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When Seamus met Billy

One was a Nobel-winning poet, the other a raucous comic, yet they came together to record a delightful series based on five medieval Scots fables, which starts tonight on BBC2. Here producer and director David Cumming reveals what happened when the unlikely pair met for the first time

Two world-famous wordsmiths: one a mischievous crazy-haired global superstar with a rock-star following, the other Billy Connolly. The Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin has been the residence of choice for passing glitterati for nearly two centuries, so its well-drilled, immaculately behaved staff are used to total discretion when celebrities pop in for tea. However, even the hotel's most seasoned veterans couldn't resist a quick peek and a smile at the scene that unfolded in the Lord Mayor's Lounge one Friday lunch time last April.

An uneven circle of luxuriously padded armchairs had been strung together in the centre of the room to accommodate a small party headed by national treasure Seamus Heaney alongside actor and comedy legend Billy Connolly. It was the first time the two globetrotters had met, and they were clearly enjoying each other's company.

On the face of it, it looked a very unlikely combination.

Seamus, erudite and mild-mannered, with a lifetime seated at the top tables of the world's greatest universities, had created a body of work often inspired by his rural upbringing in Bellaghy.

Billy, by contrast, was much more the city man. In spite of being sober for more than 20 years, he still carried the reputation of a potty-mouthed, shooting-from-the-hip wild man, born out of the welding apprenticeship during his hard drinking days in the Glasgow shipyards.

I was fortunate enough to be in the middle of this unlikely assembly. Seamus had been working with the animation company Flickerpix on a proposed series based on his translations of the fables of the 15th century Scottish poet, Robert Henryson.

I was the producer, and my job for the day was to convince Billy to narrate the fables for television. There was a lot at stake. Seamus was on board and the funding was nearly in place, but our broadcasting partner, BBC Northern Ireland, was holding out before signing on the dotted line. They wanted Billy to be the voice of the fables. No Billy, no project.

The Scot had been suggested for the job by Seamus himself, who first appreciated Billy's powerful acting voice when he saw him in the movie Mrs Brown with Judi Dench some years earlier.

"It was a voice full of possibilities," he said. A few collaborations had been mooted, but had come to nothing. Billy had always been tied up on other projects. But when we saw that he was doing a stand-up tour of Ireland, we knew it was now or never – time to pounce.

For someone who was used to dining with royalty, show business aristocracy and some of the world's smartest people, Seamus was surprisingly nervous. He arrived early and brought with him his very own showbiz entourage, discreetly waiting at the side of the room.

"David," he had explained to me on the phone the day before, "is it all right if I bring the boys? They just want to say hello when we're finished." So we had Seamus's two very grown-up sons – two less likely looking "boys" it's difficult to imagine – waiting in the wings for the opportunity to shake hands with the Big Yin. And I realised why Seamus was nervous – he was a little star-struck.


When Seamus met pianist Barry

Seamus Heaney and Billy Connolly were not the only world stars to work on Five Fables. Pianist and conductor Barry Douglas normally has a crazy concert schedule – in the last six months alone he has been to Mexico, China and India – but when he was asked by Seamus Heaney to compose the score for this new project he set some time aside to get stuck in.

"This is a new departure for me," says Barry of his first foray into composing for film. "I'm very excited." And it showed.

Barry's score is written for a small chamber orchestra, allowing him to work with a group of talented young musicians hand-picked from his orchestra, Camerata Ireland.

Watching him in full flight during the recording sessions was astonishing – multi-tasking at its most impressive. Sitting at the Steinway, poring over his score, making changes with a pencil, playing with his left hand, conducting with his right, gesturing to the choir mistress, listening to Billy Connolly's narration in the left ear of his headphones, and glancing up at a big screen displaying the early animation work.

Watching on, I just sat and marvelled at his creativity, versatility and endless patience. So how does he do it?

"I guess you just divide your brain into four parts, and do your best," he grins during a break from recording, before scurrying off to take a phone call about this year's Clandeboye Festival, which he curates in his spare time.

It turns out that Barry and Seamus Heaney go back a long way. Shortly after Barry won the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in 1986, an unsolicited card dropped on his doorstep with a handwritten message congratulating him on his great success, and encouraging him to reach for even greater heights. The card was signed Seamus Heaney. The two had never met.

"I've still got the card – somewhere over there," says Barry gesturing to a massive pile of documents and memorabilia in the corner of a room in his home in Lurgan, the residue of a recent move back from Paris where he lived for many years.

The two great artists finally met a few years later when Barry was taking a sabbatical at Oxford University and found himself going to one of Seamus's readings – he was Professor of Poetry there at the time.

Over the following 20 years their paths would cross from time to time, until their final meeting during the last Five Fables recording session with Billy Connolly. It was in the same Belfast BBC radio studio that houses Stephen Nolan each morning.

It was an unorthodox meeting, however – Seamus was at the other end of a Skype line.

Seamus had commitments in Dublin and couldn't make it to the studio to hear Billy reading The Preaching Of The Swallow, so we kept a line open for him to listen and make sure we weren't ruining his work. Something of a technophobe – I once tried to demonstrate to him the world of possibilities in an iPad, only to see his eyes immediately glaze over – this was Seamus's first ever Skype call. It may well have also been his last.

He quickly got used to it, however. From a hundred miles away Seamus was happy to throw in some notes, and would rewrite his work from time to time to accommodate Billy's rhythms and diction.

Barry watched this bizarre yet fascinating spectacle for a short while before taking his leave.

When Seamus met Henryson

Five Fables is based on a series of poems written by the 15th century Scots schoolteacher Robert Henryson. Never heard of him? Neither had I.

These poems are more than 500-years-old – that's a long, long time ago – written before Columbus sailed to the New World, before Protestantism, and in an independent Scotland a universe away from anything conceived by Alex Salmond.

Over the centuries, Henryson's reputation and standing has ebbed and flowed, and unless you have been studying English at university level, the chances are, his name means nothing.

Seamus Heaney had little knowledge of Henryson's work until a chance sighting of an early manuscript at an exhibition at the British Library sparked an interest. He sought out the texts and loved what he read. They seemed fresh, lively and vivid. "Once you hear the voice of Henryson," he told me, "you are beguiled."

And Seamus recognised something in Henryson's medieval voice. The 'sound of sense' as he called it – the musicality of the language – was something he remembered from his upbringing in Bellaghy. The sounds and rhythms were familiar to him. In fact, many of the words that Henryson used were words that he hadn't heard since his childhood in rural Ulster. Did this mean, I asked Seamus, that he was embracing Ulster-Scots?

He took a deep breath and contemplated before answering. It was clearly something he'd been thinking about.

"I think it's perfectly just and right to save your language. There is a sufficient amount of the Scots tongue left in Antrim to justify a movement. It's a good revival."

When Seamus met the animators

The idea of making animated versions of these Seamus Heaney translations had been knocking about for a few months. We knew that to get to the next stage we'd have to get buy-in from the great man himself. But we'd heard that he was doing little or no television any more. He probably received dozens of media requests every day. How did we make an impact?

As it happened, a good friend of mine knew Seamus well, and sounded him out. "Seamus is intrigued," my friend subsequently advised. "Write him a letter."

Eeek, I thought – I need to write to Seamus Heaney. Where to start? How do you go about writing to a Nobel literature laureate? Isn't this rather like asking Gordon Ramsey round for dinner? Or going for a cross country jog with Mo Farah? Will spell-check save me?

Three days and several dozen drafts later, the letter was ready. The punctuation and spelling police had pored over it several times for misdemeanours and it was finally deemed fit for purpose. I needn't have worried. A few days later I received an encouraging reply. My grammar seemed to have passed the test. More importantly, he wanted to know more. Seamus suggested we meet for lunch.

My colleague Joel Simon, the creative director at Flickerpix Animation, came with me to one of Seamus's favourite bistros in Ballsbridge, Dublin, just a short stroll from his home. Joel came armed with a number of mood boards and character designs so that Seamus could get a sense of where we were coming from. Seamus was great company, surprising us both with endless hilarious stories and even slipping into silly voices from time to time, like an old Irish character actor holding court in the corner of a pub.

It helped break the ice that Seamus loved the series of shorts Joel had made for BBC Northern Ireland, On The Air, which animated real audio clips from Gerry Anderson's surreal radio show.

At first, Seamus didn't quite understand why we needed him. Couldn't we just make a series of Aesop-style stories? I explained to him that it wasn't the old Aesop we were interested in, it was the modern Heaney.

Once he realised that we intended to remain loyal to his text and find a suitable voice to bring the poetry to life, his eyes lit up. "In that case," he smiled, "I have the perfect narrator in mind."

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