Have you seen Stephen Fry’s Planet Word program? If you haven’t, get onto youtube and take a look, not least because you’ll have the chance to enjoy some idyllic scenes of Fry (flashing his iPad about) and David Norris being carted around in Dublin snow and chatting all things Joycean.
Episode 5, The Power and the Glory, was about story-telling. It gave an appreciative amble through some of Fry’s favourites and, beneath everything, there was one little question: “What makes it work?”. What is it that makes certain stories, certain story-tellers, quite so wonderful? How can we possibly compare P.G. Wodehouse and Shakespeare and still consider both great writers? The answer was as simple and true as possible: they put things well. Great writing is the right words, in the right order. The ideas and plot could be basic, but they must be well put.
The emphasis throughout was not on analysis, or a consideration of great and ground-breaking achievements. The emphasis fell, instead, on simple enjoyment and admiration. In the final section of the programme, Fry recited W.H. Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’, which, thanks to Four Weddings and a Funeral, I found myself mouthing along to. What I didn’t entirely expect was for Stephen Fry to then start talking about Four Weddings and a Funeral himself. Very few English classes, if presented with ‘Funeral Blues’ would even begin to contemplate exactly how it is transmitted into the public consciousness, let alone praise a product of ‘popular culture’, a rom-com no less. It was a wonderful moment, and somewhat refreshing.
Throughout the program, we were provided with intoxicating clips from film remakes of the various stories under discussion. This seems to rather solidly underline the point that ‘literature’ is so much more than the words on the page. I think we forget that sometimes as we take apart and analyze pieces of text. Yes, literature should be criticized, torn apart, understood, put back together differently – it should encourage us to think – but it is easy to forget on occasion that some things deserve to be read and enjoyed just ‘because’.