Stephen Fry in America

Sunday, October 12, 2008 by

Stephen Fry goes hunting for deer in New York State, but finds only their “nuggets” (or “poo”).

If I was going to be unkind – and all signs are pointing towards that – I’d say this moment from tonight’s opening instalment of Stephen’s six-part Stateside sojourn could be extrapolated to encompass the whole of the episode. It’s suffering profoundly from an absence of meat, and our hero is left struggling to conjure up whatever he can with only traces of something interesting… something that fled the scene shortly beforehand.

But do all the pieces fit?

But do all the pieces fit?

A bit of Fry and... Washington et al

A bit of Fry and... Washington et al

Let’s go back to the start. Since Michael Palin paid his respects to Phileas Fogg, every authored travelogue has required a high concept to grease the wheels. Fry’s is a little squeaky. “I was so nearly born an American,” he tells us at the top of the programme. “I came that close. In the 1950s, my father was offered a job at Princeton University, and he turned it down. And so I was born, not in NJ, but in NW3. And I was born a Stephen, not a Steve. But ever since I found this out at a later age, I’ve been intensely curious to discover more about the world of my other self, this strange American… Steve.” Surely this is barely motivation to get out of your chair, let alone clock up 50 states? But then, let’s remember, it’s a TV show. All the conceit has to do is get us there – and even an unconvincing one can be forgiven if it’s quick. But unconvincing is the word that seems to underpin this project.

Arriving in Eastport, Maine (driving “a trusty London cab – albeit one hired in the US”), Stephen catches lobsters with a trawlerman. “What do you call yourself?” he asks. “Maine-iacs?”. “I’ve been called worse” comes the response. The encounter is unedifying and uneasy. Then it’s on to New Hampshire. Stephen is trailing the Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney. “Stephen Fry, from the BBC…” he offers, stepping in front of the prospective presidential candidate at a political house party. “Nice to see you again” comes the response, as the quarry makes a deft sidestep. America, it seems, is just slipping by.   

From here, the programme continues as a series of bullet points: Stephen ascending a hill in a steam train; eulogising unexpectedly about ice cream (“That feeling of comfort you get”); momentarily materialising on board the deck of the 1962 America’s Cup-winning yacht, poking around the log cabin-themed playpen of a super rich banker while nobody’s home, and delivering eggy links to camera – “New York State, dominated by the Adirondack chain of mountains and Niagara at the top. They say it’s the size of England…” 

Perhaps he’s been ill-served by the production team, who’ve set him down in places where there’s little to say, or with people who say little. A conversation with scene veteran Oatsie Charles about the previous generation of super-rich in Newport, Rhode Island is just hard work. “Why did they call them cottages?” asks Stephen, referring to the mansions around. “I wasn’t there then!” is the reply. “No you weren’t,” he mollifies, “but you know about the history”. And then, giving up: “There’s your drink – don’t forget that”.

Stephen Fry, not seeing a deer

Stephen Fry, not seeing a deer

Oatsie Charles not talking about the Newport social set

Oatsie Charles not talking about the Newport social set

What makes all this even more frustrating is at times there’s a breakthrough. A hint of something really interesting. Oatsie talks fleetingly about the marriage of John and Jackie Kennedy. “It was too funny,” she says, recalling the Kennedy family arriving in almost ceremonial garb. “Always in Newport you were slightly under-dressed, unless it was a big occasion. And this was just Jackie getting married.” But then it’s gone, and it’s off to New York City for a meeting with a gang of wise guys, who greet Stephen at the door with: “There’s tea, coffee, cake, soda in the refrigerator”.

“Thou shalt not question Stephen Fry”. It’s one of the Ten Commandments, and normally an edict sensible to stick to. The notion of the greatest living Englishman undertaking any mission, talking on any subject is normally a pleasing one. But here, the heroic, witty Fry falls a long way short. 

Back on “the green side of the Big Apple”, a man comes over the hill looking slightly baffled. “Did you guys see it?” he asks. No, confirms Stephen. We didn’t see the deer.


9 Responses to “Stephen Fry in America”

  1. Mark H Wilkinson on October 13th, 2008 12:06 pm

    Funny thing about the premise: Fry’s 1997 novel “Making History” features a tweedy Cambridge student who experiences an alternative universe version of his life in which his parents moved to the US and he ended up at Princeton.

    I’d say Stephen’s been wondering about “Steve” for quite a while now.

  2. Paul Gatenby on October 21st, 2008 12:52 pm

    This series woefully misuses Stephen Fry’s talents. Rather than let him pitch up in some part of America and then just let him talk, intelligently and amusingly, we see him in a series of vignettes that really tell us very little about America, it’s history and the people who live there.

    Instead; here’s the Mason – Dixon line. Right here.
    Stephen gets a haircut, finds out the name of the haircut.
    There’s a bear up a tree.

    There are too many celebrity-fronted factual programmes on television. What next, Griff Rhys Jones on Anger?

  3. Jerry Steele on October 21st, 2008 3:20 pm

    I missed the first episode, but on hearing he was driving around in a black cab, I immediately thought : “Around the World with Alan Partridge In A Bullnose On The Left”.

    The 2nd episode was mildly diverting though. Good Sunday evening fare, I’d say…

  4. Zokko on October 22nd, 2008 6:52 pm

    Brilliant series. Fry’s visit to the body farm was the most uncomfortable viewing experience I’ve had in years.

  5. David B on October 24th, 2008 8:00 pm

    To use Fry’s witty and charming phrase: “arse dribble”.

  6. Relugus on October 26th, 2008 10:49 pm

    The “Main-iac” moment was unfortunate, though it was an example of how the British sense of humour does not go over well with some Americans.

    I’m glad Fry does not adopt the smug “ironic” tone of so many British journalists and travellers. His genuine interest in people is one of the strengths of this show.

    The BBC’s insistence on only 6 episodes is the problem here. What is it with British TV executives that makes them think everything has to be compressed into 6 episodes?
    I want to visit Morgan Freeman’s club. :-)

  7. Nigel Fishwick on October 28th, 2008 5:48 pm

    I think I’d have preferred something like a six-month run of half-hour long episodes. I’m sure they must have shot enough footage for a longer run.

    Something more along the lines of Entertainment USA (sans Jonathan King, of course) might have been preferable.

  8. Tammy Benton on November 16th, 2008 3:47 pm

    I was extremely disappointed with the portrayal Stephen Fry game Missouri in his Stephen Fry in America series. The only thing he televised about Missouri was a group of homeless people and some old dilapidated buildings in downtown St. Louis.
    I am American and my fiance’ is English and even he (having been to Missouri where I am from) was shocked that Stephen Fry chose to only show homeless people and old beat up buildings while driving right past the Gateway Arch…the gateway to the west…with it’s impressive museum located underneath it and didn’t even introduce this monument to his viewers.
    Not to mention St. Louis has a great music scene in an area called Soulard where some brilliant blues bands originate from, a beautiful art gallery, history museum, one of the best rated free zoos…the St. Louis Zoo, Forest Park, and was the home of the 1904 Worlds Fair.
    Again, I was extremely disappointed that out of all of that and so much more that Missouri and St. Louis have to offer he chose to only show the homeless and a few dilapidated buildings. Shame really as I think many viewers in the UK would really like to get a true glimpse of what America has to offer.

  9. Bobbie Battisson on November 17th, 2008 4:54 pm

    I was disappointed in Fry’s take on Washington State, he did not show the Rockies Mount Ranier – Mount Baker, Mount St Helens or the Olympics, he just concentrated on Pike Place and drug taking and suicides. Washington State derserves better coverage.