I HAVE a lot of time for the wonderful Stephen Fry, be he bantering on QI or being charming and funny on Twitter, so when I heard he was giving the annual TV lecture at BAFTA I was eager to hear what he had to say.
As usual Fry was erudite and interesting and made some good points about the way we watch television and its role now compared to years ago, but then it all went pear-shaped in the Q and A. Watch it by clicking here if you want.
He said: “Infantilism is the problem. It’s just shocking. The only dramas the BBC will shout about are Doctor Who and Merlin.
“They are wonderful programmes, don’t get me wrong, but they are not for adults.
“It’s children’s TV. I’m not saying TV should be pompous and academic, but it should surprise and astonish and say there’s a world outside we know nothing of.”
He went on to say that television in general is over-simplified and obvious, with plots reduced ‘so even an idiot can understand them’ and bemoaned the loss of television as ‘the nation’s fireplace.’
Where to begin? Well, I could ask what were the likes of Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, Five Days, Being Human or Wallander if not adult, complex and engaging dramas? Or why Fry didn’t mention the adults who read Harry Potter, which he lucratively narrated?
But as this is a science fiction blog and I am a Doctor Who fan, how about pointing out the irony of someone railing against dumbing down in television by applying a quick and easy label to a complex and multi-layered programme that is far from infantile?
Which then brought out smug idiots like Michael Deacon at the Telegraph who were quick to agree as a way of underlining their own need to assert some kind of intellectual superiority.
“Sadly I don’t suppose I’ll ever get to find out what so many adults see in Doctor Who unless I suffer a serious brain injury,” sneered Michael. You’d need to find your brain first Mikey, then we can talk.
Is Doctor Who children’s TV? In the sense that it appeals to children, then yes, but they are only a part of the extraordinary range of people who watch this enduring show.
To say it is not for adults just doesn’t hold up, especially in the context of an extended and frustrated moan about television dumbing down.
In my experience, Doctor Who was and continues to be classic family television in the tradition of shows like The Two Ronnies or Morecambe and Wise – ironically the shows that Fry says secured television’s benevolent and communal role in our lives, a role he says is now gone forever.
In my house, my 10-year-old son and I watch Who side-by-side, both thrilling to the Doctor’s adventures. Then when it finishes Izaak spends the week talking about it with his friends and re-enacting his favourite moments or monsters, escapes or cliffhangers.
For me, well, I’m not ashamed to say that for me it is the same, with the added enjoyment of watching my son’s reaction to the show and sharing that joy with him.
I’m one of the generation that watched Who as a youngster, lived through the dark times and then watched with delight as it returned, reminding the inner child in all of us why we used to watch it and then going on to surpass those memories.
But I also enjoy it as an adult at the same time and for different reasons, by marvelling at Matt Smith‘s acting, a clever piece of dialogue, a reference to old Who or – especially where Steven Moffat is concerned – massively intricate and detailed narrative structures across episodes or entire series.
Indeed this season’s major narrative arc around the crack in a wall sums up Who in a nutshell.
On the one hand it is a dramatic tool, carefully seeded and referenced at different times for maximum effect, which has had me tearing my hair out to work out and which will hopefully pay off over the next two weeks.
On the other, it is a simple but unnerving idea that resonates with our own lives and childhood memories of fairytales and bedtime stories that we still relate to now, like a fear of the dark, monsters under the bed or statues that move when we don’t look at them.
In other words, Doctor Who offers something for everyone.
Long may it continue to do so as part of a BBC dramatic output which, while not perfect, strives to do the same.
And long may Who defy being nailed down by what I hope was a poorly chosen example and not an attempt to garner some headlines.
As you were at such pains to point out Stephen, we deserve better.
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- Broadcaster Stephen Fry criticises ‘childish’ British TV (news.bbc.co.uk)
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- Stephen Fry: Doctor Who is for kids (guardian.co.uk)