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For those who might not have spotted it, tonight is the first episode of Stephen Fry's new series about language on BBC 2. Those who have heard him speak will realise how wonderful is his use of the English language and I am very much looking forward to the series.

More details here - http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b015d4qz

Those who can't receive BBC programmes live might be able to get them from BBC iplayer - http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/ - although I don't know whether this is available to all countries.


Richard English
 
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From what I can see on their site, the programs aren't available outside the UK.


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Generally BBC radio programs are available on the i-player outside the UK though TV programs are not. That said, even in the UK I've had trouble with the i-player which just doesn't seem to work very well a lot of the time.
 
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I think I've found the right link now.


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I've already posted about this in Potpourri, at http://wordcraft.infopop.cc/ev...1603894/m/8660067336 .

As I say there, BBC TV programs aren't available to anyone outside the UK. I no longer use the BBC's iPlayer anyway, as my cable provider stores the BBC's iPlayer content and other networks' equivalents and I can replay them through the TV's set-top box on demand.


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Which provider is that, Arnie? I use Sky and haven't found this facility.

I suspect that the reason that the BBC presently restricts availability of their programmes outside the UK is simply because their service is paid for through the TV licence that all UK TV viewers must have. Programmes supported by advertising will probably not be thus constrained. Of course, I can't check this, being based in the UK with access to all such services.

How long the Beeb will be able to restrict the re-broadcasting of their material is debatable - not for much longer I would guess. I would imagine that, if I wish to do so, I could record the iplayer content and then upload it to YouTube. And if YouTube was chary about it for "copyright" reasons, I could simply email copies to any friends who wished to see it.


Richard English
 
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If you really want it you'll almost certainly find it illegally torrented somewhere. Almost everything is.
 
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Which provider is that, Arnie? I use Sky and haven't found this facility.

Virgin Media. Sky is a satellite provider, not cable.


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Originally posted by arnie:
quote:
Which provider is that, Arnie? I use Sky and haven't found this facility.

Virgin Media. Sky is a satellite provider, not cable.


Whoops! I had to use satellite as there are no cables in Partridge Green - apart from the telephone lines, of course.


Richard English
 
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I do love Fry's style and his enthusiasm for language, but I found the following hard to believe: "These pastoral nomads have, we learned, a language with rules surprisingly similar to English, and which their children pick up around the age of two, usually starting with the Turkana for “Mummy” and “Daddy”." (link)

Searching around on the web, I found a short but interesting grammar of Turkana (link). First off the word order in the language is Verb Subject Object rather than English's Subject Verb Object. His views on child language acquisition made me wonder how many cross-linguistic studies have been made between the length of time learners of different languages take to learn their respective languages. I think there's probably not much variation, no matter what the simplicity or complexity of the target language's grammar.

Anyway, it looks like it was probably a fun show to watch, and if it ever shows up on YouTube, I'd probably watch it and have fun doing so.


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Originally posted by zmježd:
I do love Fry's style and his enthusiasm for language, but I found the following hard to believe: "These pastoral nomads have, we learned, a language with rules surprisingly similar to English, and which their children pick up around the age of two, usually starting with the Turkana for “Mummy” and “Daddy”." (link)


I've seen the episode. What Fry actually says is

quote:
Turkana is as sophisticated and complicated a tongue as Ancient Greek. And although I can't understand a word, it actually works much the same as English does. There are nouns to name things, adjectives to describe them, and verbs to explain what you can do with them. Every language provides an amazingly rich and adaptable set of tools that mankind shares the world over, and which every Turkana child imbibes with her mother's milk.


Put that way, it's not hard to believe at all. He doesn't mention the "age of two" thing.

He spends part of the episode debunking the myth that chimps can use language. He also debunks the idea that parental correction or coaching is useful for children who are acquiring language. And David Tennant and Brian Blessed are in it!

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but I found the following hard to believe: "These pastoral nomads have, we learned, a language with rules surprisingly similar to English, and which their children pick up around the age of two, usually starting with the Turkana for “Mummy” and “Daddy”

He didn't say that it was identical to English, only that it was "surprisingly similar". As you know, I'm not a linguist, but the word order doesn't seem to be a great diffence; after all, German or Latin for example can both be described as similar to English, and they use a different word order as well.

I do agree that the program was fun, but possibly the need to make it accessible to a wide audience caused it to be rather superficial. Also, the apparent need to pack a lot of information into the hour-long show caused some segments (like the interview with Stephen Pinker mentioned by the reviewer) to appear rather short. I suspect that a lot of it is in the editing, though. I'd say that it's also highly likely that Pinker will pop up in later editions with more to say on other aspects of language. I doubt that the BBC would have funded Fry's visits to various locations - Kenya, London, Leipzig and more - were he only able to produce only a couple of minutes of transmitted film from each place.


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What I found harder to believe than "similar to English" was "children pick up around the age of two, usually starting with the Turkana for “Mummy” and “Daddy”." But this is nowhere in the episode.
 
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Ah, well: fooled by reportage, again.

Although, Turkana is similar to all other languages, if what he;'s saying is that it has nouns and verbs and such. You could also say it's like English because it uses words.


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I think what he was saying was that language and mankind probably originated in the same area (Kenya) as Turkana is spoken.


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I think what he was saying was that language and mankind probably originated in the same area (Kenya) as Turkana is spoken.

But we don't know if Turkana developed in the area or was a recent import from elsewhere. And, even if it did, how do we know how much Turkana changed from its putative ancestor?


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He says at the beginning of the episode "To begin my exploration of language, I have come here to northeast Africa, close to where our species first evolved." In other words, it's an appropriate place to start the show.

The impression I got from his comments about Turkana is "languages that seem very different are actually similar on a fundamental level." Nothing more than that.

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The impression I got from his comments about Turkana is "languages that seem very different are actually similar on a fundamental level." Nothing more than that.

Nothing much controversial there. I guess my objection was the way it got filtered in the article I was pointed at.


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Episode two is about dialect. But about 10 minutes in he asks whether the language we speak alters how we interpret the world. He talks to the neo-Whorfian linguist Lera Boroditsky, who tells him: "Russian speakers express more collectivist ideas when they're speaking Russian... they espouse more collectivist values, and they espouse more individualistic values when they're speaking English." Unfortunately Fry doesn't investigate this in any detail to determine if language is to blame for this, or if it's even true.

Then he says at about 13 minutes, "If a word doesn't exist in a language, does that imply the feeling or concept doesn't exist? So if you don't have a word for evil, does it vanish?" Again unfortunately, he doesn't answer this question, which is a huge oversight, since the answer is so easy.
 
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This review of the first episode is harsher than I would be, but worth reading.
 
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It's very harsh and it manages to demonstrate perfectly exactly what is wrong - not with the program, but with the review itself.

I'll happily grant most of the points raised. More than happily. But they are missing the main point entirely which is that ANYONE who already understands and articulates those points is not part of the target audience for the program. The program is aimed at a non-expert audience and is intended to get people who would normally have not the slightest interest in the topic to think about it.

You do not get people to think by giving them answers, you get them to think by giving them questions. To say that Fry asks questions which he leaves unanswered is true, but it misses the points that

a) different people have different ideas about what those answers might be
b) a lengthy academic debate on whether Whorfian linguistics have any merit would bore the pants off the entire target audience
c)if an answer, any answer, were to be given, it would just encourage people to say, "Ah, somebody else knows the answer, I don't need to think about it.
d)it was an introductory program and things not dealt with there may be later

The review is also self-defeating in the way that it criticises the style of presentation. Yes, it uses a lot of standard documentary techniques. Of course it does. There is a reason that standard techniques are standard. They work and they are popular. There is no point in making a program for a general audience and populating it with academic talking heads sitting in studies explaining complex theories.
No one in the target audience would give a monkeys about it and the program would fail. It might be more in-depth and accurate and reviewers trained in linguistics might nod sagely and say what a fine job Fry had done but nobody else would get through half the first program. It would be buried in audio in a late night Radio 4 slot.

The review, in my opinion, shows an academic elitism that is entirely at odds with the purpose of the program and the lengthy critique of how it could have been better is smug and pointless.

As I have just demonstrated myself, though in this case intentionally, by writing my own smug and pointless review of the review.
 
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Stan Carey is a lot nicer.

I just think Fry should have answered the "no word for evil" thing - I know people who actually believe that if you don't have a word for evil, it vanishes.
 
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Imagine how you could define the world if you did that. Wink

I must watch this program.
 
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I forgot all about the second episode! Mad

I'll have to try to find time to watch it on catch-up now.


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quote:
Originally posted by goofy:
Stan Carey is a lot nicer.

I just think Fry should have answered the "no word for evil" thing - I know people who actually believe that if you don't have a word for evil, it vanishes.


I'd say that's a fairer review. It points out the flaws without labouring them and understands why they are there.

I'd still suggest waiting to see if any of the actual language points are addressed in future episodes. Complaining about the content of a series that's (at the time) only one episode old, seems to me like complaining that Agatha Christie doesn't tell you whodunit on page one.
 
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Kate Bush, one of my favourite singers, has a new album on November 21 called "50 Words For Snow". Stephen Fry talks on the title track. I look forward to it with interest...
 
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I just watched the first episode on iPlayer and was wondering whether anyone noticed if the font they used for the credits was actually Comic Sans - because it sure looked like it.
 
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Having now watched the first three episodes, the main flaw that I can see is that he doesn't go into enough detail in any one segment to do the subject anything like justice. However, it would be impossible to properly cover the topics that he's dealt with so far without greatly expanding the programme's length. Even if it were possible, it would never get any airtime.

If the third show is anything to go by, though, Fry does seem to be allotting more time to some interviews, etc. Several sections lasted 10 or more minutes, whereas in the early episodes he spent about two minutes before moving on.

I do also wish that he'd let the public know that respected opinions exist that don't necessarily agree with the one propounded by the expert he's interviewing; the interview with the Whorfian Lera Boroditsky was one particularly glaring example.

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The extra time allocated to interviewees is certainly an improvement but it may have been done this week simply so that the woman with Tourette's could be shown saying "fuck" a lot and Brian Blessed could demonstrate, at length, how he got his foul-mouthed reputation.

Incidentally when I typed the above the spell-checker didn't recognise the word "Tourette's" and suggested that I might mean "the woman with courgettes". Smile
 
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The extra time allocated to interviewees is certainly an improvement but it may have been done this week simply so that the woman with Tourette's could be shown saying "fuck" a lot and Brian Blessed could demonstrate, at length, how he got his foul-mouthed reputation.

You may be right, Bob, if a little cynical. Wink

That section on swearing was quite interesting (if you'll forgive the phrase). Fry was asked to immerse his hand in iced water and keep it there for as long as he could. The first time he was asked to keep saying a neutral word, and the second time he was told to swear regularly (he chose "fuck"). He was able to keep his hand in the water for over twice as long.

When habitual swearer BRIAN BLESSED was asked to repeat the experiment he couldn't even keep it there when swearing for as long as the first time. The reason for this was stated to be that swearing loses its potency with overuse.


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That section with the "scientific test" was flawed in so many ways that it was utterly risible. The theory, the methodology, the analysis and above all the conclusions were bad science of the highest order. I have been a defender of the program but that whole segment was nonsense.
 
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Maybe, but fun. Big Grin


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quote:
Originally posted by BobHale:
That section with the "scientific test" was flawed in so many ways that it was utterly risible. The theory, the methodology, the analysis and above all the conclusions were bad science of the highest order. I have been a defender of the program but that whole segment was nonsense.


Bob, I agree, but I'd be curious to know why you think so, so I can discuss it intelligently.

Episode four is about writing. He repeats the mistaken belief that Chinese writing has no phonetic component. Besides that it's an enjoyable episode.

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I don't intend to replay the programme to find out, but did Fry actually introduce the segment as a "scientific test"? If he did it didn't register with me.

It is entirely possible that the guy who administered the tests on Fry and BRIAN BLESSED had earlier conducted a number of similar tests under proper scientific controlled conditions, so he knew what the results would likely be. He just demonstrated a simple version for the benefit of the cameras. He could hardly bring a few thousand frequent swearers into the studio so that he got a statistically relevant sample, could he? Wink


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The guy certainly had conducted a test on many others... he said as much.
And of course I have no idea whether he conducted the same experiment in the same conditions but if he did then it wasn't valid in any scientific sense of the word.

For example both Blessed and Fry knew the expected results before going into the test. In a test relying on subjective reporting that alone is enough to invalidate the result. Did the other people involved know? Even if they didn't the design of the test makes it pretty clear what is being tested.

How long was the gap between trying it with a neutral word and trying it with a swear word? Too short and it's entirely possible the results were purely physiological, too long and it's possible that external factors such as the subjects' health might change in between.

Was there a control? A group who tried twice with the same word or with no speaking at all allowed.

Above all where was there any evidence that the two things were related at all?

-------------------------------

I've now read the whole paper at

http://www.bat.uoi.gr/files/an...ist_projects/28.pdf

It's better than it was represented and the methodology is more controlled but, and I'm no expert in the field, 67 seems a rather small sample group and while the reported mathematical analysis looks superficially valid, without the raw data it's impossible to be sure of how significant the variations are.

Even in the report the conclusions seem to have a "leap of faith" element about them as no consideration is given to other possible explanations of the effects. For example, if the subjects knew, or could guess, the expectations of the observer then psychological factors about satisfying observer expectation might come into play.

The science was badly represented in the programme but I'm not that much more convinced by the paper either.

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quote:
Episode four is about writing. He repeats the mistaken belief that Chinese writing has no phonetic component. Besides that it's an enjoyable episode.

I thought that the point he was making was that Chinese had to be learnt character by character (as we have to learn pictograms) and that, until they know the character, readers don't know how it's pronounced.

With an alphabetically-based language, it is possible to guess at the way a word is sounded even if you have never seen the word before and have no idea what it means. Even the eccentricities of English pronunciation don't alter this fact. So, although I had never seen the word before, I opened my OED and found the word "meranti" and was pretty sure I knew how to say it - even though I didn't know before now that it is a white, red or yellow hardwood timber from a Malaysian or Indonesian tree. I would imagine that it wouldn't be possible to open a Chinese dictionary and know without much doubt how the character is sounded. In English, even such eccentricities as the one exemplified on a later page in the OED - meringue - don't alter the general rules of English pronunciation - they are simply rare exceptions.


Richard English
 
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From wikipedia

quote:
Chinese characters evolved over time from earlier forms of hieroglyphs. The idea that all Chinese characters are either pictographs or ideographs is an erroneous one: most characters contain phonetic parts, and are composites of phonetic components and semantic radicals. Only the simplest characters, such as ren 人 (human), ri 日 (sun), shan 山 (mountain; hill), shui 水 (water), may be wholly pictorial in origin. In 100 CE, the famed scholar Xǔ Shèn in the Hàn Dynasty classified characters into six categories, namely pictographs, simple ideographs, compound ideographs, phonetic loans, phonetic compounds and derivative characters. Of these, only 4% were categorized as pictographs, and 80–90% as phonetic complexes consisting of a semantic element that indicates meaning, and a phonetic element that indicates the pronunciation. There are about 214 radicals recognized in the Kangxi Dictionary.


See also

http://www.pinyin.info/reading...deographic_myth.html
 
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Well these writers certainly appear to negate the myth the Stephen Fry himself repeated. However, it would have been more useful if the extracts actually showed some examples of how people could know how to pronounce a Chinese character that they have never previously seen.

The sentence, "...Of these, only 4% were categorized as pictographs, and 80–90% as phonetic complexes consisting of a semantic element that indicates meaning, and a phonetic element that indicates the pronunciation. There are about 214 radicals recognized in the Kangxi Dictionary..." implies that there are unique phonetic elements included in the characters - call them what you will - but doesn't make it clear what they are or how they work. The reference to "214 radicals" would be more helpful if we knew what a radical actually is.


Richard English
 
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A radical is a simplified symbol used to suggest the meaning of the whole character. For instance 河 hé "river", 湖 hú "lake", 流 liú "stream", 沖 chōng "riptide" (or "flush"), 滑 huá "slippery" all contain the radical for "water" (the three strokes on the left).

In this video Fry says

quote:

if you see a Chinese character you've never seen before you don't know what it
you might be able to work out what it means through the pictures
but you cannot say it
because it's not phonetic
[...]
there's no clue as to how to say it
a Cantonese person would look at it and go "ping"
and a Mandarin will go "pang" or even "zong" or whatever


I think maybe what he is trying to say is that Chinese writing can be used to write many different languages.

But this is not the same thing as saying that the writing is not phonetic. Chinese writing does have a phonetic component. For instance, the character for "wheat" was used for "come" because the words were homophonous. Most characters consist of some element that gives a clue as to the pronunciation. wikipedia again:
quote:
By far the most numerous characters are the phono-semantic compounds, also called semantic-phonetic compounds or pictophonetic compounds. These characters are composed of two parts: one of a limited set of characters called 'radicals', which are often graphically simplified and which suggests the general meaning of the character, and an existing character pronounced approximately as the new target word.


For instance, 沖 chōng "riptide" consists of the radical for water on the left, and the character 中 zhōng on the right. The rightmost symbol is intended to tell you how to pronounce the whole character. Language change has partly obscured the similarity, but both words still have a similar phonetic element. I don't know how likely it is that a Mandarin speaker would know how to pronounce a character they had never previously seen, but I think it could happen.

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I don't know how likely it is that a Mandarin speaker would know how to pronounce a character they had never previously seen, but I think it could happen.

Therein seems to lie the difference. A speaker of English (or most other languages using the same kind of alphabet) would be able to work out roughly how a word would sound even if he had no idea of its meaning.

So a non-Spanish speaker, seeing the word "Malaga" might not know whether it's pronounced "MAlaga" or "MaLAYga" but would certainly know it's not pronounced "Liverpool". It would be the exception that a person would have no idea at all of how a word should be pronouced.

But from what you're saying it would seem improbable that a Mandarin speaker would usually be able to be so confident about an unknown Chinese word.


Richard English
 
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"not so confident" maybe, but I wouldn't go so far as to say "no idea at all". Since the character gives clues as to both the meaning and pronunciation, our Mandarin speaker could potentially figure out which word it represents. Someone just learning Mandarin would have a much harder time.
 
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Well, the fifth and final episode was aired yesterday. Fry devoted most of the time to what he admitted had to be a personal view of great storytellers and of some of the great writers of English. He spoke, and interviewed sundry persons, about (for instance) Homer, Shakespeare, PG Wodehouse, Tolkien, Orwell, Auden, and Bob Dylan.

See http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b016mykm


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I was delighted to see that Fry had grouped Wodehouse in with such greats as Shakespeare; it has long been my contention that Wodehouse was one of the finest wordsmiths in the history of English. I suspect it is simply because his works were always about a sun-bathed golden era that never really existed, that many critics regard his output as lightweight and not really worthy of note.


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quote:
Originally posted by Richard English:
I was delighted to see that Fry had grouped Wodehouse in with such greats as Shakespeare;


Not as delighted as I was to find, reminded by Fry of my fondness for Wodehouse, that there are so many of his books available on line at Project Gutenberg.
 
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I thought the last program was by far the most successful but sadly it was so successful because it showed what was wrong with the others.

It was, and was stated to be, a personal romp through Fry's own favourite literature. It made lots of claims but always framed with the idea that this was how Fry feels and that if you feel a different way then that's fine too.
Previous programs have presented single, incredibly abridged, views of complex topics with no hint that other views might exist. The most egregious was probably the - apparent - whole-hearted endorsement of neo-Whorfism.

This though was more like being allowed to look through someone else's record collection. You can nod sagely at the wisdom of the choices you agree with or shake your head sadly at the inclusion of of choices you would never in a million years consider - but you can enjoy the process either way.
I, for example, am not a fan of Tolkein's writing. I am a fan of his stories but I find his writing - the actual sentences and words - rather plodding and his structuring of a story almost painfully clumsy.
But that's just me. I don't expect anyone to agree with me.
And that was the beauty of the final episode of Fry's series. He was revelling in his favourites and it didn't matter if I don't agree.
I'd quite like to see him present a program on literature done in a similar style, though perhaps without the expense overseas jaunts.
 
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quote:
though perhaps without the expense overseas jaunts.

They seem to be an important perk for a number of documentaries. Any mention of someone living or working abroad and you can be fairly certain that in the next scene the presenter is is jetting off to there, or has been magically transported there, and s/he is off to meet that person.


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Or, if the person in question is dead, to be filmed wandering contemplatively around a cemetery and gazing at a grave stone.
 
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That's especially noticeable in "Who do you think you are?". As soon as the celeb finds out that one of their ancestors came from [insert foreign country here] they are off to there. They're usually filmed wandering contemplatively around a cemetery (here or abroad) and gazing at a grave stone at least once per programme as well.


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I'd quite like to see him present a program on literature done in a similar style, though perhaps without the expense overseas jaunts.

I believe that presentation from relevant overseas locations adds colour and interest to programmes - they are not simply perks; they are often quite hard work. Neither, in the overall costs of programme production, are they very expensive. Nothwithstanding the fiscal ineptitude of successive UK Governments who have now ensured that the tax content of flights is often greater than the fare, travel is still cheap and getting cheaper.

I have a facsimile of the 1946 Air ABC and can tell you that a return ticket from London to New York with PanAm would have cost you £675 in that year. That's equivalent to £20,800 using the the UK RPI or £66,600 using UK average earnings. PanAm no longer exists but one airline that operated then, and operates now, is Aer Lingus and they presently charge £409 for the same return journey - and they are not even the cheapest on the route.

I would guess that Fry's salary for three days of filming would be pretty close to the 1946 RPI equivalent - I know he charges £15,000 for a speech - which puts the cost of the travel into context.


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