Tuesday 12 December 2006

On TV language blockbusters - not

A correspondent, after watching recent television blockbuster series on Romans, kings and queens, babies, and assorted plants and animals, asks me if there has ever been a comparable series on language, and if not, why not? The writer also asks me why I haven't done one. Now thereby hangs a tale.

As far as I know, there has never been such a series - on language (and linguistics) in general, that is - in any country. There have of course been series on individual languages, such as The Story of English and The Story of Welsh, or aspects of languages, such as the one I did last year on accents and dialects, The Way That They Say It (BBC Wales). There have also been individual documentaries on particular aspects of language, such as on children's language, or on the world's endangered languages - like Janus Billeskov Jensen's fine 'In Language we Live' (Final Cut Productions, Denmark). But I don't know of any series which takes 'language' as its subject-matter and explores it thoroughly - a kind of TV equivalent of my Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, if you like.

Why not me? Well, it hasn't been for want of trying. My epitaph might well read: 'He tried to get television companies to do a language series, but failed - repeatedly.'

I have a file full of proposals to different companies. They don't originate with me. What happens is this. Every now and then the phone rings, and it is a TV researcher or production company. They have read some of my stuff and they have thought of a brilliantly original idea - a television series on language. Would I be interested in acting as a sounding board, consultant, writer, presenter...? The first time this happened, according to my file, was during the 1970s, and it's happened about twenty times since. I used to respond enthusiastically, and still try to, but if I added up all the wasted hours spent putting proposals together only to have them eventually turned down, it would be equivalent to a book or two! Here are a couple of instances.

During the 70s I was invited to a meeting of all the heads of department at the BBC in their Ealing office. Sheila Innes was in charge and I presented the subject to a large group of staff. There was interest. But then they fell to a-talking about which department it should come under. Was it current affairs? History, perhaps? Everyone had a stake in the subject (that's language for you) but no-one felt able to 'own' the whole subject. Nothing came of it.

During the 80s I remember being approached by an independent producer. I worked up a preliminary outline, and the producer tweaked it into TV shape. Eight one-hour programmes, I think it was. We were invited to a meeting at the Groucho Club to talk to the head BBC2 honcho about it. I recall the meeting well, because there was a power-cut and we ate largely in the dark. A bad omen. He thought we were working along the right lines, but felt that what viewers wanted was a wide-ranging socially grounded series, full of the world's people and places. Bring in more social diversity, more linguistic controversy, he said, and work it up into a proper proposal. It took us a couple of weeks, but we did it and sent it in. Then we learned that a new head honcho had just taken over - someone whose background was in archaeology. The reaction we got to our proposal was 'Interesting, but there's no history in it. Viewers are interested in the origins and development of language. Where's that?' Well, it's not there because your predecessor thought... We left the meeting feeling very dispirited. He suggested we rework our proposal, but not very enthusiastically, and we just didn't feel up to it, then other things got in the way...

There was one nice outcome. The producer had worked with Sylvester McCoy, and they eventually came up to Holyhead and put on an evening for an audience of entranced Welsh Whovians.

Over the past twenty years I think I must have explored with producers every conceivable way of mounting a TV series on language. The pitches have been to the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Discovery... None have gone ahead. I began to think it must be me. But there were two things which told me that the malaise was more deep-rooted. First, I did have some success when the idea was to do something on a specific and 'one-off' issue, and I've been involved in the planning of a dozen or so programmes over the years, all of which have gone to air. And secondly, I once had the chance to ask a group of programme-makers to their faces why language as a subject put them off. It was very illuminating.

It was at Broadcasting House in London, round about 1980. I was asked to talk about language to a managerial seminar series, and I started by asking them why there had been no blockbuster... etc. The answers went roughly along these lines. People remembered language work from their school days. It was dull, boring, dry as dust. Parsing. Split infinitives. Tenses. Being told off for mispronouncing something. Iambic pentameters. ... I looked around the room. From their age, these were almost all people who had been through the prescriptive mill. They were probably the last generation of people to do so. They had never been enthused about language.

I had a similar experience when I met a buyer for W H Smith and asked him why one hardly ever sees a book on language in Smith's bookshops. Boring subject, he said. Not the sort of thing people would want to buy when they're getting on a train. He too, on being pressed, turned out to be someone who had once been parsed to death.

That prescriptive era has a lot to answer for. It suppressed grass-roots language enthusiasm for generations. And it presented a view of language as abstract and abstruse. 'How can you possibly show something as invisible as language on screen?' a TV executive once asked me. 'You show people', is the simple answer. And if there are no people around, you show what they left behind them - their inscriptions and documents, especially. In this respect, language is no different from a programme on archaeology or anthropology.

But curiosity about language can never be entirely stifled. It only takes a few minutes talk about accents and dialects, children's language, language death, the nature of stammering, place-names, animal 'language', or other such topics, and people begin to perk up. And you'd think that a series which looked at all of them would have something going for it. Planet Earth? Planet Language.

It hasn't happened yet, but I hope it will one day, in some country (and not necessarily in English). I keep plugging away, whenever I get the chance. Last November I was at White City for the party to mark the end of the very successful Voices week, in which the BBC had celebrated the country's accents and dialects. As the linguistic consultant for the venture, I was asked to give a brief retrospective, but I turned it into a prospective, hoping (a) that the BBC would do it again, after a few years, so that there would be a regular auditory 'snapshot' of British speech recorded, and (b) that the BBC would do even more language programmes, and maybe even a blockbuster.....? Well, I thought, it's not every day you have the director-general of the BBC within earshot. Nothing to lose. But I'm not holding my breath.

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