Review and competition: Fry’s Planet Word

Learn about speaking, writing and swearing

BBC Shop BadgePrice: £19.99 (Amazon price: £14.97; BBC Shop price: £12.99)
Released: February 2nd 2012

Time for another competition, courtesy of the BBC Shop. This time, in a little change of pace, it’s your chance to win Fry’s Planet Word, a globe-trotting five-part, two-disc expedition by Stephen Fry that investigates language and its use around the world over time.

Follow me after the jump where I’ll tell you all about it and how you can win it.

Language is what defines humans from other species, and with our planet home to around 7,000 different languages, words have played a crucial role in our evolution. Renowned wordsmith Stephen Fry is the perfect guide for this fascinating exploration of language in all its forms: from cutting edge linguistic research to the glories of world literature.

The series travels the globe as Fry takes viewers on a journey through the thousands of years since man first mastered speech to the cyber world of today with its html, codes and texting. Revealing how language is used, abused and continues to evolve, Fry’s Planet Word looks at whether we are any closer to understanding the most complex activity of the human brain.

Disc 1 – Episodes
Episode 1 – Babel
Episode 2 – Identity
Episode 3 – Uses and Abuses

Disc 2 – Episodes
Episode 4 – Spreading the Word
Episode 5 – The Power and the Glory

Is it any good?
I can’t remember the point at which the majority of documentaries became ‘authored’ documentaries, with famous names front-of-camera giving their personal opinions, rather than “just the facts” Dragnet-style. That’s not to say that authored documentaries are all bad: look at Kenneth Clarke’s Civilization or Bronowski’s Ascent of Man. But if you’re not careful, they either start to blur the boundaries about what’s fact and what’s conjecture without revealing which is which (cf Bettany Hughes’ Divine Women, recently) or they just become ego trips or paid vacations for the ‘name’ in question (cf Francesco’s Mediterranean Voyage or Joanna Lumley’s Greek Odyssey).

Fry’s Planet Word just about manages to avoid falling into camp two, but it’s not without its flaws. Episodes 1 and 2 are the most flawed, since they’re the least ‘authored’ of the episodes, attempting as they do to be straight documentary. Here, we get first Fry’s explanations of the evolution of language, taking into account proto-Indo European (PIE), as well as the demise of minority languages around the world.

For anyone who knows much about languages, this is a largely superficial look at the subject and at times offensive. Fry is willing to go to the Basque region of France and Ireland to talk to people about their cultures, what they’re doing to preserve their languages, the efforts of their governments and so on. Wales, a country rather closer to home that could cover all these issues in great depth, gets one mention in the entire episode – Fry even avoids it altogether when talking through the range of accents around Britain, even though he’s willing to take in Northern Ireland and Scotland (although he describes Scotland as being part of England at one point, so maybe that’s for safety’s sake). He also largely avoids talking about Scots Gaelic, as well as the Scottish government’s and indeed the BBC’s efforts with BBC Alba to preserve the language.

Things get better once we start looking at swearing et al in episode three, with someone with Tourette’s being the obvious stand-out, and the history of writing in episode four, in which Fry visits the British Museum to look at cuneiform and even manages to interview the creator of Pinyin. Unfortunately, this episode also looks at the future of books – Fry avoids the obvious problems of format wars between the iPad, Kindle, Nook, et al – and spends a heinous time dealing with an immersive virtual reality bookatorium (or something), almost purely because Fry’s a big techie.

The best episode is probably Fry’s entirely authored fifth episode which looks at his favourite authors, including Joyce, Homer, Shakespeare and Tolkien. Although that episode has a certain quality of “Fry’s friends” to it, with director Peter Jackson getting to talk about the language of Tolkien I suspect because Fry is in The Hobbit, this is at least engrossing stuff, albeit occasionally inaccurate (Fry states, for instance, that Homer couldn’t write, whereas there’s a reasonable amount of evidence that Homer used writing partially). There’s also, despite this being ‘Planet Word’, no attempt to talk about features of literature in languages other than English, so Homer’s use of hexameter, double-meanings, etc, don’t get a mention, only the plotting.

The series is engaging and if you like Fry, you’ll love this. It falls short of being much more than a chance for Fry to wax lyrical on a pet topic of his, not reaching any real heights or exploring with any real depth. But it’s a decent enough series, even if it does use Comic Sans as its typeface.

Competition time
To be in with a chance of winning Fry’s Planet Word on DVD, all you have to do is comment below before 11.59pm BST on Sunday 27th May 2012. Bear in mind, you have to be a UK resident to enter.