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Friday 17 August 2018

Fry talks up a storm

Fry's Planet World (BBC2, Sun); The story of film: an odyssey (more4, Sat); Put 'em Under Pressure (RTE1, Sun)

"I'm off for a delve into my own brain," announced Stephen Fry in the first part of the tweely titled Fry's Planet Word. Whoah, hold on there! How long is this going to take? Fry's brain is a huge, bustling place. Should we pack sandwiches and a flask of tea?

Actually, Fry was simply having an MRI scan on his brain -- "I've seen them on House," he quipped -- to determine what happens to it when he speaks. By a way of a bonus I could probably have lived without, there was also a camera stuck down Fry's oesophagus.

If Fry's Planet Word -- a five-part exploration of why we developed speech and the way we use language -- has a small fault, it's that it's a lot like its host's brain: overstuffed with stuff. Fry, busy as a bee in a tweed jacket, bounces all over both the world and his subject, never staying in one place long enough to bore us (which I doubt he could if he tried).

At the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, he pondered the question, "What is the difference between language and communication?" Apes can communicate by noises and gestures, but it's not language.

Besides, unlike Fry's oesophagus, they lack the necessary vocal equipment to speak. Humans also used to point and grunt, until we developed language as a way of communicating during hunting.

An evolutionary scientist told Fry we can speak because of the Fox PT2 gene, which we share with primates. If it hadn't been for a couple of amino acid variations in the evolutionary cocktail, chimps might be chatting with us.

So might another genetic relation, mice. "But they're not going from squeaking to speaking," said Fry, who's clearly never heard Sean Haughey.

By way of a detour into artificial languages, he met a linguist who taught his baby son Klingon as his first tongue, but found it limited by its lack of words for "bottle". "high-chair" and "diaper". I wonder if it has a word for "idiot"?

The best part came when Fry learned that in sign-language, which like any other language differs from country to country, the universal sign for Barack Obama is an O-shape and a waving-flag motion. For Hitler, even in Germany, it's the thumb on the lip and the fingers stretched upwards: a moustache plus a Nazi salute.

Fascinating -- but like all language, be careful how you use it.

If Fry's Planet Word moves a little too quickly, Mark Cousins' beguiling The Story of Film: An Odyssey takes things at a deliberate pace. Fifteen loving, languorous episodes, in fact, devoted to the development of the movies from the first flickering images to the present day.

It's a cinephile's dream, beautifully produced and packed with clips and insights from top film-makers, as well as a first-class piece of TV generally. Which, of course, is why it's hidden away on More 4 on Saturday night.

Q: How hard is it to make a decent half-hour quiz show? A: Very hard, if you're RTE. Put 'Em Under Pressure, a sports quiz very obviously based on BBC1's long-running A Question of Sport, is simply dire.

The latter programme has Sue Barker, and before her had the Davids, Vine and Coleman, all of them broadly knowledgeable about sport. Put 'Em Under Pressure has the ubiquitous Grainne Seoige, preening and posturing through it all on a hideous, blinding white set.

The key to a good quiz is simplicity; here the questions are often ludicrously difficult and eccentric, and the whole show is packaged in such a way as to make everything as convoluted as possible.

It also looks horrendously cheap and lacks the two basic elements any sports quiz needs: clips and pictures. Pass.

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