Stephen Fry in America Review

The Series

Travel documentaries like to have their cake and eat it. On the one hand, they act as basic adverts for tourism, and on the other they love to decry how some locations have been destroyed by the attentions of the very people who are watching. Generally, they are more than a tad condescending in tone with an approach that sees the strange and the foreign through familiar eyes. It's as if the fact that the host has left their front door means that they have a right to comment on what they then travel to see. This can obviously lead to a rather superior perspective dominating such programmes.

So how does modern British telly get round this sense of possibly post colonial arrogance? Well it could choose to embrace its cultural commentary and make this the selling point of the programme, the apogee of this tendency is the series Jonathan Ross made years ago about the USA with episodes entitled "Big", "Fat" and "Dumb". Alternatively, there is the nice liberal guy gambit, epitomised by Michael Palin. The audience will feel that post colonial comments from such a sweet gent who mucks in with the natives are alright as he is so nice.
This latter strategy seems to be behind Stephen Fry in America. Lovely, cuddly and very British, Stephen Fry can be forgiven his stereotypes and all the obvious staging that is part and parcel of modern travelogues. He can be forgiven this because he is the most reflexive sort imaginable, he is clearly very upper class, very educated and quite privileged but then he also was all those caricatures of these characterisitics when he played Lord Snoot or Lord Melchett. He knows he is posh and he is so awfully sorry about it.

So taking the Palin strategy, Fry mucks in with the commoners stateside and tries to relax them enough so that we can enjoy their American oddness even more. Even better, he does this so he can trumpet his subject's diversity.

And it kinda works, apart from the "mucking in" bit. Fry is not one of life's natural backpackers so we get no footage of the hardship he endures on the audience's behalf as he slums it on one glorious taxpayer funded holiday. On the contrary, Fry enjoys himself immensely with the American appetite for food and indulges in this and alcohol several times in every hour long episode. Indeed when a whaling Eskimo describes the oceans around Alaska as his "garden", Fry is only too eager to agree with the metaphor so that someone else can span the difficult divide between living creature and pantry addition.
He does try through, and part of the joy of this series is Fry's efforts to be normal when he is in fact quite extraordinary. He joins some male strippers for a team building exercise where he is a saboteur and rather artlessly he begins by pointing out to these strapping MENSA candidates how unlike them he is. When he gets the chance to make his own ice cream for rotund tourists at Ben and Jerrys, his excess of syllables in each word leaves his customers rather lost. It's the same outcome when he joins southerners for their traditional Thanksgiving, he goes along with their efforts to get him on a horse only to freak the animal with his own palpable distress. A fine writer, an excellent comedian, but Stephen Fry is clearly not one who fits in.

And this is where the series is at its best, with Fry not trying to be a rich man's Michael Palin, but by being his beautiful and peculiar self. Gently satirising policemen doing a drugs bust, genuinely unnerved by real-life goodfellas, and in a superbly funny parody of the western gunfight – "Ow, that really quite hurt". When Fry enjoys the distance he feels from the people around him or makes play of his lack of integration, this series is much more entertaining and genuine. For all of how superior his narration can sometimes feel, this individual with his particular accomplishments has a right to a tone that truly reflects his gifts, background and above all his difference.

In this sense, the focus placed on diversity becomes much more appropriate. Fry sees the idea of America as being that of a relatively unmanaged heterogeneity. A place where immigrants, the grandchildren of slave ranchers, descendants of slaves and religious zealots and New Agers can all live. He sees a place big enough and free enough for the truly different and individual to find a home. I would argue that he undoubtedly sees something that attracts him as an outsider, something that offers him the opportunity that he too could belong.
I think that acceptance is something that everyone wants, but there are a plethora of people who cease to be of artistic interest when they find it. Selfishly, I rather enjoy how silly, clumsy and foolish such a fantastic example of these isles can seem and I would hate for that to end. What Fry finds in the idea of America, I hope remains a dream for him as rather than crave acceptance I think he should see the wonderful and singular work he is so capable of.

Stephen Fry in America proves that this gentleman is developing a very interesting career as a journalist and documentarist. More please

Transfer and Sound

So is a hi-def spin on something that is still being repeated on the Beeb and downloaded from their website really worth £30? Well, I am tempted to say yes as the six episodes span two dual layer discs and have healthy bit rates. The episodes have AVC/MPEG 4 encodes and bar some of the shots in San Francisco the extra detail is very welcome with the landscapes of monument valley taking the breath away especially. Contrast is spot on, edge boosting is not evident and generally the detail levels in and out of shadow are terrific. There is some aliasing in the steel skylines of the big cities but this is a very nice treatment.
The sound comes in a single DTS HD MA stereo option which matched the largely conventional photography well and there seemed little need for a surround mix here. The audio is clear and rich even when it down mixes on a system like mine, and the depth of the effects track and easy articulation of the narration is really a pleasure.

Discs and Special Features

The rather cheesy title sequence of the show is matched by an unimaginative menu of static art based on signposts. It is simple to find and play everything with the option to play all the episodes or to select scenes or individual shows. Each of the two discs contain three extra scenes which are presented in full hi-def but weren't broadcast. There is 20 minutes more of material in total but it is all deservedly cut - Fry's interview with a supposedly 18th Century seamen is a stinker and the intriguing place that is Nantucket is not covered well either


If you have HDTV already and have seen the series in this format I suppose there is little to envy here as a new purchase. From someone who watched it in standard def originally I did welcome the added majesty of the visuals, and given the wonder that is Fry I can think of few better presents for deserving relatives this Christmas.

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out of 10

Last updated: 18/04/2018 21:23:58

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