Armando Ianucci In Milton’s Heaven And Hell Review: Ambrosia For The Eyes And Ears

May 27, 2009 by  
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454ARMANDO IANNUCCI IN MILTON’S HEAVEN AND HELL, Wednesday 27th May, BBC2, 9.00pm Alert Me

In a bid to expand my literary horizons, I bought a beautiful red leather-bound copy of Paradise Lost from a junk shop in the desolate south of Leamington Spa but have always been scared to open it, lest the contents somehow fly off the page and destroy what I’m sure is likely to be one of the best books I’ve ever read.

As one might have saved their odd change in a Superman piggybank, so I am saving Milton for that ever-elusive intellectual rainy day.

Thanks to Armando Ianucci, that day has finally come.

If only all documentaries were so painstakingly crafted by such a rhapsodizing teacher; I feel at one with Milton after hearing Iannucci’s description of his spiritual epiphany in Florence, a place that similarly nourished my soul.

After years of studious solitude, John Milton drew upon all his life’s experiences in creating the masterwork of Paradise Lost. Iannucci guides us through the influence of Areopagitica, Milton’s pamphlet defending freedom of speech, in crafting Adam and Eve as a human couple: free to be fallable, and dedicated to facing the real world together, regardless of its imperfections.

The roles of God and Satan are similarly intriguing and loaded. The devil is Alastair Campbell incarnate – master of  sexy spin, masterful manipulation and luxuriant lies to paralyse the masses until the next election (and play down the expenses scandal at all costs), whereas conversely Milton’s description of God is measured, stand-offish and bland. Iannucci is forced to confront his own reasons for shunning a religious career path and attempt to rationalise Milton’s telling characterisation. Did God bore him or was it just far easier to dramatise the ultimate bad guy?

More poignantly still, it is Milton’s most harrowing experiences which reverberate throughout this memoir of a genius. Firstly Milton’s short-lived political career and the philosophical questions raised by a seemingly meaningless civil war in a time of extreme change, influence his depiction of the battle between heaven and hell.

Later imprisonment at the hands of Charles II  provides the perfect catalyst to the generation of Milton’s virile verse. Yet it is the blight of gradual blindness that proves Paradise Lost to be a true piece of arduous craftsmanship.

Iannucci explains how Milton would lie awake, his mind reeling with passages of poetry, and would be forced to wait for a family member to help act as scribe. Milton’s sonnet to his late second wife is tragically bleak; he describes how she returns to him every night in his dreams and yet he is doomed to wake in darkness,  when “day brought back [his] night”.  Not since my childhood fascination with Byron has my heart been reduced to such a fragile, iridescent bauble: an empty vessel which I now long to fill with Milton.

I will now be counting down the minutes until I can open my copy of this inspirational, literary treasure trove of wonderment. I doff my cap to you Armando.

Sally McIlhone