Fry's English Delight, Radio 4

Fry everything and your ears get battered
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The Independent Culture

Last week this newspaper spent a page speculating on who was going to be the new presenter of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue following the death of Humphrey Lyttelton. Possible candidates included Sandi Toksvig, Pam Ayres, and Stephen Fry. I have been against Sandi Toksvig ever since I heard her shrieking with laughter at a very feeble joke made by Menzies Campbell. Politicians are meant to be laughed at, not with. As for Pam Ayres, I presume her name was included from sheer mischief.

But Stephen Fry is a contender. Yet we should have our reservations. One of the many great things about Lyttelton was that he didn't keep showing up everywhere. He did his jazz thing on Radio 2, ISIHAC on Radio 4 and that was more or less that. We were left wanting more.

Fry, on the other hand, is hard to avoid, and, for all the diversity of his interests, maintains a consistent tone these days. Were he to assume the chair of ISIHAC, we would be listening to a Stephen Fry vehicle, rather than an ensemble piece.

We got to hear more of Fry last Monday, presenting Fry's English Delight, a new three-part series, going out at 9am, which aims to teach us some of the quirks of the English language.

I do not know how much of the script he wrote, but it seemed like the perfect showcase for both his talents and his faults. After discursing for a while on the naval origins of so many of our metaphors – taken aback, cock-up, chip on the shoulder, etc, etc – the programme took a turn for the intellectual, and we got to hear some mind-expanding stuff about how almost all our speech is built upon the corpses of metaphors. A language bereft of metaphors would leave us able to do little more than grunt. Fry spoiled this by grunting for a bit. Why? We know what grunts sound like. But then the programme went on to name-check T S Eliot and Samuel Beckett, which was wonderful.

So: Fry in a nutshell. Clever, familiar, sometimes irritating. He tries, these days, too hard to be likeable. His finest moments – as General Melchett in Blackadder goes Forth – are now a distant memory. As chair of ISIHAC he would be so wrong. Has anyone considered Chris Morris?

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