Stephen Fry in America Review
The SeriesTravel 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.
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.
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.
Stephen Fry in America proves that this gentleman is developing a very interesting career as a journalist and documentarist. More please
Transfer and SoundSo 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.
Discs and Special FeaturesThe 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
SummaryIf 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.
7 out of 10
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
4 out of 10
Last updated: 18/04/2018 21:23:58