Prime-time Drama: 'Canterbury Tales' for the Small Screen

Margaret Rogerson


There have been many attempts to popularize Chaucer in modern times. In his informative study entitled Chaucer at Large, Steve Ellis has provided a detailed account of the progress of such efforts over roughly a hundred years to the end of the twentieth century. But despite his claim that ‘Chaucer has not really taken hold of the public in any sustained manner’, interest in reinventing the poet and, in particular, appropriating his most famous literary undertaking, The Canterbury Tales, is so great that further important developments have already occurred in the few years since the publication of Ellis’s book, especially in the area of performance. The Chaucer industry continues to offer its wares in the public market place and within the walls of the academy, but there remains a consensus of opinion, both general and academic, that Chaucer is ‘very under-read’. Peter Mack, reviewing no less than four new books of Chaucerian scholarship in 1996, lamented that the medieval poet ‘has the misfortune to be read today mainly by professionals’ and called for a ‘good television adaptation’ to redress the situation. By the turn of the century the British Broadcasting Corporation had produced no less than three major television versions of Chaucer’s best known work, two of these long before Mack was writing (in 1969 and 1975) and the third, shortly afterwards, an educational series of animated Canterbury Tales completed over a two year period (1998-2000) that was distinguished by being nominated for an Academy Award in 1999.7

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