Thursday, 7 December 2006

On minding 'Never Mind the Fullstops'

Someone writes to me as follows: 'Did I see your name come up at the end of 'Never Mind the Fullstops'? What were you doing getting involved in such a dismal display of pedantry?'

Well, I suppose the short answer is: to try and make it less dismal - but I failed. This is what happened. Earlier this year the producers wrote and asked me if I would like to be a panellist on this new 'game show' about English usage for BBC 4. That thought appalled me, but I took the opportunity to write and say I hoped they would use the show as a chance to be a bit positive about language, celebrating its richness and diversity, and not just be another programme where people go on moaning about the bits of usage they don't like. Great idea, they wrote back. Would you like to be a consultant to help us get the balance right?

That seemed worth doing. And so I turned up at the studio in Victoria in March, where they were recording all ten programmes in three days - a hectic schedule. My role was to comment on the scripts and be on hand to answer any linguistic questions which might come up in the course of the recording. My spirits fell when I saw the scripts. Although some of the tasks facing the panellists were lively and innovative (such as the one where they hear some people talking in non-standard English and have to work out which part of the country they come from) and some potentially very funny (such as the one where they have to think up a mnemonic to remember how to spell a difficult word), the general tone of the programmes was negative. Most of them started with a variant of the theme 'We all know the English language is in a bad state...'. There were lots of tasks of the type 'Correct the errors...' - where 'error' was a prescriptive chestnut or a piece of non-standard English or a feature of language change. The message was very much that only standard English was worth anything - a message which wasn't denied even when there was the occasional bow in the direction of regional speech, where the attitude tended to be one of 'don't they speak funny down there?' rather than of genuine interest and respect for regional diversity (a marked contrast with the splendid Voices project: Julian Fellowes, the MC, had no shortage of opinions about what was right or wrong, and I could see that the programmes were going to deteriorate into an argument between him and the panellists (who, being 'personalities', would also have strong opinions) over points of usage. Which is what happened.

Anyway, I did my best, working through the scripts and suggesting new ways of introducing the issues and games, trying to bring in a celebratory tone to balance the 'doom and gloom' scenario, and also trying to point out that most of the 'Which is correct?' questions didn't actually have a clear-cut answer, because standard English usage was divided. And, to be fair, they took the thrust of what I was saying on board and made a few changes, so that the end product was much less negative in tone than it was at the outset. But I was on a hiding to nothing, really. Even if a positive note was there in the scripted introductions, when the programme got going and people started to talk spontaneously, Julian Fellowes' personal pedantries - good-humoured, but reflecting the complaints tradition - coloured the conversation, and hardly any of the panellists (over 30 of them) took him to task. There were a few honourable exceptions, such as the brilliant Roger McGough, who would restore any linguist's faith in human nature, but only a few. And the problem was that some of the best bits of television were precisely those where Fellowes sounded off about how one bit of usage was 'awful' and the panellists reacted. So in the editing process, the more balanced observations tended to be edited out. (They recorded over an hour's worth of material for each programme, and cut it down to just under 30 minutes.)

I sat for three days in that studio, wishing I was somewhere else (but actually managing to write a bit of my next book in the frequent lulls in the action - of which there are many, in television). Every now and then someone on the set would raise a technical question about language, such as where a particular word came from, or whether a particular usage was current, and the producer would turn to me and I would give the answer (if I knew it - but I usually did, as most of the topics were pretty basic). This information would then be fed into Julian's ear-piece and he would come out with it, thereby giving the world the impression that he was actually quite well informed about language matters. (There's a nice irony here. I was recently on an afternoon show on Radio 5 Live, and in the trail for the programme that morning the presenter evidently announced my participation as follows: 'He knows more about the English language than Melvyn Bragg but not as much as Julian Fellowes.' Heh, heh.)

So, yes, I was technically the 'language consultant' for this show, and that is why my name turned up in the credits. The problem with being a consultant, though, is that no-one is actually obligated to act on your advice - and in TV they usually don't. I watched the first couple of shows on air, and was sad to see that most of the tweaked bits I'd worked for had been edited out. I didn't watch the others. Maybe they were better - though I think not, judging by the comments about the show on the website ( Somebody there says that he assumed that the forms accepted as correct in one of the tasks had been 'approved' by me. I wish!

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