Julie Walters in a BAFTA award-winning performance, to The Pardoner’s Tale, a truly dark fable of death and greed starring Jonny Lee Miller. The producers pulled off some inspired casting: how about Dennis Waterman as an aging publican and Billie Piper as his flirty, karaoke-mad wife in The Miller’s Tale. The makers looked for settings that would stretch Chaucer’s original vision to the limit but retain the moral thrust. So, The Sea Captain’s Tale becomes a film noir set in Gravesend’s Asian community and The Knight’s Tale is moved from Athens to a British prison.

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Several minor roles in Canterbury Tales were cast after open auditions. Sarah Kendall, a civil servant and amateur actress, found herself playing a nurse opposite Julie Walters in The Wife of Bath. Psychology student Stephen Tallett was a security guard in The Knight’s Tale, rubbing shoulders with John Simm, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Keeley Hawes.

Much of Geoffrey Chaucer’s life remains obscure but, from what we do know, he was quite a lad. He was born between 1340 and 1344 in London, the son of a wine merchant. By his mid-teens he was already fighting in France for the English army. He was captured by the French but Edward III paid a ransom to have him freed in 1360. Chaucer continued in the King’s service, travelling in Spain and Italy. By 1374, he had become a customs official, living in Aldgate. Later, he moved to Kent. He began The Canterbury Tales in the 1380s but he was still busy in public service and the work wasn’t completely finished when he died in 1400. By then it was 17,000 lines long, the first major literary work to be written in English.

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Chaucer’s masterpiece centres on a group of pilgrims, thrown together as they travel from London to Canterbury. They come from all walks of life and tell each other tales to pass the time on the road. It’s a bit like a reality TV show, in fact, only funnier. The locations for the six tales are set along the pilgrim’s route, starting at Southwark and taking in Gravesend, Rochester and Chatham on the way to Canterbury.

In 1975 Alan Plater also gave us an updated version, Trinity Tales focused on a group of people going to an important Football Match. An expansive 14 part traditional telling of the stories had also been produced by the BBC in 1969.

Production Details
UK / BBC One / 6×60 minute episodes / Broadcast 11 September – 16 October 2003

Stories: Geoffrey Chaucer / Script Editor: Tim Baker / Theme Music: Murray Gold / Executive Producers: Franc Roddam, Laura Mackie And Sally Haynes / Producer: Kate Bartlett

The Episodes
1. The Miller’s Tale (11 Sep 03)
2. The Wife Of Bath (18 Sep 03)
3. The Knight’s Tale (25 Sep 03)
4. The Sea Captain’s Tale (2 Oct 03)
5. The Pardoner’s Tale (9 Oct 03)
6. The Man Of Law’s Tale (16 Oct 03)

Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.