Saturday 8 March 2008

Comment: Worlds of Fantasy

Just thought I'd take this opportunity to post a few thoughts on the BBC's Worlds of Fantasy programme that has recently been shown on BBC4.

The first episode focused on the idea of the child protagonist in fantasy literature. There were two things I was hoping the programme would avoid: over-emphasis on Harry Potter (there's plenty of other decent young heroes in fantasy) and portraying fantasy readers as geeks.

The programme got off to a bad start, showing a bookstore on the night of the last Harry Potter book launch. Sigh. Then, to make matters worse, it showed a group of young-ish fans gabbling with excitement, before unleashing their "fangasm" - which consisted of wiggling their fingers and making a rather ridiculous squealing noise. It was, to be honest, a little embarrassing and exactly what I was hoping the programme would avoid. But they didn't just show it once, or even twice, but three times. I wonder how many non-fantasy readers that were watching switched the programme off at that point and shook their heads, saying "I knew they were just a bunch of geeks."

Still, after the crap start the programme more or less recovered and while I didn't find it particularly riveting, it was nonetheless good to see the likes of China Mieville and Alan Garner airing their views on child heroes. But come on, what the heck was Phil Jupitus on the show for? And the random kid that was simply labelled as 'fantasy fan'? The main problem with the programme was that the child heroes it featured generally all appeared in books that are considered, by the media and general public, to be 'children's literature' rather than fantasy. So whether the programme really did much to boost the profile of fantasy is debatable. Still, it was amusing to see Garner launch a verbal broadside at C.S. Lewis (though a bit unfair given that Lewis couldn't respond, being dead as he is).

The second episode was better. Focusing on the fantasy worlds of Peake and Tolkien, it raised some interesting points. The Tolkien stuff was all fairly familiar, though it was cool to see the great man himself talking about his work, from a film made some 40 years or so ago. I found the material about Peake intriguing as well, as I knew little about him. I certainly had no idea how disturbed he was; some of his artwork was dark to say the least. Hardly surprising he then went on to have a nervous breakdown. Must get around to reading some of his work... Finally, it was again good to see Mieville and, this time, Joe Abercrombie offering their views. The fact that there were several gratuitous cover shots of Joe's novels was also quite amusing. And cool actually, because you won't see fantasy novels so willingly publicised anywhere else on the BBC. Or mainstream TV as a whole.

One thing I didn't agree with on the second episode was the rather snotty statement that 'Tolkien couldn't do ambivalence." I just don't agree with the idea that his work is solely black and white. Ever heard of Gollum? To my mind one of the finest 'grey' characters in fantasy. Boromir too, falls somewhere between the two.

The final (I think) episode is on next Wednesday, which is going to look at fantasy in the last ten years. This would be a great opportunity to give plenty of coverage to Abercrombie, Lynch, Erikson and Martin to name but a few, but no doubt it'll focus on the likes of Pratchett and Pullman, which is well and good but misses too much of the genre.

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