Fry’s Planet Word: Episode 2

S Fry not in exotic location

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

10 Comments

Filed under Documentaries

10 responses to “Fry’s Planet Word: Episode 2

  1. Our Man in the South

    WooOOOooo! I won’t bother watching it. Saw last week’s effort and got a bit bored, so will give up gracefully thanks to your passionate post. Thanks for saving me the effort.

  2. Qwerty

    Marvellous stuff. I didn’t see this programme but it always makes me happy when someone takes a large hatchet to a National Treasure (except Alan Bennett, that isn’t allowed). Indeed, if I may run the risk of this blog eating itself, I will refer you to an Archers post I wrote in January in which I take a small spatula to Mr Fry: http://pauseliveaction.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/the-archers-on-the-telly/

    This is in no way to be compared to the glorious beating you have dished out here but only to say that I SUPPORT YOU IN YOUR MISSION TO DE-FRY THE NATION, Arial-B, even though your name makes me think of washing powder rather than a font.

  3. arialbold

    I fear that Mr Fry would quite enjoy having a small spatula taken to him – and incidentally isn’t that an odd phrase “I will take an X to him” (by which I mean X stands for any implement, not a text speak way of rendering a very RP pronunciation of ‘ax’). And ‘I will take a cake to him’ is of course very friendly. Anyway, I digress. Too much Fry. De-Frying is definitely required.

  4. annoyed of Chesterfield

    Once again Chesterfield was tainted by being put in the “Yorkshire” bracket. Chesterfield is a Derbyshire Market Town in the north of the county. See wiki. For the BBC to allow the “Bard of Barnsley” to put Chesterfield in a Yorkshire sentiment is frankly another nail in Chesterfield’s Derbyshire Heritage.

    Chesterfield, Derbyshire and Proud.

  5. pauseliveaction

    I have no time for Fry since he inanely tweeted about how hilarious the word “Cockermouth” was when the poor people of that fine town were having to deal with their homes and businesses being ruined by flooding. And he has an unpleasant little mouth. To the Twatbox with him!

  6. arialbold

    I’m surprised then that he didn’t choose to make an hilarious remark about Penistone when with Ian McMillan.

    AofC – as someone who enjoys gazing at the twisted spire of Chesterfield when I drive back to visit family in Sheffield, I can only sympathise at their cavalier disdain for your Derbyshire identity.

  7. arialbold

    Yikes! Fellow PLA blogger has pointed out that last post ambiguous! I am full of sympathy for Annoyed of Chesterfield. It’s a great market town. No sympathy for those casually lump towns in with other nearby counties.

  8. Paul

    Hmm. I’ll take issue with you about one thing which I totally disagree with in this review. I didn’t think Fry was at all patronising to that class of Irish speakers, and I thought it was an interesting observation, and not one that I’d have tumbled to without prompting that basically, in a bilingual culture like Irish (and, presumably Welsh), English becomes basically the equivalent of your telephone voice – it is the language that you negotiate officialdom with (filling in forms and job interviews) – in the same way that you wouldn’t use slang terms when you’re at a work meeting.

  9. arialbold

    (Thought I’d posted a reply yesterday but my technology failed – apols.)

    Would entirely agree that the insight and observation that English acts as the medium of social technology (Facebook, twitter, texting etc) in Irish speaking communities is an interesting one. It was the manner of the way Fry brought that out which I disliked – it came across as “isn’t it amusing that these children actually really use English for the things that matter outside the classroom, ha ha”. Since the programme was bereft of any contextual analysis or discussion (producers too busy organising and plotting what myriad locations they could use) that point was casually tossed out and left under-developed.

  10. Paul

    ‘it came across as “isn’t it amusing that these children actually really use English for the things that matter outside the classroom, ha ha”.’

    Well, that may be how you’re interpreting it, but that (especially the “ha ha” and the “things that really matter”) is your opinion of what Stephen Fry said, and not actually what he said. It didn’t come over to me that way at all – and I figure you need to have already decided that Fry is smug and patronising in order to add “the things that really matter” and “ha ha, yah boo sucks to you” into what Stephen said.

    It strikes me that Fry is, in fact, genuinely interested in language, in the variety of linguistic expression, and in the variety of dialect and language in the world – so I think he would be horrified at the way you’re interpreting him here.

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