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.