On the air, the actors come and go: how the establishment adopted T S Eliot

It's the quickest shortcut to gravitas. T S Eliot has been stolen by actors, like burglars with the crown jewels.

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The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock
BBC Radio 4

A programme about “Prufrock” (2 June, 9.30pm) marked the centenary of its publication and the beginning of T S Eliot’s life as a poet, aged just 22. Simon Armitage, one of the contributors, stressed the poem’s signi­ficance: “A patient etherised upon a table – to be suddenly introducing that word and concept and to be comparing the sky to an etherised patient . . . to me, that’s the moment when modernism begins.”

Jeremy Irons (a fan of the poem) read, as did Ben Whishaw (ditto), though Whishaw massively trumped Irons by not using the great climactic stage of the poem and just quietly reciting in that uniquely spooked and trapped way of his (“He’s doing the nerves at you again,” a friend of mine said). Ah, the adorable anxiety of Whishaw’s ­euphonious voice. And yet he never fell off the bucking horse of the poem, paying close attention to its more tongue-twistery lines, understanding that increasingly the syntax depends on breath control (“I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach./I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each”). Whereas Irons did what ­actors usually do: approach “Prufrock” like it’s a dramatic monologue, a one-man show, a play without official directions.

There is no definitive reading, of course, but Irons’s approach was to be someone pissed off with his life (but at the same time possibly enjoying the Shakespearean solilo­quy aspect a little too much). Listening, I helplessly pictured Irons at the microphone in his trademark, calf-length leather boots, as though about to pick mushrooms in the birch forest, and thought that he was really rather good at it all but that in general I feel a bit sorry for Eliot.

It’s the quickest short cut to gravitas – to claim to love a poet – and Eliot, being catchy and having a relatively short corpus (you can read him all in a day) often brings out the 15-year-old in all of us, learning “Prufrock” or The Waste Land by heart as we might the parrot sketch or Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”.

T S Eliot has been stolen by actors, like burglars with the crown jewels. The shameless, Sepp Blatterish way the poet has been hurried off, as though he were international football – you wonder at everybody’s nerve.

And should I then presume?/And how should I begin?

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.