Stephen Fry’s Planet Word: epilogue

Last night the BBC broadcast the fifth and final episode of Fry’s Planet Word, its new documentary about language. At first I intended blogging about each episode, but after two (Babel and Identity) I could no longer summon the enthusiasm. It wasn’t bad, but it was too often superficial and repetitive, too reliant on platitudes and stereotypes.

Episode 5 is about the power and glory of storytelling. Fry is enjoying a horse-drawn jaunt in Dublin, listening to David Norris rhapsodise about Ulysses. Norris is recalling Leopold Bloom’s cat and the onomatopoeic words Joyce used to convey its mews. Alas, he misspells twice (mkgneo and mrkgneo instead of mkgnao, mrkgnao, and mrkrgnao), and the BBC’s subtitles amplify the error.

It may seem trivial, but the lapse reveals a lack of care. Of course Norris, a devoted Joycean, should have known better. But how hard would it have been for the BBC to check a couple of spellings? The error is especially unfortunate given that Norris’s point is about Joyce’s attention to detail and his understanding of the importance of every letter.

Other encounters include William Goldman, who talks about screenwriting, Peter Jackson (Tolkien, Stephen King), Mark Rylance (Shakespeare), Simon Russell Beale (Shakespeare), David Tennant (Shakespeare), Brian Blessed (Shakespeare), Guillaume Gallienne (Shakespeare), Sir David Tang and Johnson Chang (Shakespeare), Robert McCrum (Wodehouse), Ian Hislop (Orwell), Richard Curtis (Auden, pop songs), and Sir Christopher Ricks (Bob Dylan).

Some of these discussions are enjoyable, but you’d be forgiven for wondering if women read or write books at all.

Near the end, the show ambushes its viewers with a blast of Coldplay, that we might reflect on the power and significance of their lyrics. Fry asks us, “Can Coldplay . . . really stand alongside the pantheon of great poets?” I’ll spare you my thoughts on that.

Given the prevailing fixation on electronic communication, it was good to see Fry’s Planet Word end in a bookshop, with Fry wandering happily among shelves laden with physical books. And I was glad, earlier in the show, that Ulysses was singled out for particular praise: a few more people might feel encouraged to read it.

The series has memorable moments; episode 3’s admirable Jess, a “Tourette’s hero” with coprolalia as a special power, leaps foul-mouthedly to mind. But I’ll remember it chiefly as a missed opportunity. In short, I’d have liked more depth, research, and complexity, less pretty scenery* and jovial chat between like-minded friends.


* Fry travels to the Mediterranean to read a few lines of The Odyssey on a boat, etc.


11 Responses to Stephen Fry’s Planet Word: epilogue

  1. Jonathon says:

    That’s too bad. It sounded promising, and I was hoping to catch it sometime. I guess I’ll pass.

  2. Given that episode three had a lot of gratuitous searing, particularly when Brian Blessed was on film. That was amusing and entertaining but i agree it could have been so much better. The last two episodes really didn’t capture my attention.

  3. Stan says:

    Jonathon: If you’re curious about it, it’s easy to find on YouTube. But I don’t think you’d benefit much from it.

    Jams: Some of that episode was very entertaining, but they agonised over the swearing at such tedious length that I felt thoroughly patronised by the time the first fuck was let fly. I know they were trying to ward off the inevitable few complaints, but it lent the show a stuffy awkwardness entirely at odds with its frank and funny content (and indeed with the world at large).

  4. Lane says:

    It seems the linguistics community is pretty dissatisfied with Fry’s efforts. But Fry seems to be trying hard to get things right, if not perfectly sophisticated; his heart is very much in the right place too, it seems. On balance, it’s probably a great net positive that he’s doing what he’s doing, given the audience and the generally dismal state of affairs, and the crap people are generally fed in popular discussions of language. OK, he didn’t fairly represent the point-counterpoint on linguistic relativity, but he flew to Stanford and talked to Lera Boroditsky, rather than talking out his ass like so many others. If people know that this is a subject of serious research, that’s at least a start…

  5. Stan says:

    That’s fair, Lane. I made a couple of similar points in my earlier posts about the programme: that Fry’s amiability and enthusiasm would attract viewers who might not otherwise be inclined to tune in to a show about language, and would get them wondering about its marvels and mysteries. But I think it could have been a good deal better had there been a linguist or two on board to disabuse him of certain ideas and suggest others before and throughout the shoot. I’m all for celebrating language, but celebration doesn’t suffice to carry a documentary that punches well below its weight. Maybe the book is more substantial.

  6. Marc Leavitt says:

    I’ll pass on the last segment, but I watched the earlier ones, and frankly, I think Fry should be commended for making a proper attempt. The subject is complex, and the stuff that shows up in the newspapers isn’t worth the ink. I would like to see some of the best linguists on the tube, but practically speaking, finding the will, and the money to do it are the real problems – especially the money.

  7. Some time ago I saw a documentary in which Stephen Fry discussed bi-polar disorder – both his personal experience and generally. That too I would applaud for raising consciousness but little else. I found it excessively conversational and of little substance. Ultimately irritating.

  8. Stan says:

    Marc: Given how broad and complicated a subject language is, Fry did an OK job. His passion is undeniable, and he would have made a wonderful guest, but as a presenter he didn’t know enough about linguistics to be more than a foil for his specialist interviewees (who weren’t given much time), so biases crept in unnecessarily, while the chats with his friends just meandered breezily by. The emphasis on fun meant less room for substance. I don’t buy the money argument: sending a camera crew to so many countries for the sake of a few minutes of mostly unremarkable footage didn’t strike me as smart budgeting. But I don’t represent the intended audience, so maybe I’m being unduly harsh.

    S.E.: I didn’t see that. I watch very little TV, so it’s possible that this increased my disappointment with Planet Word: when I do bother to tune in to something – for several hours – I want it to be worth my while.

  9. Deó de hÚseille says:

    Brón orm faoin cheann i dtaobh David Norris ach nach dóigh leat go mbuíoch cóir leatse gairín a bheidh ann anois is arís ar an tsuíomh – bíonn sé dáiríre thar ró uaireanta!
    Brón orm fresin agus an Ghaeilge bhocht atá’s’gum.

  10. Peter Chrisp says:

    Talking about the Sirens, Fry also got his Homeric parallels wrong. Instead of showing us the barmaids in the Ormonde Hotel – the real sirens – we got the scene from the film with Gerty MacDowell. She’s Nausicaa, the princess who finds Odysseus naked on the beach.

    Fry also said ‘Ulysses was the book I chose as my Desert Island Disc’ – in fact he chose the Jeeves Omnibus!

    and he said that ‘Hamlet is a reworking of the Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd’. But it’s a reworking of the lost 1580s Hamlet, thought to be written by Kyd

  11. Stan says:

    Thanks for pointing those out, Peter. Such inconsistencies (and the ones mentioned above) are unlikely to interfere with most people’s enjoyment of the show, but that’s not to condone them.

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