Sunday 26 August 2007

On not being on TV

Someone has just asked me why they hear me often on radio but never see me on TV. Well it's not actually never, but it's certainly rare. If I recount my TV experiences this year, you'll see why.

About a year ago I was approached by the UK office of ABC, the Australian TV network, wanting to do a profile for a series. This is the filming that took place: an hour's talk followed by discussion and an interview at last year's Hay winter litfest; a morning at Shakespeare's Globe, talking about Shakespeare with Ben; a blustery half-day walking around locations where I live; a couple of hours of interview at home. Oh, and because they wanted a more personal public talk than the ones I usually give, they asked me to put together a special bio-talk which was recorded at a local venue, the Ucheldre Centre - that took a couple of days' preparation along with the performance.

And the result? A piece lasting some six minutes, called War of Words, in which I was set up as part of a confrontation with Lynne Truss, whom they had also interviewed. Nobody had told me this was going to happen. I must admit I had wondered why the interviewer kept asking me for my thoughts on Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, but thought this was going to be just one topic among several much more important ones - such as endangered languages. There are editorial cuts which make my position seem more extreme than it is. I actually think there's a lot of good stuff in Lynne's book, and say so, in these talks. None of that was left in - well, it wouldn't make good television, to have people agreeing with each other, would it. Somebody has put it up on YouTube, though I can't imagine why.

Four days for six minutes? I doubt whether anyone would think this was a good use of time. If it were a one-off, it wouldn't be so bad. But it is par for the course. Also earlier this year I agreed to take part in 'The C-Word'. A whole morning's filming in Caernarfon. I was sent a list of about 20 questions in advance which they wanted me to answer. I was told this would be a major part of the programme, because they wanted to give this sensitive topic a serious treatment. The questions were good, and the interviews - taking well over an hour - allowed me to explore the history and phonetics of the word in some detail. The result? About a minute, on just one point, in an hour-long programme.

So why do I do it? Because it's part of the job. If you're keen on popularizing language ideas, then you can't ignore TV. And I'm an optimist. Each time I think it's going to be better than last time. And mostly I'm wrong.

I guess it's the occasional good result that keeps me optimistic. For instance, I was pleased with the result of the documentary on English accents and dialects in Wales, made for BBC Wales as part of the Voices project in 2005, called 'The Way They Say It'. You can see a few clips at BBC Wales. But the problem was the same: for that 50-minute programme, we recorded well over 30 hours of material.

So I much prefer radio, which on the whole gives you a fair return for the effort you put into it, and isn't scared of 'talking heads'. And as I have a studio at home (the nearest BBC studio is 25 miles away) it's easy to do quick interviews on topics, as they come up.

The other point, as I've mentioned in a previous post, is that TV isn't as interested in language as it should be. I would certainly do more documentary stuff if I were asked, but that rarely happens. I've tried half a dozen times, in collaboration with various producers, to get a major series about language onto television, but none of the proposals have ever been taken up. The commissioning editors I've encountered think that language is abstract and boring - a consequence of bad experiences in school, I suspect. One actually said to me once, 'You can't possibly think that parsing would make good television!' I pointed out that language is people, and people make good television. But the suspicion was too great.

So it hasn't been that I haven't tried. I tend to respond best to enthusiasm from others, so I've spent much more time in recent years working with film documentary producers - mainly in relation to endangered languages - who have a proper respect for the subject. A good example is 'In Languages We Live' . And as some of these films end up on television anyway, maybe I'm on it more than I think.

Which is where we came in.


Anonymous said...

So you want to popularize the study of language, you like doing radio, AND you have a studio at home... Hello? Can you say "podcast"?

I'd subscribe in an instant and I think many others would as well if you promoted it well on the interwebs!

DC said...

It's a nice idea, and I've occasionally thought about it. I have done a few podcasts for other people, from time to time. But a well organized subscription site brings all sorts of responsibilities, not least the time it takes, and I'm having enough trouble keeping ahead of this blog!