October 28, 2011 8:28 pm

Why Attenborough and Fry are poles apart

The British naturalist knows that if you present the subject, the programme will take care of itself

The return of David Attenborough – not that he ever goes away for long – is a cause for celebration. He has an exemplary presenting manner. He knows that if you present the subject, the programme will take care of itself. He keeps his head while all around are talking theirs off.

The opening episode of Frozen Planet (BBC1 Wednesdays) staked out the territory: the Arctic and Antarctic. Cold places, in other words. Or so we thought. The greatest challenge to life on the North Pole, Attenborough explained, is not the cold but the extreme swings between the seasons, and the programme dealt in, or with, ice and sun, statistics and narrative, slow- and fast-motion, land and sea, millennia and moments, excitement and terror, noise and hush.

Attenborough talked big, but only out of fidelity to his subject. An 85-year-old man stands in minus 35C weather in the frozen lands that contain a third of our trees and represent a third of our planet – you would be hard-pressed to find a tone too exalted. Mostly, he allowed the remarkable images to speak for themselves, adding his explanatory whispers only when strictly necessary.

Over an hour (which included a making-of postscript), he substantiated the assertion that polar life is “closer to home than most of us realise” not only in geographical terms but by making alien processes comprehensible. The programme took the mystery away from these “lonely lands” and restored them to their grandeur.

Stephen Fry takes a less recessive approach. He was present, on screen and voiceover, throughout all five episodes of Fry’s Planet Word (BBC2 Sundays). In the final instalment, which concerned literature, he could not even stop himself from mouthing along when his interviewees quoted Shakespeare, Pope or Joyce.

The episode started with the idea of “story”, and Fry demonstrated his social versatility by considering the topic in the company first of the Turkana in north-west Kenya, then in the book-lined Manhattan study of screenwriter William Goldman. He talked to Goldman about Homer and the next thing we knew, he was on a boat in the Mediterranean reading The Odyssey. From here, we moved on to James Joyce’s Ulysses, which relocates The Odyssey to Dublin in 1904.

Then things went off the rails. A section on Tolkien, which touched on Stephen King, led to Shakespeare being described as “in his day as popular as King” (although King has sold 60 times as many books as there were inhabitants of England in Shakespeare’s day) and “as brilliant with words as Joyce” – a comparison that even Joyce would have scoffed at. Sir David Tang, interviewed about Chinese translations of Shakespeare, reminded Fry of “the delectable, eccentric characters in PG Wodehouse”. (Oh, come on!) Wodehouse (born 1881) gave way to his “contemporary” George Orwell (born 1903). Fry introduced the programme as “a personal journey”, so you wonder why he expended so much effort trying to make it look like something else.

In previous episodes, Fry consulted academics. Why did he think he could wing it in this one? It might have been worth talking to one of David Tennant, Mark Rylance, Simon Russell Beale or Brian Blessed about Shakespeare, but talking to all of them resulted in a pile-up of half-formed thoughts. (Shakespeare’s work is inspiring, profound, timeless, etc.)

A story about Joyce’s fanaticism over phrasing prompted Fry to take up the phrase “the right words in the right order”, which he attributed to Joyce and threw at any work of great literature that happened to be passing. In fact, it was Coleridge whose definition of prose was “words in their best order” – poetry being “the best words in the best order”.

The only academic Fry consulted was Christopher Ricks, an unimpeachable choice. He gave Ricks a few moments to make a case for Bob Dylan as a poet, and Ricks offered a thought on “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, explaining that the line “So don’t fear if you hear/A foreign sound to your ear” plays with “foreign to your ear” and “sound in your ear” while refusing to choose between them. (A dazzling lecturer, Ricks talks about Dylan at greater length at www.youtube. com/watch? v=DDS1YJsfvio)

“It couldn’t be better put,” Ricks said of Dylan’s line. Fry reduced this to generalisation: “In a sense, that’s almost the definition of poetry. .. ‘this is so well put’.” “Yes,” replied the cornered Ricks, who has devoted entire volumes (Milton’s Grand Style, Keats and Embarrassment, TS Eliot and Prejudice) to saying rather more than that. “It sounds almost trite,” Fry cheerily noted. Ricks has often warned against using the word “almost”: the accompanying adjective either is or isn’t the right one. In this case, it was.

Attenborough and Fry promise us the planet, whereas Jamie Oliver offers us only Jamie’s Great Britain (Channel 4 Tuesdays), starting with Essex and London’s East End. He described the series as an attempt to compensate for all his past Britain-bashing. But a historically conscientious programme about British cuisine could never work as a patriotic enterprise – so much of “our” food comes from elsewhere. Still, the programme made the case that the integrity of British cuisine resides in its influences, its robustness in its receptivity. Oliver may be a chatterbox, but he knows whereof he chatters.

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