How is Stephen Fry allowed to get away with this? A production budget you could buy a small football club with, or at least which you could lay out in multiple piles of notes, nail to a piece of wood, set fire to and call art. Profligacy thy name is Fry.
I suspect a younger, hungrier Fry would have satirised the fuck out of this patchy and uneven effort. As it is, as with late era JK Rowling or French & Saunders, once you become a national treasure no-one is prepared to take you aside and tell you that you’ve confected a pile of poo.
This programme was a sustained travelogue which had precious little to do with exploring language in any coherent way, with Mr Fry appearing briefly and appallingly badly dressed in the following locations:
- Next to a regional train map in West Yorkshire
- In a Geordie call centre
- On an Irish fishing boat
- On an Irish golf course (twice)
- In a cocktail bar (since language is a cocktail – geddit!)
- In a Basque restaurant
- In a bar in southern France
- In a French goat shed
- In a New York club with some Jewish comedians (with an incongruous picture of Frank Sinatra on the wall)
- In a Marseilles rapper’s recording studio
- In an old school in Israel
- Very briefly in a Kenyan Village
- At Norwich City FC stadium.
This is sad since it started off so promisingly – Barnsley poet Ian McMillan beautifully articulating the dialect differences between various closely-aligned regions of West Yorkshire and neighbouring counties – ending with a lovely line to illustrate how his aunt in Chesterfield pronounces the word house: “I’ve just had my arse double-glazed.” Can we now explore the reasons for the rich linguistic diversity that lies within just a 30 mile radius? No, because the big spend budget and lack of editorial savvy says we need to cut to something else.
And what better way to explore UK dialects than to have Stephen Fry standing in front of a weather map “doing accents”? Yes indeedy. Northern Ireland, Scotland, Tyneside and Liverpool come in for a set of Fry doing his provincial imitations before the producer decides this probably is a bad idea (or else Fry’s Welsh was in practice too close to a racist Pakistani, a la Ronnie Corbett) so this too is axed within a minute or two and we’re off somewhere else.
He lards his presentation with knowing and worried references to “endangered languages” but offers precious little by way of discussion to analyse this idea. And then sees fit to pronounce that “linguistic loss is as bad as species loss”. Seriously? Diminution in human languages as serious as the loss of global genetic diversity? At this point the producer needed to just call time and bring in a) a bucket of cold water for Mr Fry and b) someone with a shred of academic credibility.
But no time since we were off again – to Kenya! Yes, this nation of over 40 million people, two and a half times the size of the UK with over 50 spoken languages (my research not his), got around 90 seconds, before he was at Carrow Road, home of his beloved Norwich City FC. I calculated that the back of Delia Smith’s head got as much air time as 20 million Africans.
There were approximately three interesting elements all told:
- The explanation that Hebrew as the living language of modern Israel was a revival of a quondam dead language;
- Insights into the work of the Academie Francaise, which seeks to purify the French language – an interview with a member of which made you realise why Nazi collaboration in Vichy France was not so unlikely after all;
- The influence of gendered languages such as Russsian & German on native speakers’ thinking about objects themselves.
If he had devoted the full hour to these ideas we might have had something. As it was they got in total maybe 8 minutes max.
The top five absurd bits:
- S Fry appearing on screen in an Irish language soap opera while using “Irish for Dummies” – how we laughed;
- S Fry superficially overwhelmed at being given honorary membership of Connemara golf course – how we realised he would never visit it again;
- S Fry then patronizing the pupils in an Irish class by pointing out that they texted and used Facebook and pretty much actually did anything ‘modern’ in English;
- S Fry watching pupils in Israel being taught wearing fezs – we all hoped this was a reference to the historic Ottoman domination of Israel, but being such a brief clip were not able to dismiss the impression that this was a very, very odd Tommy Cooper imitation class;
- S Fry suggesting that Israel would have been a more fun nation if they had adopted Yiddish rather than Hebrew (“Oi Vey: the 6 day war? I can let you have it for 5” - not that he said that, but he came perilously close).
I can imagine linguists across Britain beating their fists on the screens and begging for just 1/50th of the money involved in this programme to make a genuinely informed and engaging programme.
At the end, it would not have surprised me to see Stephen Fry on waterskis jumping a shark as a way of illustrating the ‘hep’ language of the Fonz and 1950s America that never was.
But what can you really expect from a programme that – presumably with what it thinks of as the cleverest irony – uses Comic Sans as the font for its credits?
Posted by arialbold