Patrick Stewart gives a reading

The Oxford Union does not just host important debates. Sometimes, to its credit, it invites people of fame to speak about themselves. This is very difficult for them, for reasons I discussed briefly when I covered Stephen Fry’s such gig.  With my line of work, therefore, I find them interesting.

Patrick Stewart was the guest recently.

He’s reading!

It’s a pity, because when speakers do this I immediately stop thinking of it as a speech; however I shall stick with it, because there are good and bad readings and I want to see to which category this belongs. A Reading is a perfectly respectable piece of entertainment: I do poetry and prose readings, though unlike Sir Patrick I have never dared to read anything I have written myself. Anyway, let’s face it, I want to hear what he has to relate. It’s bound to be autobiographical and, though half a century ago we mixed in similar circles, we have never worked together.

He lays out his stall at the beginning, giving us a Contents Page – good! Then we are off. It’s beautifully written, very well structured for a reading, thoroughly enjoyable and wonderfully delivered.  He has a terrific voice and by golly he knows how to use it.

This is going to come across like the nostalgic rantings of an old fart, but I remember one nervous occasion some years ago, dining with a legendary, now dead, TV director. I tentatively bewailed the passing of the provincial rep system – in which he and I (and Sir Patrick of course) had worked our apprenticeship. He was almost explosive in his agreement with me. Decades of actors now have been mostly deprived of that benefit, and I’m afraid it shows. It’s nothing to do with talent: it’s a subtle mastery of stage presence which is becoming extinct, but Sir Patrick of course has it in abundance.

There were moments here when I felt he needed a director. For some years on BBC radio I broadcast theatre reviews; and with one-handed productions I reckoned that in the first few minutes I could spot whether or not the actor had spent a few quid – or dinner at The Ivy – to get a director to give it the once-over. It doesn’t matter who you are, you cannot see yourself from the audience. I’m being ultra-picky here, but there were a few little moments…

I’ll give you an example. There’s a good story that begins at about 8:00. At 9:02, having just harvested a good, well-deserved laugh with the punchline, he needlessly adds a single sentence that lamely explains the joke. That, of course, doesn’t get a laugh. A director would have cut that sentence.

Likewise I was uncertain about a section involving stories of actors who got serious fear-freeze and bailed out. In my experience there are very few theatre stories that don’t come under the heading, “you need to have been there”. The difficulty is in conveying the precise prevailing atmosphere that caused the crisis. It’s like ‘corpsing’ stories, of occasions when a stageful of actors is reduced to battling uncontrollable giggling. Those stories should be very funny, but I long ago gave up trying to narrate them – even to other actors.

For all that, this is a highly enjoyable 36 minutes, and Sir Patrick is to be congratulated.

But to me it isn’t a speech. To convey what I mean, I invite you to join me in my next posting which involves another famous actor: same vintage, same venue. He also worked his apprenticeship. I would hate to try to judge which of their performances is the more enjoyable or interesting, but I do say this –

The next one is a speech!









Stephen Fry’s fundamentally closed mind

A video clip lasting less than two-and-a-half minutes, published on YouTube five days ago on 28 January, has already exceeded three million views. It features Stephen Fry, very well interviewed by Gay Byrne, talking about his atheism. I first came across it, being shared all over the place on Facebook. The question Byrne asked him was what he’d say to God if he met him.

I have several times described myself in this blog as a ‘devout doubter’. I also like to think of myself as a seeker after truth. Therefore I just had to watch it.

I once here gave Fry a kicking for something rather stupid, and on another occasion praised him fulsomely for a well delivered speech. In the Facebook posting Fry is described as ‘one of the most articulate men on TV’. Well yes he is, but look at the competition.

My first complaint is that I really didn’t expect someone as well-read as he to use an argument that is so old hat – a God who is omnipotent and benign nevertheless presides over a world that contains misery, etc. It is just so hoary, threadbare and facile that I suspect a seventeen-year-old A-level theology student could crush it without breaking sweat.

My second is that it apparently hasn’t dawned on him that God, and fallible mankind’s historic definition of God, might be slightly at odds.

My third is that I should have expected Fry to consider himself a seeker after truth, except seekers after truth ask questions, seek explanations. Fry simply relieved himself of statements. Here are some samples.

  • Capricious, mean-minded, stupid God
  • God […] is quite clearly a maniac – totally selfish
  • You could easily have made a creation in which [nasty things] didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable.
  • It is perfectly apparent that he is monstrous, utterly monstrous, and deserves no respect whatever.

You get the picture? This is a hypothetical conversation with God at the Pearly Gates. If the above had been prefaced with, “I really need to understand. Please explain why…” he might have emerged with a respectable position. He did utter the word “why” a couple of times, but rhetorically. This is not an open mind. This is fundamentalism. This is a classic example of the fundamental atheist who thinks he doesn’t believe, but actually passionately believes – in no God. He fundamentally believes he has found the truth. The science is settled.

What idleness! What a disappointment!

Seek the company of those who search for truth; run from those who have found it.           Andre Gide

Lindsay Johns and the Rhetauracle question

I was enjoying this Telegraph blog posting by Toby Young when I read his nomination for the best Party Conference Speech of the year. His consuming interest, and indeed personal involvement, in the Free School movement made it not difficult to foresee where this was leading; but my [ditto] in public speaking meant that I felt compelled to go and have a look. The speaker in question is Lindsay Johns.

Immediately it becomes evident that this will be a talking head performance. He is reading from a script; and the script is in written, rather than spoken, English. Any regular follower of this blog knows that this is an abomination to me, but rather than rake over a well-worn theme I’ll attempt to avert my eyes from that and instead look at other details of this essay that he reads aloud.

He kicks off by dangling a hanging thread. Hanging threads can be a nice device if used subtly and skilfully. He presents a riddle and promises to give us the answer later. This isn’t subtle, it is contrived and ham-fisted; and it looks at this stage to be too convoluted to work.

Cut to near the end, and when he reclaims the thread I am afraid that it kills itself by being even more convoluted. What a pity!

At 1:35 he begins a section that could be seen as sailing perilously close to the sort of didactic nonsense for which I castigated Stephen Fry a few weeks ago, albeit he is pointing in the opposite direction. This would be just as imbecilic but for one crucial detail: he is speaking specifically about education. If education is not about setting standards it is nothing.

3:49 Ouch! This is my turn to get didactic, but we are dealing here with clarity of communication. The word ‘perennial’ has four syllables, not two. My booklet, Every Word Heard explains.

Johns has a very important message and in the main I agree with it, though that is not what we are discussing here. My concern is that while he was sweating over this script to create correctly parsed (though over-adjectived) sentences he was simultaneously sterilising some of the passion and therefore intelligibility out of his message. At 10:25 he says, “…floundering, as we are, under the Sisyphean burden of political correctness…” Well, yes we are, and that is a reasonable thing to read; but it sounds stilted and pretentious when we hear it spoken.

Elsewhere passion manages to assert itself over literary pretension, and we get a sentence at 14:14, “How dare you put off my bright kids from applying [to Oxford or Cambridge] by saying they wouldn’t be welcome there!” That comes across with far more power because now we are into spoken, rather than written, English.

Look what has happened here! Willy-Nilly I find myself back to what I attempted to avoid: complaining about talking-headism. But then, with a very few highly skilled exceptions, people who read their speeches destroy their effectiveness on the platform. When will they ever learn?

Actually, that is not a rhetorical question, because there is an answer. The answer is, “when they contact me“. You might call it a Rhetauracle question.

Stephen Fry: a study in futile pontification

I happened upon the following uploading on Upworthy, entitled

Stephen Fry Takes A Firm Stance On Grammar. He Doesn’t Go The Way You’d Think.

Stephen Fry has carved himself a public image for Being Clever, and good luck to him: we all have to eat. However irritating I may find his persona should not (and will not) bother him one jot.

Essentially what this six-and-a-half minutes is all about is that language pedantry is tiresome, pointless and indicative of all sorts of negative characteristics pertaining to the pedant. Before you start jumping up and down wanting to cite the numerous times he has pompously put down panellists on his TV programme, QI, when their syntax was in his judgement less than flawless, I have to tell you that he has got that angle covered.

Oh yes, he declares, he used to be like that; but he grew out of it.

With a deft little flick of his rhetorical wrist he paints himself perfect. He knows all the rules better than you do, has decided from henceforth to apply them only selectively, and if you don’t follow his lead you are a fossil.

If you haven’t yet judged by my tone allow me to make it clear that I find this pontification tedious, not least because it is itself a form of pedantry.  It seeks to replace one set of rules with yet another. Furthermore it is shallow pedantry, not just because it is a case of the silly and superficial masquerading as the profound but because it chooses to be blind to the market mechanisms that govern the growth and development of language.

As with so many things there is a tension between those who would change everything and those who would change nothing. These two extremes need each other: the one drives the change the other applies the brake. Somewhere between them is the course on which our language will progress. The brake is the Devil’s advocate that ensures that only the best of what is new prevails.

Anyone who arrogates the role of arbiter of acceptability is being just plain dumb, because it’s futile. The market will make its decisions, and those decisions will be right. Millions of verbal transactions between speakers of the language will result in fostering and pruning of words and phrases and syntactical patterns, and so the language grows. It really is as simple as that. Those who love the language should watch and enjoy the game, rather than trying to dictate it.

Q. Who led the Pedants’ Revolt?

A. Which Tyler.

The real Stephen Fry is impressive.

YouTube is knee-deep in debates in which the late Christopher Hitchens attacked religion in all its guises.  Today I want to look at one such, and specifically the offering from his co-speaker against the motion “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world”. His co-speaker was Stephen Fry.

It is only fitting that I declare in advance that I am probably the only person in the world who enjoys QI, the TV programme, despite Stephen Fry. I used to enjoy his performing in tandem with Hugh Laurie, but I find his current professional performing persona frankly irritating and irksome. He does at least now fiddle with those damned QI cards less than in the early days. (No, I am not going to say what irritates me: perhaps another time.)

My coming at it from that direction makes it, I  think, particularly telling when I say that I was deeply impressed with this speech. The principal reason is that he has allowed that performing mask to be stripped away.  You may think that an obvious requirement under the circumstances, but I could name many who might not have done.  Let’s watch it: his introduction begins at 21:10 and he starts talking at 21:28.

It appears to be a bald opening, but the speed with which the volume of applause falls off a cliff makes me wonder whether there was an edit-point there. I hope it was a bald opening, without preamble, just as with Matt Ridley a couple of days ago.

In The Face & Tripod I commend what I call “outflanking the subject”.  There is a time and place for that, but this is neither. Not only is it appropriate for him to begin with a direct statement: the manner of its delivery instantly reveals the absence of his performing mask. The hallmark of sincerity is conspicuously displayed. The statement is pursued by a courteous caveat concerning his not attacking anyone’s personal spiritual convictions. He’s doing really well.

For the first minute or two he seems to be on a carefully choreographed path (this is a sound hump-busting tactic). For instance there’s an elegant anadiplosis at 22:12. But shortly after that, when he gets onto the subject of the church having attacked The Enlightenment, his own, personal, inner fervour takes over. This is not to say that it turns into a rant: it remains disciplined. There is neither script nor notes: he has mind-mapped this speech on his own structure. Therefore he can, and does, shoot from the hip in total security. He is trusting himself to use the spontaneous words that come to him at the time. It also means that he can get a little worked up without risking falling foul of one of my favourite quotes, from Ambrose Bierce – Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.

I can only guess at the nature of his mind-map, but there are several indications that his structure operates on a modular basis.  There is, for instance, a clear module that runs from 26:52 till 27:28 – the Roman Catholic Church is obsessed with sex.  He enjoys arguing that module, as does his audience.  And it is instantly followed by another module that turns out to be his closing one.  It starts with arguing that the humble Galilean carpenter’s son would not have approved of all that ecclesiastic wealth and ends with how he – Stephen Fry – might respect the church more if it used the wealth in ways that he approved.

I absolutely do not intend here to enter the arguments that he champions. In this blog I seek out logical fallacies only when they are used as rhetorical devices. There is no question but that Fry fervently feels his message; and in that respect he is the embodiment of my Cardinal 1.

I really enjoyed watching the real man.