Stephen Fry explores language. He looks at our desire to entertain and explain through stories, and why any attempt at formula is doomed to fail.
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This programme contains some strong language.
Language is one of the most amazing things we humans do.
It separates us from the animals,
gives us theatre, poetry and song.
It shapes our identity
and allows us to express emotion.
It makes us laugh, it makes us cry,
and it inspires us.
To be or not to be...
When language reaches its highest state,
we give it a name that's terrifying and irritating to some -
In this form, it gives us voice, personality and history.
All literature does, really, is tell our story
and how to do it justice in one hour?
This programme isn't about literary criticism,
or deciding who makes it or who is left out of the great pantheon,
nor is it about history.
So it's just going to be a very personal journey
and probably you'll disagree with my taste, which is fine,
because there's really no right or wrong here.
What I'm going to try and explain to you
is why certain writing makes me shiver with excitement
and why some makes me want to bury my head in my hands.
But more of them later.
First, let's just step back and see how it all began.
This is Turkanaland in north-east Kenya,
not far from where it's believed homo sapiens originated.
The Turkana are a fiercely independent tribe of pastoral nomads
whose existence is dependent on their livestock.
The menfolk spend much of their spare time and energy
planning and then raiding cattle
from their neighbouring tribe, the Toposa.
Understandable, as cattle are the currency to buy a wife
and then keep her in beads
that are both decorative
and a measure of her wealth and status.
HE SPEAKS IN TURKANA
This is where it all began.
Under the shade of trees, around fires the world over,
people telling stories of derring-do,
love and disappointment, of being and becoming.
Here, I'm listening to an extraordinary tale
of how the people went on a raid
against their wily, wily opponents, the Toposa,
and stole off their cattle.
It may not be the Trojan Wars but it has its elements of heroism.
Of course, they could just as easily be telling stories like...
how the stars got their shine, or why camels have bad breath.
There are many, many stories, but supposedly only seven real plots.
At a most basic level, a good story needs plot and character.
So let's deal with plot first.
According to some, they boil down to just these - the quest,
rags to riches, comedy,
tragedy, rebirth, overcoming the monster, voyage and return.
So Hamlet, or its Disney incarnation The Lion King,
is an archetypal voyage-and-return plot
wrapped in a revenge tragedy.
But does such thinking even help us navigate our way through literature?
regarded by many as the pre-eminent Hollywood screenwriter of his time,
double Oscar winner, he should know a thing or two.
Or maybe not, because perhaps his most famous remark
about the Hollywood story mill was that "Nobody knows anything".
The story itself, I suppose, depends on something human.
It depends on caring about one or a group of characters,
or about some sort of principle like revenge or a quest?
I mean, is there any truth in this idea that there are basically only seven plots?
No, I don't think so. I think, basically, some, I mean, I just...
for my sins, I looked at a movie that I wrote, Marathon Man,
many, many years ago and that was based on two ideas.
One of them was, what would happen if someone in your family
wasn't what you thought they were?
And the other one was, I was walking on 47th Street,
-which is still there...
-Yes, the Diamond District.
-The Diamond District.
And it was a hot day about 40 years ago
and all the people that worked in the Diamond District
were wearing short-sleeved shirts
and you could see all the terrible marks from the concentration camps.
-Cos they're all Jewish.
-They were all Jewish and they were...
-Had their tattoos.
-Had their tattoos on.
And I got the notion,
what if the world's most-wanted Nazi was walking along this street?
And then I realised I couldn't figure out why he came.
And then I... cos I'm very good on story,
I realised he was coming because he needed heart surgery.
And then I thought,
asshole, what kind of a villain needs heart surgery?
-So I came up with the notion of the diamonds years later
and thank God for Laurence Olivier.
I know that man.
It can't be...
My God, stop him!
Szell! Stop, Szell!
It's Szell! Szell! Der Weisse Engel!
Der Weisse Engel is here. Oh, my God. Stop him.
Der Weisse Engel!
And that scene still works.
Oh, it does. "Der Weisse Engel. Der Weisse Engel."
So is the secret, if I can squeeze the secret out,
is don't try and second guess the genre
that's most popular at the time, don't try and conform
to some apparent rule of storytelling,
go with your gut about...
Yes. You've got to try and find something that you can make play.
For example, in all the years I've been doing this,
I've never done a special effects movie, you know?
People say, "They're on a spaceship and..."
I can't write that shit.
-Other people can but I can't and what you have to try and do
is you have to try and figure out some way
to make something work that you have confidence in when you're writing it.
I was reading about the man who wrote The King's Speech.
He had a stammer when he was a kid.
I mean, who in the name of God
thinks there's going to be a successful worldwide movie,
that wins every honour,
about a king who has a stammer?!
-It's the worst idea I've ever heard, but guess what?
-It was a fascinating story.
-It really was and it works.
I suppose you can trace storytelling, in our culture,
all the way back to that blind hero, supposedly blind, Homer.
One wonders from what you've said about Hollywood,
if you went with the story of the Odyssey, or the siege of Troy,
having said which, they made a movie about Troy,
so maybe Homer still plays.
Well, I remember I was young when I read those two...
-And they just destroyed me and I remember,
I had no idea what I was getting into and I just couldn't stop reading it.
I think those fabulous people...
are fabulous for a reason.
-There's something, I'm going to say something stupid.
They were great at story.
-I mean, Homer really had fabulous stories to tell.
Do you see, you gods of sea and sky?
I conquered Troy!
Me, Odysseus, a mortal man of flesh and blood
and bone and mind!
The Mediterranean is the landscape of Western literature's first,
and some would say most influential works -
Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.
They have a magnificent plot.
It features sexual obsession, kidnapping, loyalty, man love,
jealousy, war, heroism and deception,
all wrapped up in the greatest road movie of all time.
Well, a road movie on the sea.
The Odyssey recounts the exploits and adventures
of the Greek general Odysseus -
Ulysses in the Roman version of the story -
as he tries to get home after the Trojan Wars.
It is filled with fabulous encounters -
whether with the Cyclops, Circe the archetypal femme fatale,
or adrift on drug-induced happiness with the Lotus Eaters.
Homer's genius was to create vivid, archetypal scenes
that transcended time and place.
The Sirens' episode is only a few paragraphs long,
yet it has become embedded in our collective memory.
On his way home, Odysseus must pass the rocks where the Sirens live.
No-one has ever lived to tell the tale
of what it is the Sirens sing,
as their song is so powerful, it lures men to their death.
But Odysseus is intent on hearing it and surviving.
"I took a large round of wax,
"cut it up small with my sword
"and kneaded the pieces with all the strength of my fingers.
"I took each of my men in turn and plugged their ears with it.
"They then made me a prisoner on my ship,
"by binding me hand and foot,
"standing me up by the step of the mast
"and tying the rope's ends to the mast itself.
"We made good progress and had just come within call of the shore,
"when the Sirens became aware that a ship was swiftly
"bearing down upon them and broke into their liquid song."
" 'Draw near', they sang,
" 'illustrious Odysseus, flower of Achaean chivalry,
" 'and bring your ship to rest so that you may hear our voices.' "
"The lovely voices came to me across the water
"and my heart was filled with such a longing to listen that,
"with nod and frown, I signed to my men to set me free.
"But they swung forward to their oars and rowed ahead."
"However, when they had rowed past the Sirens and we could no longer hear their voices
"and the burden of their song,
"my good companions were quick to clear their ears of the wax I'd used to stop them
"and to free me from my shackles."
And of course we never learn from Odysseus
what that Siren call sounds like
but we know what it means.
Two millennia later,
James Joyce reinvented that scene
and, indeed, the whole plot of Homer in his masterpiece, Ulysses.
Look at that pair acting up!
Homer's Odysseus is reincarnated as a Jewish Dubliner, Leopold Bloom,
whose contemporary encounter with the Sirens
was considered in its day deeply shocking.
David Norris is not only a Senator
but also an acclaimed and inspiring Joycean scholar.
I suppose the genius of the book is that he managed to find, in a single day in Dublin, Joyce,
examples of Odysseus's adventures in the Homeric epic,
like the Sirens, the escape from Polyphemus, Circe.
He found a modern equivalent.
It's a tour de force of writing
that has since never been matched, I don't think, has it?
I can't think of anything to match it.
Nobody's tried it in the same way.
-But I think Joyce had that extraordinary genius.
-I mean, chapter four, you hit the kidneys.
"Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs..."
Read this, cos this is where we're introduced to our great hero.
Here we go. Do you want to read this for us, just this opening?
Cos it's such a wonderful introduction to a character.
"Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.
"He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart,
"liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes.
"Most of all, he liked grilled mutton kidneys,
"which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine."
-Isn't that mouth-watering?
-It is! And at first you think,
"A fine tang of faintly scented urine" is a good thing?
And yet, anybody who eats kidney, there is that and it is...
-Yes, there is.
-..faintly scented is so right.
But it brings us straight into having met characters
who are very intellectual, you think,
this is about very smart people who quote Shakespeare all the time.
And suddenly you hit this man Bloom, with his love of his...
and he's going about making breakfast for his wife,
setting things on the tray.
The cat's running, you know, stalking him...
And the cat is the most wonderful detail because...
When he looks at the cat first, the cat looks at him back and says,
And then when he says "Milk for the puss."
And then he leans down to pour milk for the puss
and the cat says almost the same... But not quite.
-There's an R and that is the cat.
There's a communication and the whole book is about communication.
Now, a lot of people have picked up Ulysses
and been baffled by it or thought,
"Oh, I might dip in and slowly get the odd sentence
"but I'm never going to understand it".
How would you suggest they go about reading it?
Jump in. Don't expect to understand everything
because the beautiful thing about Joyce is you don't
and you never come to the end of it. It's an inexhaustible treasure.
-And read it aloud.
It doesn't matter what accent.
The moment on the Strand, for example,
where Stephen has been trying to make a note of the sound of a wave.
It looks like the typewriter letting a sneeze,
but it's exactly the sound, if you say it.
Most people would be put off looking at:
And they say, "Well, hump that for a lark"
But if you hear it, listen, a four-worded wave speech:
-It's exactly the sound of a wave.
-And Joyce does that all the way through.
And, you know, Budgen tells a story of meeting Joyce in Zurich
and Joyce was looking pleased with himself and he said,
"Good day's work, Joyce?" And Joyce said, "Oh, yes".
"Write a chapter?"
"Couple of pages?"
And Joyce said, "I had the words in the sentence yesterday
"but I got the order right today."
I mean, he's a mosaic artist.
-Every tiny little coloured stone is in exactly the right place
-to give the effect Joyce wanted.
The right word in the right order, as Joyce said,
is as good a definition of good writing as I can think of.
"Le mot juste" as Flaubert would have it.
It's that precision in creating a whole world
through the inventiveness of language
that provokes and delights the mind
and makes great literature so memorable.
Joyce had this extraordinary ear
for the musicality of the Dublin language.
I mean, if you think, a word like howanever. "So howanever".
I mean, just see the way the body fits into that.
Or when Bloom was being attacked in the citizen episode.
And, "Eh, mister! Your fly is open, mister!"
And that second "Mister"
is the perfect pointing and resolution of the line melodically.
-And Joyce could hear that.
-He had that kind of ear, didn't he?
Yes, and every kind of Dublin saying,
like "suck whiskey off a sore leg" is one of these.
Joyce kind of almost collected these things
and I often think that subsequent writers
must have thought it terribly unfair competition,
cos Joyce was so terribly greedy.
Yes. He was, he was a hoarder.
Left almost nothing behind for other people.
A hoarder of linguistic treasure.
-Oh, look, here we are!
-Is this...lamb's kidneys?
-It is indeed.
-And a nice bit of Gorgonzola.
And are they faintly scented with urine?
And would you like a glass of Burgundy with that?
A glass of Burgundy would be lovely, thank you.
So we're going to have a Bloom feast cos that's what he has - gorgonzola.
Yes, it is. Gorgonzola and good red Burgundy wine.
I think he calls it, "the feety savour of green cheese". "Feety".
-Shall we see if there's a faint scent of urine?
-I think so, yeah.
And I wasn't going to, but the smell is so delicious.
It is, it is good, isn't it? There we are.
-Very tender. Mmm!
Ulysses was the book I chose as my Desert Island Disc.
It's one I can go back to again and again
and not only for the sheer joy of his language,
but also the humanity of his flawed and un-heroic characters.
Joyce's books only sell thousands,
but one of his contemporaries sells hundreds of millions.
The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings trilogy
are the second and third best-selling novels of all time,
just after Dickens' Tale Of Two Cities.
New Zealand-based director Peter Jackson
has devoted many years to bringing JRR Tolkien's books to the screen
And, for him, Tolkien's admixture of Norse, Middle English
and Anglo Saxon is one key
to the enduring success of both the books and the films.
"Roads go ever, ever on, under cloud and under star,
"yet feet that wandering have gone return at last to home afar.
"Eyes that fire and sword have seen and horror in halls of stone
"look at last on meadows green
"and trees and hills they long have known."
I wondered how much you felt, because you adapt these, how much the language matters to Tolkien,
-I think he's an extremely good writer of English.
-Just at the level of the sentence,
that you really can't improve much, can you?
It was one of the decisions we made when adapting Lord of the Rings, was that we tried
to work as much of his language into the script as we could.
I think that one of the beauties of the book
of the Lord of the Rings, and I think it ultimately worked in the movie,
is that they're talking in a language that is beautiful and poetic and,
even though it's not one that we're used to hearing...
-It's so good...
-..On the street, you understand it. It becomes...
..accessible in a funny way.
But what Tolkien did great with his stories and especially
his use of language is that he treated them as historical.
-And I think that's the way that we found, you know,
that was the door that we entered when we went into the movies, is that this isn't made up.
it's not a piece of gobbledygook, you know, set on the planet Zog or...
I mean, every name, every place name,
every plant name that Tolkien wrote about, he based in some form
of a language, it was a language sometimes that he created himself.
It was an archaic old Middle English form of language.
-Like Oakenshield or something.
-Everything meant something.
Everything actually had a reality, and it was almost like he did literally create a history.
What I also admire about Tolkien is, like Joyce,
his protagonists are reluctant heroes, grounded in a reality,
no matter how fantastical the world they inhabit.
-But for Tolkien, the real heroes, the true heroes, were the simple folk.
-The decent folk.
There's, I think, you know, what Tolkien's saying ultimately is to be a real hero
if you're good, if you're decent, if you are prepared to offer yourself
up to protect your fellow friend. And you have to wonder how much
of that came from his experiences in the trenches and World War I.
'Jackson is also known as a schlock horror director, where plot is all,
'and I wonder if, like me, he shares my love for the master of the genre, Stephen King.'
I think he's one of the great storytellers of our time,
of any time, really, partly because he is so obsessed with storytelling.
That's right. The other thing about Stephen King which I think is fantastic is that I don't think
he ever invents a character, every single character he writes about,
-and these are good and bad, they're sane and they're insane...
..are an element of him, that he's not afraid to,
-you know, to dig into the dark depths of his...
and create a character out of that, so he literally mines what he considers
the most evil part of himself and he creates and absolute psychopath.
-But you know it's coming from a real place.
Whereas you get somebody who says,
-"I'm gonna write the most evil psychopath in the world" and they make stuff up...
You read it and it might be horrifying,
-but you're not connecting with it because you don't recognise any of it.
-Yeah, I agree.
Now, there's another of my favourite writers who,
in his day was as popular as King, is as brilliant with words as Joyce
and, like Tolkien and Homer, created fantastical imaginary worlds.
Well, who could that be?
You know, if I could time travel, this is where I would come to,
410 years ago,
and I would pop into one of the taverns that line the Thames here
and I would listen to the language of the street and I would see if I could bump into Shakespeare,
Marlowe, Turner, Kyd, Middleton, Webster, Johnson.
This period, the 1590s to 1600, saw the greatest
flowering of theatre that the world has ever seen.
Poets and playwrights seemed to bubble from this town.
Shakespeare alone had a vocabulary more than six times
the average of 10,000 that you and I might have.
He introduced 3,000 words into the English language.
What distinguishes Shakespeare from all his colleagues, aside from his prodigious output,
was his concentration on character,
often at the expense of plot, which he was content to lift from others, Hamlet a case in point,
which was a re-working of the Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd.
Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt...
thaw and resolve itself into a dew.
Or that the everlasting had not fixed his cannon against self-slaughter.
Oh, God, God...
-It was a radical exploration of a single human soul.
In a way that hadn't been done before either, but there hadn't
been that type of sort of navel gazing, soul searching type of hero,
-it was much more objective, as he called it...
Whereas Hamlet does something which nobody had ever seen before, I don't think, to quite such an extent.
Am I a coward?
Who calls me villain? Breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face?
Shakespeare's genius was to turn a pretty standard revenge tragedy,
about the prince who has to avenge his father's murder,
into a deeply thoughtful meditation about... everything.
Pigeon liver'd and lack gall. To make oppression bitter, or ere this!
I should have fatted all the region kites.
Did you have a view of it, sort of growing up, when you started acting?
-Did you always think, "One day"?
-but only in that sense that it's seen as one of those Olympic events for an actor.
-One of those...
-I was about to say opening the bowling for England,
-but that's rather inappropriate.
-Keeping goal for Scotland.
Keeping goal for Scotland, yes, it's one of those...
-it's one of the sort of marker points, isn't it?
Bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
Everything is contained, particularly in Hamlet, isn't it?
He's kind of the sex, life, death...
-Hope, revenge, despair...
-Yes, and utterly contemporary.
-Which is sort of a magic trick,
because it remains 400 years old and yet it seems to keep being reborn and rediscovered.
I think Dorothy Parker said, "I go and see Hamlet every ten years
"and I find Shakespeare's re-written it in my absence".
That's absolutely it, and every time you see it
every actor who does it and the thing about Hamlet, whenever you come to,
and whoever comes to it, it doesn't resist.
Because there's so much in it and so much scope in it,
-everyone can throw something at it and reveal something new.
And what Shakespeare then does is something no other revenge play dared to do.
Ask the really big question,
which has become the most famous line in the English language.
To be or not to be? That is the question.
I wondered how, you know, when you first sat in the rehearsal room for a read-through or whatever
-and had to say "To be or not to be".
-That is the cliche.
Did you rush through it and think... Or...
I think our director was savvy enough that we didn't sit down and do a read-through straight away,
so we sort of circled round it and took the curse off it.
But, yeah, I mean, so many lines are so well worn.
-Cruel to be kind...
-Method in his madness. All that sort of thing.
-To the manor born.
-They just keep coming...
-And you think, "How do I begin?"
And of course, you just begin by... not worrying about it is all you can, which,
-it sounds terribly simple and isn't...
There's sort of no way round it other than going,
"This character happens to say these lines here and they're the first time they've ever been said."
Exactly. So that's why I think we should trim some of the dead wood.
You know, some of that stand-up stuff in the middle of the action.
-You mean the soliloquies?
-Yeah. And I think we both know which is the dodgy one.
Oh? Oh? Which is the dodgy one?
Um..."To be..." "nobler in the mind," "mortal coil", that one.
It's boring, Bill. The crowd hates it.
Well that one happens to be my favourite, actually.
I was in front of university students the other day.
And I said, "Let's take what is now most...
-"you'll be bored as I say it, to be or not to be".
-"You'll be bored, bored, you're bored shitless now as I say it, right?"
And I took out a Magnum gun.
-And I fired it at the ceiling and half the bloody ceiling fell down
and I went, 'Click, click, click' to blow my head off, "To be...
"..or not to be". They were, "Fucking hell!
-"This is what it's about".
And I put this Magnum, of course I got the plaster up there and it was a blank.
-But my God, you got their attention.
-Got their attention and so...
-And that's what, and it is a speech,
'To be or not to be' that, as you say, is so worn down and eroded by familiarity that in fact
-it is about exactly that. It is, "Do I do this?".
-"Do I pull the trigger?".
How's it begin, that speech?
Come on, come on, Bill.
"To be a victim of all life's earthly woes or not to be a coward
"and take death by his proffered hand."
There, now, I'm sure we can get that down.
No, absolutely not. It's perfect.
How about, 'To be a victim or not to be a coward'?
It doesn't make sense, does it? To be a victim of what? To be a coward about what?
OK, OK. Take out victim, take out coward.
Just start, 'To be or not to be'.
You can't say that, it's gibberish.
But it's short, William, it's short. Listen, it flows...
'To be or not to be? That is the question'. Da-da da-da da da da da da da da.
You're damn right it's the question, you don't have any bloody idea what he's talking about.
What is it about it?
Is it simply because it is the question that a lot of human beings face, whether to end life?
-It's such a simple question.
So I was sort of thinking, "Well, what's all the fuss about?"
-I mean, you know...
I mean, do I kill myself or not? And...
t didn't sort of hit home until well through the run,
when I suddenly thought the calmness of that soliloquy,
the self control of that soliloquy, which is unlike the other ones,
is part of that concentration of energy and if you get it right,
you can feel it, feel the energy of the theatre concentrating to a point...
You can feel that they're hearing it for the first time.
-Which would be the real achievement.
-That's the prize.
He doesn't know what to say. 'To be or not to be?' and, you see,
he has to find it right at that moment.
-That might be all he'd say...
-That's the question.
If you pause too long, as I did once, and there was a person sitting,
-a little old lady and her...
-..father, her husband sitting right...
-Did he prompt you?
I came up right next to him in my pyjamas, tearful and crying.
I said, "To be or not to be?"
And then I thought for a moment, you know, what does that mean?
-And she's turned to her husband and said, "That is the question!"
-That's very touching.
And he woke up, I think, and...
-so everyone heard it and laughed a bit.
-But I was able to say, "That IS the question".
-Oh, right, you...sort of joined in her thing, yeah.
-You affirmed her...
-That IS the question.
-That is, yeah.
-You're right. It was a wonderful moment, actually.
-"That IS the question".
Bloody constraint, for if you hide the crown,
even in your hearts, there will he rake for it.
Therefore in fierce...
Of course, most of Shakespeare's language is not as simple as
"To be or not to be" and many people are, alas, put off for good.
..that, if requiring fail, he will compel.
This is his claim, his threatening and my message.
What is your feeling about Shakespearian language?
Have you always found it a simple matter to engage with the verse?
Sometimes it's difficult, it does take a bit of unpicking in terms of just meaning sometimes.
Well, I get sometimes very upset, the way he's caned
-and then people say, "Well, his language". The language?!
He has invented our language! He is so ultra modern...
-He's so accessible. There is a power in the verse, you know...
"O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven in invention, a kingdom for a stage,
-"princes to act and monarchs to behold the swelling scene..."
-The swelling scene.
"Then should the..." It has bounce and power and so Shakespeare has a reality, for God's sake...
But you know...
Here's a line from Shakespeare... 'Light thickens'?
-Where did that come from?
This is why I will defend Shakespeare, this is why they need to look at it and bring it in.
We were very lucky cos presumably we had teachers at school who
managed, well, I did, managed to inspire me,
passionately inspire me about Shakespeare, and then it becomes...
I'm afraid I am a little fearful that our education system makes it
very frightening and off-putting to people who, like me, who couldn't speak till I was seven years old,
you know, couldn't be understood by anyone, I spoke so fast.
I speak fast still and maybe I can't be understood.
I had to have elocution lessons to slow me down.
-Me too. I had the same thing. Sent to rooms with two-way mirrors.
-Made to speak with other kids who couldn't speak.
And learning this stuff by heart and speaking it was the first time that I was able to express
all kinds of things in front of people that I couldn't.
-My mind just went too fast.
I think in the final analysis, he is...
-We've got our author.
-The blue planet has its author...
-And it is Shakespeare, William Shakespeare.
I count myself exceedingly lucky to have been given English as my mother tongue.
There's no doubt that Flaubert, Tolstoy, Goethe and any number of other writers
are immense talents but, yes, Shakespeare
is our planet's author and I am not talking jingoism here,
he just covers all the bases.
Over at the Comedie Francaise in Paris,
they of course revere their literary giants...
Racine, Moliere, Corneille, Marivaux...
But do they also recognise Shakespeare as the master?
Guillaume Gallienne is France's foremost classical actor
and has played Shakespeare along with Moliere and the rest.
What does he make of Hamlet's most famous soliloquy?
'To be or not to be'. How does that sound in French? How does that go?
Etre, ou ne pas etre, la est le la question.
That's very good.
But there's different theories.
Some theorists believes that it's not 'To be or not to be, that is the question'.
but believe it's 'To be or not? To be, that is the question'.
Whoa! This is an example of what you're saying,
about the reinterpretation that French allows that play.
Well, it still engloves what's suggested in the first version, but it brings it somewhere else also.
Do you think there's a freedom that you can have if it's in another language?
You can translate it and it may not have the richness of the original English,
but that you can just, you know, let go of having to pronounce every syllable and give it a...
-I'm not so sure.
-I still prefer Shakespeare in English.
-You do? Yeah.
I learn a lot from how... When you know how to act Shakespeare, I think you can act anything.
If I were to put to you an absurd question,
that if either Moliere or Shakespeare had to be
expunged from the cultural pantheon, hence they no longer existed...
-I would choose... I would keep Shakespeare, by far.
It's richer, for me.
Shakespeare, you can reckon yourself in something human, in...
a quality or defect, but it's very... it's higher, it goes higher.
-It goes far away, for me.
-It makes me travel much more.
Translation is a tricky area.
Can you even begin to grasp the genius of Shakespeare in
another language, especially one as Different, say, as Mandarin Chinese?
Entrepreneur and aesthete Sir David Tang
and his old school chum, Johnson Chang, have a view.
SOLILOQUY IN CHINESE
So, "Shall we seek life or should we seek death? This is the main issue."
-So that rather gives the game away.
-As if Hamlet comes on stage and says, "Shall I commit suicide?"
-It gives the game away.
Yeah, whereas 'To be or not to be' is a sort of gentle, easing into the whole sort of meditation
that he then goes through.
The trouble is that the words 'to be' does not exist in China.
Anybody translating 'To be or not to be' must use the same verb
-and just put a not in front of it...
but we have never seen a translation that does that.
Isn't that interesting? Yeah.
The Chinese just... gives the game away.
"Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." Not easy.
I can only do, 'O, for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.'
-No, but we meant in Chinese.
-Oh, in Chinese.
MOCK CHINESE ACCENT
You're not supposed to mock your own language. That's outrageous.
MOCK CHINESE ACCENT
That's very good. That's very funny.
What I love about Sir David Tang is that he's funny
and utterly unafraid to say whatever he likes.
He reminds me, in some ways, of those delectable eccentric characters in PG Wodehouse.
Now, Wodehouse is one of my all-time favourite authors and,
while many might consider him about as far from Hamlet or James Joyce as you could get,
I would disagree. I love them equally.
And that's the beauty of great writing - it comes in so many guises.
Suppose that you were strolling through the illimitable jungle
and you happen to meet a tiger cub...
The contingency is a remote one, Sir.
-Never mind. Let us suppose it.
-Very good, Sir.
Let us now suppose that you biffed that tiger cub.
And let us further suppose
that word reached its mother that you'd done so.
Now, what would you expect the attitude of that mother to be?
In the circumstances, I should anticipate a certain show of disapprobation, Sir.
Yes, very good, Jeeves. Very well put.
'One of the best biographies of PG Wodehouse ever written is by Robert McCrum,
'so it gave me great pleasure to catch up with him
'and have a conversation about our beloved author.'
When people hear the word "Wodehouse", they think the voice of the upper-class twit
and that it's a world of silly asses and country houses.
And they might be put off by that because they're not aware the great secret of Wodehouse
is not the characters and the plots, wonderful as they are, but the language.
Yeah, he's a virtuoso of language and he revels in it.
But it's drawn on Old English, Latin and Greek,
Middle English, Jane Austen, Dickens, Tennyson.
These are all his subjects.
And he loves American slang,
poetry of everyday speech, and he just loves...
He's got some great... I want to read you one bit, if I may.
This is one of the most brilliant opening lines of any Wodehouse.
This is The Luck of the Bodkins and he goes,
"Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes
"there had crept a look of furtive shame -
"the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French."
That's funny. That's so good.
And another character says
he doesn't try and speak French properly because if he does, it gives him a nosebleed.
-That's very good.
That sentence could only have been written by someone who knew the classics.
But at the same time as this wonderful language,
he omits two of the great themes of literature.
There's no sex and there's no death.
The only use for a bed in Wodehouse is for someone to hide something under.
-Or to put a hot water bottle in.
-That's right, to booby trap them
by putting a darning needle at the end of a broom handle.
He's a bit like... He's a kind of Zelig-like character -
-he passes through this 20th century...
1900 to 1945's one of the great half-centuries in terms of drama...
-..of any historical period.
-He passes through it...
-..untouched. He never grows up.
Care for a saunter, Angela, old girl?
-Love to, Bertie, darling.
Ssh! Tom's listening to the news.
I have much to say that's not for the public ear.
It's as if every sentence you read of his, he's looked at it and thought,
"That's just a man crossing the room and sitting down in a chair - there must be another way."
So he doesn't put the £5 note into his pocket, he "trousers" it.
-So "to trouser" becomes a verb, which is fantastic.
Words for "drunk" alone - here's a list of them...
Awash, boiled, fried,
lathered, illuminated, oiled,
ossified, pie-eyed, polluted,
primed, scrooched, stinko,
squiffy, tanked and woozled.
-All made up.
So there it is.
My only daughter, for whom I had dreamed of a wonderful golden future,
is going to marry an inebriated newt fancier.
Well, aunt of my heart, yes, I can't but agree
that things are not too "oh, ja, come spiv" at the moment.
Apparently, Wodehouse is most popular with...
With, er, prisoners and people in hospitals and, actually,
-if you think about it, I can't think of a greater compliment for a writer.
I mean, if you can make prisoners and the ill happy,
then you've spoken to people who are low and you've warmed them...
-..just by language.
The number of people who I've encountered, having written this biography,
-who tell me that when they're feeling down...
-..they turn to Wodehose.
-I don't know whether this works for you.
-Absolutely does, yeah.
They'll read a favourite or a new Wodehouse - and there are plenty of those - to cheer themselves up.
George Orwell was a contemporary of PG Wodehouse.
He was educated at Eton, but he rejected his caste and his class.
Even his rather unprepossessing name of Eric Blair was changed.
Politics were his theme.
Animal Farm and 1984 have rightly become classics,
warning us of the dangers of totalitarianism.
Wodehouse and Orwell may seem like unlikely literary bedfellows,
but they share a concern for using the English language accurately and precisely.
But if Wodehouse never embraces change, Orwell is all about change -
and his dystopian 1984 world sees a vision of the future
that reduces English to a bare minimum,
with the aim of reducing emotions and thought to the same.
So with Newspeak, if you can't say it,
then you can't think it or feel it.
It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.
You won't have seen the Dictionary 10th Edition yet, Smith.
It's that thick.
The 11th Edition will be that thick.
'Praise be to our leader and the party workers.'
Newspeak was what Orwell coined as a title
for this particular political language in a tyranny that he imagined as being in 1984.
I mean, as ever,
Orwell has written better about English than anyone else.
And that particular invention is fantastic,
cos it's very, very simple, all of Newspeak.
You know, like Doublethink - they're all very simple sets of words,
but the whole point of all of them is to be euphemistic
and to prevent you thinking about the truth.
And becomes really nasty when it's in military situations,
so you have "collateral damage", which means "dead civilians",
-and you actually don't really want to think about it. "Rendition."
"Someone's been rendered somewhere." Someone's been taken on a plane
-to somewhere where you can torture them.
You know, all of these words are deliberately vague and bland
to stop you thinking, "That's really not what we should be doing."
Ian Hislop, editor of the satirical magazine Private Eye,
shares Orwell's love of clarity with language
and has devoted columns to exposing humbug and the inglorious use of language.
So, these columns tend to start
because people are irritated with particular words or a particular sort of jargon.
And the management speak -
we originally called it Birtspeak, after John Birt,
because the place where this management drivel reaches its apogee is the BBC.
I mean, well away from the cameras and the creative process,
there are decks and decks of people who are telling each other
about "traction" and "rolling out 360-degree platforms"
and this is taking up a lot of their time.
This, I always thought, was the classic Birtspeak. A lot of these...
A lot of the jargon's focused in job adverts,
but you have to guess this one.
"Procurement is targeted with delivering savings
"on generic goods and services, pan-BBC,
"through a competitive category-management initiative and driving compliance.
"The Category Manager - Logistics, Ground Transport
"is responsible to the Head of Production and Logistics and Senior Category Managee - Logistics."
-And guess what that is a job for.
I know the word "logistics" means "haulage" - is it to do with transport? Lorries?
-No, it's booking taxis.
Taxis that another manager has already decided
BBC executives shall never, ever use, as it might get into the Daily Mail.
That is astonishing!
But we had a classic about three or four years ago of...
-We called it "neologisms", but it was, everything was "the new" something else.
-Everything was the new black for a time, wasn't it?
-Everything was the new black.
"Botox is the new heroin.
"Opera's the new cocaine.
"Spelling's the new punctuation.
"Checking your inbox is the new going out."
Oh, here's a good one...
"At the risk of going into Private Eye, I think white pepper is the new black pepper,"
says Stephen Fry in Sainsbury's Magazine.
I did know what I was doing but it was absurd, of course.
So that's the point - all these...
-Not things you've made up just to be amusing.
-They are genuine.
No, and that is the great joy of, er, the real quote,
is they're always funnier than anything you could make up.
Alexander Pope, I think, he wrote this marvellous essay on criticism.
If you want to talk about how well language can be used...
He said, "True wit is nature to advantage dress'd
"what oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd."
-And that's it. You want someone to tell you something.
-You think, "Yes, that must be right. I've thought of that but I've never said it that well."
And that, in a nutshell, is what it's all about.
It's why we turn to the poets
in times of love, death, joy and grief -
they just do it better than anyone else.
"He was my North, my South, my East, my West,
"My working week, my Sunday best,
"My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
"I thought that love could last for ever:
"But I was wrong.
"The stars are not needed now: Put them out, every one;
"Pack up the moon, dismantle the sun;
"Pour away the ocean, sweep up the woods.
"For nothing now can ever come to any good."
That poem was by WH Auden, but you may well know it better
from the film Four Weddings And A Funeral,
where it was magnificently used in the funeral of the title.
It's extraordinary how something can have such impact,
be so succinct and have such emotional truth behind it.
Maybe it's something to do with the very nature of a poem.
As Joyce would say, "The right words in the right order."
'Richard Curtis - old friend, creator of Blackadder
'and, of course, writer of the most successful rom-coms of our generation,
'from Notting Hill, Love Actually and, of course, Four Weddings and that now-famous Funeral.'
I mean, tragically in my life, in every film I've ever done,
the actual single best moment in the film has nothing to do with...
nothing to do with me at all - it's always the case.
Why did you choose that poem? And secondly, were you astonished by that response?
Yeah, I mean, I chose the poem because I didn't feel up to the job...
-Right, I see.
-..of writing a moving funeral,
so I thought I'd better leave it to a better man.
But also, I mean, the fact that I knew it was, in a funny way,
because I'd always been told I should study Auden and Lovell
-and then I didn't understand most of his poems.
I remember being very thrilled when I came across that one.
I think it's no coincidence that it's in fact, as you say,
-called Funeral Blues and is in fact a lyric...
-Was meant to be sung.
-And that sort of is...
probably, for me, quite symptomatic of the fact that I've got a great passion about lyrics -
in a way, more than poems.
It's become the thing for funerals, hasn't it,
for music to be chosen, songs to be chosen?
There are ones that are... They're cliches but one shouldn't mock them -
you know, I Did It My Way and Je Ne Regrette Rien.
Angels, I believe, is number one at funerals these days.
They do have top-ten lists, don't they?
I heard someone had Countdown playing when his coffin went through the curtains.
"Da-dum, da-dum-dum, boom." It's another way of doing it.
But still people read poems - there are a few -
but you feel that actually lyrics have more...
I won't say "more power", but that they do the job better,
-they can express emotion everybody can understand? Is that...
-I don't know.
The thing is about poems, people don't have as passionate access to them now as they did.
People were apparently outraged by the work of Byron
-and people knew about it, and they were more famous...
It's hard for a poem to break through. Perhaps what happened on the Four Weddings one was,
it was a rare example of a poem being put out to enough people...
-..to get a passionate reaction and, of course, poems are often perfect, word for word.
Pop lyrics are often not perfect, but they are known by so many people
and they've got the passion and perfection of the music behind them.
You know, there also are very...
There are geniuses working in the world of pop lyrics now.
Paul Simon has written some very extraordinary things.
The Boxer is very extraordinary. Every day I think of that line...
"A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."
As you go through life and realise people are only hearing a bit of what you say,
because it's the bit that suits them.
It's part of the fabric of your life now.
Now, if you pick a poem, it may be the first time someone's heard it,
they've got to piece it together...
-Whereas if you have... There's a song by Coldplay called Fix You,
-and you can't do much better than...
.."I will try to fix you," after a terrible sorrow has occurred.
It's got a tremendous potency
and the fact that the lyrics may not be as well crafted,
the compensation of the beauty of the tune is enough to turn it back into something deeper.
I suppose there's the feeling that your whole generation heard that song together,
so it has a sort of binding effect.
-It connects you all.
-Yeah, you know, if you stood in a stadium...
-..with 45,000 other people who know those words...
..they become... It is, it's a Nuremberg Rally of pop.
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
Well, there's no doubting the intensity of that collective experience,
but can Coldplay or the rapper or band of the moment
really stand alongside the pantheon of great poets?
Sir Christopher Ricks is one of the most eminent literary critics of his generation.
He's written on everything from Keats, Tennyson, Milton and TS Eliot,
but he doesn't shy away from popular culture.
His latest opus has been on one of his all-time favourites.
# Thinking about the government
# The man in the trench coat Badge out, laid off
# Says he's got a bad cough Wants to get it paid off... #
You've, you know, written a full-length work on Dylan,
which I think you would call poetry, although, of course, it is written often and mostly for singing.
Dylan is, I think, a great artist.
I think that he's, er...
simply astonishingly imaginative with words.
# Darkness at the break of noon
# Shadows even the silver spoon
# The hand-made blade The child's balloon
# Eclipses both the sun and moon
# To understand, you know too soon
# There is no sense in trying... #
I think again and again, Dylan is very good when you could imagine
an unimaginative creative-writing school telling him he'd got it wrong.
# So don't fear
# If you hear
# A foreign sound to your ear
# It's all right, Ma
# I'm only sighing... #
When you sing, "Don't fear if you hear a foreign sound to your ear,"
you can imagine somebody saying, "No, no, it's either a sound that's foreign to your ear
"or you hear a foreign sound in your ear.
"You don't hear a foreign sound TO your ear". Oh, yes, you do.
# As some warn victory, some downfall
# Private reasons, great or small
# Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
# To make all that should be killed to crawl
# While others say, "Don't hate nothing at all except hatred"... #
This is wonderfully well put.
It couldn't be better put.
In a sense, that's almost the definition of poetry that you need,
-and none other. "This is so well put."
-It sounds almost trite.
And yet that actually says so much.
So that's it. There really are no rules.
There is no right and wrong as to what makes good or bad writing,
and all I can urge you to do is to read and read some more,
for therein dwells the story of us all.
Much of our extraordinary ability with, and delight in, language has ended up here,
on the page, recorded forever, for us and for our ancestors.
It has the power to move us, console us and inspire us.
Without doubt, it is our species' supreme achievement.
It is our glory.
# So don't fear
# If you hear
# A foreign sound to your ear
# It's all right, Ma
# I'm only sighing
# As some warn victory, some downfall
# Private reasons, great or small
# Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
# To make all that should be killed to crawl
# While others say, "Don't hate nothing at all except hatred." #
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
In this programme, Stephen Fry celebrates storytelling. It has been with us as long as language itself and as a species, we love to tell our stories. This desire to both entertain and explain has resulted in the flowering of language to describe every aspect of the human condition.
Stephen asks just what makes a good story and why some writers just do it better. He reveals what stories make him shiver with joy or, conversely, shudder with horror. From Homer's epic to Joyce's modern-day reinvention with Ulysses, from taking in Shakespeare, PG Wodehouse, Tolkien, Orwell, Auden, Bob Dylan and the even the mangled web of words that became known as Birtspeak, Stephen uncovers why certain words can make us laugh, cry or tear our hair out.
Talking to storytelling gurus like screenwriter William Goldman and modern-day interpreters of classics like Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, he looks at how character and plot are interwoven and how any schema to create the perfect story are doomed. Shakespearean actors Simon Russell Beale, David Tennant, Brian Blessed and Mark Rylance give their take on Hamlet and laud the bard as the blue planet's supreme writer. Sir Christopher Ricks argues that Bob Dylan should be considered as great a poet as anyone, whilst Richard Curtis explains why Auden can move us to tears but why in the modern world, Coldplay are just as important.