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Learning language from experts
Sept. 8, 2017
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by Ivan Raconteur

I received a text message from my sister recently. She was excited to tell me that my nephew had just wandered into the kitchen and announced he has discovered British television, and it is “a whole new world.”

I rejoiced in this news, because I have been immersed in that world for decades.

My nephew just turned 15, and I have always had high hopes for the lad. In my role as “funcle,” I have strived to provide him with the kinds of cultural literacy he might not get from his parents.

I have shared with him important work from geniuses such as Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges.

I also taught him some rollicking songs that I suspect the music program at school may have overlooked.

He is a bright lad, and he seems to absorb my lessons well (sometimes with the approval of my sister, and sometimes to her horror).

I take my role seriously though, and there are some things best learned from an expert.

The news that he has discovered British television represents a giant step forward in his cultural education.

I’m confident it will bring him years of delightful entertainment, as it has done for me.

I still recall the eureka moment when I discovered British comedy. I can’t remember what I pay for internet service when people ask me, and I can’t recall my blood pressure or A1C numbers, but I recall significant events like the night I discovered Britcoms.

I was alone in my apartment looking for a diversion to avoid college homework, and I happened to stumble across an episode of “Only When I Laugh.”

The cranky Dr. Thorpe, played by Richard Wilson, walked into a hospital ward and discovered one of the patients enjoying a cigarette. “Is all that smoke emanating from you, or is the bed on fire?” he asked.

From that moment on, I was hooked.

It was the start of a journey that has included many other classic British comedies over the past few decades.

I had been exposed to British dramas on public television from an early age, and I was familiar with humorous British movies, but the television comedies produced in the 1970s and 1980s are in a class by themselves, and have provided countless hours of fun.

Perhaps even more importantly, however, is the education factor.

I’m not going to lie to you – I’ve learned more about writing from watching British television than I have from any class I took in school.

That may seem a bold statement, but at the core of many British programs is excellent writing.

The brilliant writers who created so many of these shows could have been successful in any genre, and their work would stand up against other excellent literature in other formats.

No doubt some programs from this era dabbled in the absurd, but even those had a quality of structure.

As a writer, one of the things that appeals to me is the way these craftsmen were able to twist the language in interesting ways.

In order to do creative things with writing, it is important to first understand how writing works.

Starting from that basis allows a writer to do some subtle things that go beyond communicating a simple thought, and weave subtle nuances of language into a rich fabric that adds new levels of enjoyment.

The creators of many American television programs seem to begin with the assumption that no one in the audience advanced beyond the second grade, and they weren’t good students prior to that time.

Perhaps that’s why I feel drained after watching them. They are an affront to my sensibilities, and offer no stimulation other than to compel me to switch off the television.

Watching good British television, on the other hand, can be stimulating. It is a joy to observe the English language used by masters.

It is a delight to see how the simplest thought can be conveyed in an interesting way.

I have a reasonably broad vocabulary. Much of it came from reading quality literature – and lots of it – but I’m not ashamed to admit that a lot of it also came from watching British television.

English is a rich language, and it saddens me to see it stripped down to a small number of general words when there are so many excellent words that can be used to express nuances of meaning.

Hearing well-written lines delivered by fine actors and actresses is one of life’s simple pleasures.

I’m delighted that my nephew has discovered British television, and I look forward to seeing how this will enhance his development in the years ahead.


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