Chaucer's champions

30th January 2004 at 00:00
Following in the footsteps of Chaucer's pilgrims, 4,000 people entered a BBC writing competition to produce modern-day stories inspired by the Canterbury Tales. Project mentor and judge Dorothy Stiven reports on a journey of discovery

Memories of schooldays can last a lifetime. Teachers, their characters and quirks, often stay with us, accompanied, it seems, by our desire to please them. One of the entries to the BBC's Get Writing competition, to write a short story inspired by BBC Television's Canterbury Tales series, included a note from the author explaining that 20 years earlier his English teacher had tried to make Chaucer relevant to his class. The teacher had asked his pupils to have a go at a contemporary version. So here was the homework, only two decades late: a version of The Pardoner's Tale, "just to let my old teacher know I was paying attention all those years ago".

Get Writing was launched last September to coincide with the transmission of Canterbury Tales. The series updated six of Chaucer's stories: The Knight's Tale, The Wife of Bath's Tale, The Sea-Captain's Tale, The Man of Law's Tale, The Pardoner's Tale and The Miller's Tale - each episode using one of Chaucer's originals as a blueprint for a modern morality play. It is a year-long project, supported by a thriving website, that aims to encourage audiences of the BBC's most popular drama and entertainment programmes to discover and develop their creative writing skills.

To launch the scheme, the BBC announced its own Canterbury Tales competition, asking entrants to provide around 2,000 words on a story inspired by one of the BBC tales or one of Chaucer's originals. The five entries judged best by a team of BBC judges, including myself, would be read by actors from the television series on Radio 4. The competition was aimed at adults, but was open to any non-professional writer aged 16 or over.

I was thrilled with Radio 4's involvement, but spent a few sleepless nights worrying that we would get too few entries, or that they wouldn't meet Radio 4's high standards. I needn't have worried. The competition, promoted at the end of each of the television programmes, and through flyers sent to writing groups, libraries and community groups, prompted 4,000 fascinating stories.

Many of them spoke of their teachers' influence and how the experience brought back memories of school. For some, producing a story reawakened a love of Chaucer and writing; for others it was a chance to exorcise some ghosts.

As head of drama and entertainment at BBC Learning, I strive to find ways of using our most popular programmes to enthuse, inspire and motivate audiences to learn. With top-class scripts and stellar actors such as Julie Walters, Jonny Lee Miller, Bill Nighy, Andrew Lincoln, Samantha Bond, Dennis Waterman, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Keeley Hawes, Canterbury Tales was the perfect vehicle to launch the scheme.

Entrants came from all walks of life. As well as the five winners - Ivan Phillips is a lecturer, Martin Wright a sales manager for a chemical company, Pia Khan a film studies graduate, Paula Rawsthorne a full-time mother, and teenager Felicity Yeoh an A-level student - there was a vicar from Rochester, a pub landlady from Lincolnshire, inmates from Leyhill and Chelmsford prisons and members of Brighton's Big Issue sellers' group.

Teachers, too, sent stories; one spoke for many when she explained how she relished the chance to explore her own creativity while offering her A-level students another angle on Chaucer.

So next week from Monday to Friday at 3.30pm you can hear Bill Nighy, Indira Varma, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Keeley Hawes and Eileen Essell read the five winning stories on Radio 4's Afternoon Readings slot. They range from a comic tale set against the backdrop of the Grand National to one about two teenage friends dealing with subtle changes in their feelings for each other.

Each of the five winners had a similar response to the news that they had been picked: disbelief that their story was good enough to win. But all maintained that the experience had given them the confidence to continue writing, along with the thousands still on the website developing their skills and chatting about their work.

Felicity Yeoh, is the youngest of the winners, and perfectly matched the brief, giving a unique and contemporary voice to Chaucer's 600-year-old themes. Her story (see extract below) is inspired by The Wife of Bath's Tale. She says: "It's easy to see the themes of love and romance in The Wife of Bath and I wanted to write a story that used the same themes but made them relevant to my own life."

Other winners, such as Martin Wright, who last flirted with creative writing during his O-levels more than 20 year ago, or Paula Rawsthorne, who writes whenever she can, were inspired by visits to the website, or by attending roadshow-style events held throughout the UK last September and October, at which the BBC offered people the chance to meet the Canterbury Tales creative team and radio producers, as well as celebrated local professional writers. These sessions gave a fascinating insight into the way writers work and their often unconventional routes to success.

For anyone thinking of producing their own writing, or needing advice on how to craft a story, the website ( gives expert guidance. An online community has grown up where people can meet fellow aspiring writers and discuss work. It's packed with advice from acclaimed authors; there aren't many places where you can get tips from Rose Tremain and talk to someone hundreds of miles away at 3am about the problems you are having with your opening paragraph.

A woman in Nottingham, struggling to finish her story, said she appreciated advice from Tony Grounds (who wrote The BBC version of The Pardoner's Tale) not to "get it right but get it written". And Tony Marchant (who penned The Knight's Tale) inspired many when he told of his journey from an East End writing group to winner of two Bafta awards.

One woman sent a card to say she was sorry she couldn't submit a piece; she had been ill and was moving house, and promised to send something in next time. Just in case she's reading this I'd like her to know there will be one soon. We will be running another competition around a new BBC1 drama series, Hustle, to be broadcast in February.

For details of the Get Writing scheme, including information on future competitions: or tel 0800 066 066. The five winning entries will be broadcast on Radio 4's Afternoon Readings slot at 3.30pm each day next week, starting on Monday with Paula Rawsthorne's The Sermon on the Mount. Dorothy Stiven is BBC Learning executive for drama and entertainment

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