Fry’s Planet Word
Release Date: iView
This is an unusual step for a television writer – reviewing something that is no longer available on television. But even those who make their living spending far too much time in front of the box can still miss a good program every now and then. Fry’s Planet Word is just one example, and too good to let slip through your fingers because of a little matter like the lack of broadcasting slot.
Actor, comedian and author Stephen Fry is one of those rare know-it-alls who is a pleasure to listen to. His latest investigative series fits his exhaustive knowledge of the English language to a T – the written word. Over five one-hour episodes he explores the origins of language, how it shapes our self-image, the evolution of slang and profanity, the birth of the written word and the influence of storytelling and literature on language. It’s a fascinating voyage for anyone interested in reading and writing – well, at least one review writer – that travels the globe, from the highlands of Thailand to the salons of France. What emerges is a testament to the enduring importance of communication for every culture under the sun.
Writing for example is the tool that “… allows us to explore our past and speak to our future,” says Fry, and it was invented for the most important of messages. Of course this initially meant accountancy for races like the Assyrians and Babylonians. However by 1200 BC it was flourishing in India, China, Europe and Egypt and being put to a more important use, the recording of the rules and religions that defined life.
One of Planet Word’s limitations emerges when Fry attempts to discuss the development of writing and religion. Describing the motivations of religious writers, he says:
“Writing allowed the priests and the rabbis to set in stone their beliefs. Once written, customs became religious laws and the word of God could not be edited.”
This, though, is a bit of perfectly expected cart-before-the-horse thinking for a person with no personal faith. Fry suggests the motivation for writing these flexible ‘customs’ was to produce the control that would extend from an inflexible ‘word of God’. However the discovery of an inflexible truth might have been motivation enough to leave a record to interpret the customs of the day. The fact that the development of writing was both simultaneous and independent tells us something that Fry doesn’t spell out. Wherever men and women have existed, we have always thought it singularly important to pass on how we relate to the world around us. We are not simply chimpanzees with better typewriters; we desire to know who we are.
During the series Fry introduces us to the Rosetta stone, an ancient monolith that helped crack open the secrets of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Since then the very name has become “… a metaphor for anything that has is a key part in the process of decoding, translating or solving a difficult problem.” As it turns out the most difficult problem of all – the purpose to life – is decoded by a single word, the incarnate Word of God. “He was with God in the beginning,” and “… in Him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind,” and he lived among us for more than thirty years so that we could know with absolute clarity how we might attain that life. Fry waxes lyrical about Shakespeare being the greatest author the world has ever produced, but he reckons without the author who produced Shakespeare.
Episodes of Fry’s Planet Word are available to watch on iView and the series can be purchased on DVD through ABC Books.