Stephen Fry does a lot of online work, including his blog, Twitter feed and website, but if you’re going to look into any of his projects, I recommend his podcasts, three of them in particular. He is a very persuasive speaker and these essays/speeches are clearly intended to get his views across, but whether or not you agree with his ideas, what I think he always succeeds in doing is to portray a concise history of the subject with his trademark wit and fascinating examples. We’re not talking in-depth history here, but the podcasts are still really enjoyable and interesting to listen to.
This podcast is a speech that he made at London’s Millbank for the BBC last year about the future of the BBC and the licence fee and it is one of my all time favourite podcasts. He charts the history of BBC broadcasting in a way that made me realise how much it has given to this country through it’s programming, particularly in regard to comedy.
There is an argument that comedy is a greater public service than any other genre of art or culture: it heals divisions, it is a balm for hurt minds, it binds social wounds, exposes real truths about how life is really led. Comedy connects. The history of BBC comedy in particular is almost a register of character types, a social history of the country. Hancock, Steptoe, Mainwaring, Alf Garnett, Basil Fawlty, Baldrick, Victor Meldrew, Alan Partridge, Ali G, David Brent, the matchlessly great General Melchett – it is much harder to list character types from serious drama who have so penetrated the consciousness of the nation and so closely defined the aspirations and failures of successive generations. A public service broadcasting without comedy, is in danger of being regarded as no more than a dumping ground for worthiness. Seriousness is no more a guarantee of truth, insight, authenticity or probity than humour is a guarantee of superficiality and stupidity.
You know when you visit another country and you see that it spends more money on flowers for its roundabouts than we do, and you think … coo, why don’t we do that? How pretty. How pleasing. What a difference it makes. To spend money for the public good in a way that enriches, gives pleasure, improves the quality of life, that is something. That is a real achievement. It’s only flowers in a roundabout, but how wonderful. Well, we have the equivalent of flowers in the roundabout times a million: the BBC enriches the country in ways we will only discover when it has gone and it is too late to build it up again. We actually can afford the BBC, because we can’t afford not to.
In this podcast, Stephen Fry launches an attack on pedantry and expresses the need for people to have pleasure (or jouissance) in their language. He also gives an interesting insight into the history of the development of the English language and therefore why it is so important for language to remain completely free to change as society does.
Think of London. Some of its outline was determined by the Romans who conquered it two thousand years ago, since then atop the ruins of the Roman, Saxon, Dark Age and Norman London was constructed a medieval city of winding streets, jostling half-timbered mansions and soaring stone cathedrals and churches. Then came, after the Tudor and Jacobean palaces and halls and after the restoration a period of renewed classical elements, the squares and avenues of Georgian and Regency London, elegant, spacious and harmonious. The Victorians brought long suburban streets, warehouses, libraries, schools, town halls and railway stations and in the twentieth century arrived a new architecture, office towers, corporate headquarters, airports, housing projects in glass and concrete, American and European statements of self conscious modernity, statehood, brutalism, socialism, capitalism and democracy.
It isn’t I think, too much of a strain to see the history of our language in similar terms. A long sticky flypaper onto which at varying times of their importance the church, royalty, aristocracy, industry, commerce and international entertainment have accreted themselves. Saxon and Roman elements overlaid with the Norman French and Chaucerian and Church medieval English. A great renaissance of Shakespeare, the Bible of King James, Milton and Dryden leading into the classical English of Johnson and Pope. The Victorian English of industry, Dickens and music hall giving way to the English of the twentieth century, all the way through the arrival of radio and cinema, the political language of fascism, communism, socialism and finance, the Americanisms, the street talk, the rock and roll, the corporate speak, the computer jargon … and here we are. Glass and concrete sentences right next to half-timbered Elizabethan phrases, a Starbucks of an utterance dwelling in an expression that once belonged to a Victorian banker, an Apple Store of an accent in a converted Georgian merchant’s lingo. You get the point. Whether or not we are aware of the difference between a transitive verb and a preposition, a verb and a vowel, we are willy-nilly, heirs to Marlowe and Swift, just as that new Waitrose is a descendant (albeit a bastard one) of the Parthenon.
iTunes Live Festival
There’s no available transcript for this speech, but here Stephen Fry makes some possibly controversial points about illegal downloading. However, he also begins with a run through of the history of human expression and how it has been recorded and circulated from the Stone Age to the age of BitTorrent and DRM.