Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Essential viewing for bibliophiles - Fry on Gutenberg

You won't often find me glued to the sofa, gazing intently at the telly on a Monday night, of all nights, but yesterday was different. I was there. I was firmly and willingly affixed. And what had caused this abrupt change in my habits was this:

Stephen Fry's hour-long exploration of the life and legacy of Johann Gutenberg. Beautifully, filmed and directed, this was an absolutely first-rate piece of television. Fry was at his most engaging (which is saying something - he was just adorably perfect for this programme) and clearly enthused and passionate about his subject - no mere frontman for another's script here.
Fry demonstrated how, through his invention of the printing press and moveable type and his subsequent creation of his famous Bible - 180 copies, 12 printed on vellum, and first displayed at the Frankfurt Trade Fair in 1454 - Gutenberg was the father of mass-production.

In the documentary, Fry travels round France and Germany on the trail of the ultimately rather tragic Gutenberg, learns how to make paper, and actually handles (albeit through cotton gloves) one of the original copies of the Bible (the thrill this gives him is palpable - we can almost feel the goosebumps he experiences). Back in the UK, he works with a team of craftsmen to found some type (he gets to make a letter 'e'), construct a replica of Gutenberg’s machine and then print a replica page of the Bible on authentic linen paper made by Fry (and including his own little 'e').

The lingering shots of the work in progress, the newly cast letter, the double wooden thread on the press, the hand-illuminated pages of one of the original Bibles were gorgeous and the editing was perfectly judged. It was a truly excellent piece of television - almost, as Fry described Gutenberg's Bible itself, 'more beautiful than it needed to be'.

So please, special please, if you didn't watch it, do try to catch it on the BBC iPlayer here. (It's available to view online for six more days, or you can download it for 30 days.)


Anonymous said...

I recorded the 1.30am broadcast and will be sitting down with son, Toby to watch - even more keenly now you've really whetted the appetite. You've just got to love SF.

Stephen said...

Thanks for this, it's not often I see a programme that is good enough to make me wonder if I'm missing something living without TV (10 years now), but I will definitely have to get a friend to download this for me.

Thanks for reducing the homepage size too; it is appreciated.

monix said...

I knew you would be watching this as I settled down for a fascinating evening. It really was the best documentary I have seen in a long time. Mr RD and I cheered along with Stephen Fry at the end when he celebrated the achievement of all those IDENTICAL copies of the Bible and then laughed - we usually celebrate uniqueness!

Kathleen said...

A terrific programme, absolutely absorbing, no doubt it will find it's way to DVD before too long (hopefully).

Hedgelands Glass Lass said...

It was a wonderful programme. I think Stephen Fry was perfect as the presenter - he brings enthusiasm for the subject and his assertion that the printed word being the defining characteristic of modern life is probably right.