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3 October 2018updated 03 Aug 2021 5:43am

Pearl: Two Fathers, Two Daughters and the heartbreak of the McCanns

Simon Armitage’s translation of a 600-year-old poem is intercut with clips of Madeleine McCann’s father, to devastating effect.

By Antonia Quirke

Here’s an idea: intercut Simon Armitage’s translation of the poem Pearl, a 600-year-old masterpiece about the loss of a toddler girl, with extracts from a new, intense interview with Gerry McCann, about the disappearance of his daughter Madeleine in 2007 (2.30pm, 29 September). Would it be strained, or mawkish? Not a jot. “So radiant and round, however revealed/So small, her skin so very smooth/Of all the gems I judged and prized/I set her apart, unparalleled,” read the actor Iain Glen, as McCann talked about Madeleine’s precocious love of Dr Who, her laughter, the way she swam.

The madness of rifling through drawers looking for her after she’d been taken. “Almost feral” behaviour in the death-room darkness of the Portugal apartment. Vanishingly few have experienced anything like it… but McCann points out that we have. Anybody – parent, babysitter, friend – who’s lost sight of a child even for a moment, has felt a hyper-physical, savage upsurge. Well, it’s like that, only for the rest of your life.

Armitage cut and wove the poem around McCann, as though echoing or anticipating all Gerry’s thoughts. It was a very sad and very good idea – and quintessential Armitage: he has an instinct for the commercial and (I imagine) an eye on the next laureateship. He also has a genuine enthusiasm and sense of community, and he deals in all that problematically middlebrow stuff that you think shouldn’t treat a poet well, but which Armitage’s talent survives.

If I have one criticism, it’s minor, and also served as a kind of relief, because had it not been there to grate, I’m not sure I would have been able to get up and on with my day afterwards: the casting of Pearl herself. In the poem she speaks tenderly to her dreaming father, and here she was a young actress with the kind of haughty English voice of Emma Watson’s Hermione in Harry Potter (shudder.) Set against McGann’s soft Glaswegian and Glen’s down-the-ages baritone, she was too privileged-prissy (Pearl was actually written in the north-west, or Midlands). That particular musical note transmits little feeling, little comprehension. But otherwise, a thousand (heartbroken) bravos. 

Pearl: Two Fathers, Two Daughters
BBC Radio 4

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This article appears in the 03 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The fury of the Far Right