What a woeful cliché

by Tom Albrighton 9 December 2011 Tone of voice

Christmas must have come early this year. I’m already feeling tormented by the lowest-common-denominator culture of the ‘festive’ period.

But that’s just ambient irritation. I can deal with that without having to bore you about it in a post. The specific object of my ire, incredibly, is David Attenborough’s recital of ‘What a Wonderful World’, shown after the final episode of the BBC’s Frozen Planet. Watch it below (bearing in mind you’ll never get these two minutes of your life back).

This strange clip seems to have captured the nation’s imagination, with some even calling for it to be released as a Christmas single. Visit it on YouTube and you’ll see people emoting about how beautiful it is, how they were moved to tears by it, etc. Well, each to their own I suppose. My favourite bit is the tagline at the end, which almost (but not quite) redeems the whole venture:

It’s a wonderful world, watch it with us

The comma is a wonderful punctuation mark, don't use it to separate sentences

You can’t use a comma to separate two sentences, but apart from that, nice work. Now, as regards the video preceding the line, I have a number of issues. Stop reading now if you love the clip and don’t want me to ruin the magic.

First off is the fundamental non-viability of the spoken-word cover version. Way out of his element, Attenborough dutifully drags his feet through the lyric, struggling to sound remotely natural while still keeping time with the dinky backing track. He ends up evoking, not the wonders of nature, but William Shatner’s demented cover of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’.

Another stumbling block is the sheer numbing familiarity of the song. It’s been used so often, in so many contexts, that I find it hard to believe anyone can have a ‘clean’, unmediated response to it. It’s every film-maker’s go-to track for slushy, sentimental reverie – a sort of musical shorthand for ‘we’re pushing your emotional buttons, please cry now’. For me (if no one else), the result has been to drain the actual song of whatever expressive impact it might once have had. As a cultural artefact, it’s a pitiful, dried-up husk of a thing.

Moreover, the song’s been crowbarred here into a context where it doesn’t really fit. OK, the first few lines work well, but soon we’re being asked to reconcile the lines about ‘friends shaking hands’ with footage of whales. The remorselessly literal lyric offers precious little metaphorical breathing space.

But my real problem is with, yes, tone of voice. For me, the lyric of ‘What a Wonderful World’ just doesn’t feel like something that a British national treasure like David Attenborough has got any business reciting. (Cue commenters pointing out that it’s his favourite song, probably.)

Attenborough’s popular, but he isn’t populist. He’s not Johnny Morris. The films he’s made, and those he’s narrated, have always been resolutely educational and scientific. He makes things simple, but doesn’t dumb down, and very rarely resorts to anthromorphism. So the choice of this number, with its dopey, Disneyesque chord progression and trite picture-book lyric, just doesn’t ring true for me.

Call me a terrible pseud, but I’d rather have heard him recite an intellectually powerful poem that was more directly about the natural world and our place in it, without ladling ersatz sentiment over everything. Something by Ted Hughes maybe, if there are any that aren’t about death or crows. Or how about these lines from Wordsworth?

…For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth…
From ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’

Now come on, be honest. Wouldn’t that have been better than slop about ‘the rainbow so pretty in the sky’?


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