Stephen Fry in America

I love travelogues. Not only can travel enable you to see the world, but the act of traveling itself can open your eyes to the world at its best. Done well, a travel documentary can take you on that same journey, open a window into a world past and present, and provide comfort and inspiration to those of us stuck at home. Over the next few months, I’ll be sharing some of my favorites. This is Travelogia.

Journey Time: October 2007-May 2008

Countries Visited: United States, Canada1

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been feeling pretty homesick lately. Even as I increasingly adapt to my adopted home on the other side of the world, the fact remains that I haven’t seen the United States in two years and basically dream every night of flying back, seeing friends and family, and eating at every restaurant I used to.

So it’s good that we have Stephen Fry in America. Granted, my interest in this particular travel series goes a bit further back, not least because of that weird weekend where he visited San Francisco to film at the same time Barack Obama was there making a gaffe about guns and religion and I was there meeting my first girlfriend.2

But more than anything, this series has always entranced me for the rare outside perspective it offers on the US. The things Fry takes most out of his visit to all 50 states and the District of Columbia reveal some fascinating preconceptions– most notably his shock at the coldness of a Midwestern winter despite being so much further south than Britain (which I’ve written about before)– and the improbable mix of characters. This is the only travelogue you’ll find that features both Russell Means and Mitt Romney.3

Granted, some of the commentary comes off as a trifle ignorant, such as referring to Queens as an “Italian neighborhood.” And despite Fry’s unselfconscious opinion-making on British television or in print, the Fry on camera is surprisingly reticent to confront many of the more contentious figures and institutions that he encounters– like mass slave labor at Angola Prison, or the Nuremberg-esque jet flyover at an Auburn University football game.

With over a decade since its release, Stephen Fry in America has become something of a timepiece, and a melancholy one in the same vein as Michael Palin’s New Europe. Checking in at a blues club owned by the actor Morgan Freeman, there’s lots of talk about post-racial America. “We can no longer talk in terms of black and white, of oppressor and oppressed, but of Americans, of state citizens.” If only. And of course the series was filmed mere months before the onset of the Great Recession, a fact which is awkwardly shoehorned in through narration. There’s a terrible optimism about an America coming back to look forward and lead responsibly. But I think revisiting that optimism is a reasonable price for this incredibly gentle and genteel portrait of my native land.

Five Stars: Two particular episodes stand out:

“Mississippi” follows Stephen up the river from New Orleans to Minneapolis, by way of the Great Lakes and an admittedly rather dreadful night with the Second City, but also by way of city kids canoeing on the river, a night in with hoboes in St. Louis, and the fulfillment of a childhood dream at the Elkhart, Indiana Fire Department.

“True West” is a similarly serene amble through the desert southwest, visiting the Navajo and flying in vintage planes, though it also has the low point of the show (see below).

This series was also the beginning of Fry’s love affair with the state of Kentucky, and it’s easy to see why, presenting it as a serene, autumnal land of horses and whiskey– Kentucky was so pleased by the shows portrayal that it made him an actual Kentucky Colonel.

One Star: The thing people seem to hate most about this series comes to us in Las Vegas, when Fry joins forces with some Chippendales dancers for a painfully stupid espionage-themed team-building exercise. This is the shit about America I don’t miss, but far more obnoxious to me is the token contribution from Kansas: it’d be one thing to visit a hippie homestead made from a disused ICBM silo, but to have to listen to them sing…well, you can see the pain in Stephen’s eyes. And I feel nothing but embarrassment as a Californian for Stephen’s misguided detour to Humboldt State.

For more flavor, you’ll have to look to the companion book to this series, which includes a lot of interesting anecdotes, like a Queens cab driver ranting about the Good Friday Agreement, a totally cut-out meeting with Temple Grandin, and a bizarre digression about something called “chicken Maryland.”

If you’re too impatient to wait for an Amazon delivery, you should definitely check out the deleted footage. Due to the strict geographical theming of each episode, a lot of the best stuff on this adventure was cut for time, but it’s back in all its glory. In fact, the entire show is available for free on YouTube at the time of writing.

Next Time: Charley Boorman and Big Earth go on a lark and end up changing travelogues forever with Ireland to Sydney by Any Means.

My own travelogue, An Armada of Cats: Travels in Israel will be available later this year via Amazon. You can read an excerpt here.