Speak English

Copyright BBCOne part smarm, one part aristocrat, three parts bore: Meet Julian Fellowes, front man to a new BBC show called Never Mind The Full Stops, which I’ve just finished watching. I will not be watching it a second time. This show is a panel game that centres on punctuation in the ‘hilarious’ footsteps of such mavens as Lynne Truss. Not since Noel Edmonds has there been a TV presenter I would more happily bludgeon. Libellous? Possibly. In my defence, I offer Exhibit A: Never Mind The Full Stops. Fellowes is (a) the kind of person who holds archaic language practices in high esteem and is unashamedly bullish about enforcing them, and (b) the writer of Gosford Park, a God-awful rehash of half-arsed British class stereotypes that won some Academy Awards a few years back.

This television ‘comedy quiz’ is an unholy alliance of Have I Got News for You and QI – both of which are peerless examples of how to combine comedy with a soupcon of erudition. Never Mind The Full Stops, however, seems to have more in common with The Office in that it is founded on embarrassment; the difference is that the latter is fictional, the former is not. The guests are confused, have no room to manoeuvre around Fellowes’s endearingly lingo-fascistic monologues, and spend the majority of their time trying to avoid looking like total idiots in front of Fellowes.

Why am I writing about this show? Mainly because I don’t have a life. But also because the attitude of Fellowes really gets up my nose. Early on in the show, he introduced a round where contestants had to guess the plural of a word. One word was ‘roof’. Was the correct plural ‘roofs’ or ‘rooves’? Fellowes toyed with them for a long (here’s where the excruciating element of the show kicks in) moment before announcing that the correct answer is ‘roofs’.

“But the avoidance of the rooves form is just a fashion,” he snorted, “and I would have accepted ‘rooves’ just as easily. After all, the plural of ‘hoofs’ is ‘hooves’, isn’t it?”

This is the point at which I’d like to transport to a future where viewers can reach into the television and bludgeon uppity presenters to death.

No, Mr Fellowes. The plural of ‘roofs’ should not be ‘rooves’ in order to make the pluralization consistent with ‘hooves’. If that was a rule of British English, we wouldn’t let ‘I have got my wallet’ and ‘I have forgotten my wallet’ to co-exist. ‘Hoof’ and ‘roof’ are different words.

And what’s this about Fellowes failing to award points because a response is ‘vulgar’. Vulgar? Ever read Shakespeare? Beast with two backs, anyone? What about the wife of Bath?

This kind of thing really irritates. I get the impression that Fellowes has championed his stewardship of this show because he thinks it casts him in an education-tinged limelight. Well, QI might have that effect on Stephen Fry (and, in fact, anything at all that Stephen Fry chooses to do makes him seem ever more brilliant). The effect on Fellowes is less flattering. All this is presented as some kind of drive to get the public to improve their English. A laudable aim. Noble, even. But this hare-brained trawl through linguistic trivia doesn’t strike me as the way to do it. Thank God the tiller of English is steered under a captaincy less puritanical. I shudder to think of a British equivalent of the Academie Francaise headed by someone like Fellowes.

Quite possibly I should sleep on this entry and edit it tomorrow, on Friday.

Screw it.

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

9 thoughts on “Speak English”

  1. I didn’t see it – the title would have put me off even if I’d noticed it in the listings – but it sounds like exactly the sort of programme that would wind me up too. I now know to avoid it in future!

  2. Julian Fellowes used to write speeches for Iain Duncan Smith. (Remember him?)

    See, it all falls into place now.

  3. It’s funny, Carla. I also though I wouldn’t like it – but I went ahead anyway. It’s this attitude that gets me hooked on Big Brother. A coupel nights of “Oh, Christ, they’re all morons!” soon segues into “Hmm, I wonder what the morons are up to?” Hours pass…

  4. I think you’re right, Tim. I wonder if he came up with the “Never underestimate a quiet man” bit. Quite excruciating. Him and Ricky Gervais have ’embarrassment comedy’ in common; the only difference is that Gervais intends it, Fellowes does not.

  5. I’ve never watched Big Brother so I can’t comment, but it’s certainly true that there’s something mesmerising about activity on a screen, whatever the activity is. I know nothing about football and care less, but if someone else is watching a match on the TV it will hook my attention too, even though I’ve no idea what’s going on. I think it’s the same brain process that’s fascinated by a tank of tropical fish.

  6. I don’t have a life either, Ian, but one thing is for sure, I don’t spend my non-life watching live TV. I only watch films or drama that I’ve recorded or bought.
    I’ve never watched big brother, or, in fact, any live TV for about 15 years. My god, a dinosauress. (I admit I got sucked into a bit of the test match series last summer via helping to build some flatpack furniture in the room where it was on).
    Interesting that about Fellowes writing speeches for Iain Duncan Smith, whom I do dimly recall 😉
    Wonder who writes the Lib Dem’s?

    This may be a non-sequitur, but I went onto a blog earlier today which contained this posting: “I am going away for the week. Please will someone tape the Internet for me while I am away, I don’t want to miss anything?”

  7. I think you’re right about the telly; I like the idea of just watching DVDs – would certainly free up some time. One day per series of 24!

  8. I am going to ignore any deep intellectual thoughts you may have thrown us and ask you what you think of The Office.
    We get the US version here in Canada. Some people think it’s the stupidest thing they’ve ever seen. My 13yo son thinks it’s one of the funniest things he’s ever seen. I just watch the show with my jaw on the floor because these idiotic actions are mirrored every day in real life by real life idiots. It takes that uncomfortable factor to the highest extent. BUT! Usually it’s not at the embarrassment of one person – one person made to be the victim. It’s the embarrassment of the collective at the actions of one person. This again mirrors the unwillingness of people, who have power in numbers, to stand up to the idiots around them, but don’t have the courage. I think it’s a great poke at society in general.

    Anyone? Anyone?

  9. I must say that I haven’t seen the US version of The Office, but I’m a big fan of the original, BBC version. It certainly thrives on embarrassment. Sometimes, it’s almost too much and I have to switch over…

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