Stephen Fry in America: The First Three Episodes of the Six-Part BBC Series

by Mira

Stephen Fry’s American travelogue, presented as a documentary series on BBC and available now on DVD. He also wrote a book to accompany the TV documentary.

The popular comedic actor Stephen Fry, enamored with America since his childhood, has probably realized a big dream of his when he got to travel throughout all of the fifty US states between September 2007 and May 2008. The result is a beautiful book, full of wit and fascination with the country he has just explored, and a 6-part BBC series that is now available on DVD.

Firstly, do know that the TV documentary Stephen Fry in America and the book of the same title don’t completely overlap, as is to be expected. In the book, for instance, Stephen Fry gets to mention more of the history of the places and states and their famous residents. Some of these well-known residents, by the way, are very much alive and make an appearance on the show.

Masks, Mardi Gras, New Orleans
Masks, Mardi Gras, New Orleans

The Documentary Complements the Book Wonderfully

Beginning of Episode 1

I wrote about the book, briefly, here:
Stephen Fry in America: A Book Review, Part I
and here:
Stephen Fry in America. Stephen Fry, His Book, and His Take on California

The first article is just to give you an idea of the kind of experiences Stephen Fry would pick in each state. But saying something like “New Hampshire invites a short discussion of presidential election primaries, a meeting with Mitt Romney, and a brief excursus on the 1944 Bretton Woods conference, which created the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He also rides on the oldest mountain cog line in the world” about his trip to New Hampshire doesn’t convey much of the electoral activity the documentary captures, with all the interaction and openness and frantic schedule, or about the surprises this oldest cog line in the world brings when viewed on the screen, with all the smoke from that ton of coal for a ride (and thousand gallons of water), and with that great view from the top of Mount Washington. A mountain which, we’re learning, is the windiest mountain on earth.

More about Episode 1 (New World)

Neither does it tell you anything about the elegant beauty and grandeur of the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, which we glimpse in the documentary (even if only from the outside of the hotel).

Then Vermont. In the book, it’s about several things, maple syrup among them (Stephen Fry writes that “Americans like to pour all over their breakfast, on waffles and pancakes certainly, but on bacon too”). In the documentary, it’s about Ben and Jerry’s ice cream only, but somehow Stephen Fry’s visit there becomes something memorable; he’s his bubbly self and other visitors take to him immediately. There are laughs and even an “Even Stephens” ice cream, which Fry commends for its great texture and flavors. It contains a vanilla base, English toffee chocolate fudge, some granulated thing Stephen is very pleased with (but doesn’t name), and walnuts. The tour party is very happy with Stephen’s ice cream, and I’m reminded of the value of really good ice cream. And I agree with him that life is hard enough to warrant some ice cream.

There’s much more in Episode 1. I’ll let you discover it on your own.

U.S. States Covered in the First Episode of Stephen Fry in America

States Covered in 1st Episode
States Covered in 1st Episode

Episode 2 (Deep South)

Episode 2 (Deep South) starts with Stephen Fry at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia, and then with him looking for the marker of the Mason-Dixon line.

Once in West Virginia, Fry makes it to a coal mine, where everyone seems to sport a mustache (many of them have the whole deal: mustache and beard). Stephen Fry jokes around with one guy:
Fry: “There are some of them who don’t have mustaches.”
Miner: “Some don’t.”
Fry: “But nobody seems to mind.”
Miner (smiling – but I’m not sure he’s responding to Fry’s humor): “No.”
Fry: “It’s a bit scary. How do you know they’re miners?”

The part about bluegrass in Tennessee is nice, with fingers picking banjos and a violin making bluegrass music. The part about his visit to a body farm is not so nice. The body farm is a research facility associated with University of Tennessee. It has 180 cadavers in various stages of decomposition under black body bags, and it’s there to help police identify “time after death.”

He then goes aboard a hot air balloon somewhere in the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, first a mile up and then down to the canopy level.

When he gets to Georgia over Thanksgiving, somehow he ends up on a horse despite his misgivings, and the horse, which was supposed to gently walk him around, breaks into a trot. It’s rather funny. The horse eventually stops, but not until Fry lets out lots of whoa, whoa, whoas.

He then meets with two nonagenarians (amazing-looking; watching the ninety-eight-year old lady actually gives you hope that there can be dignity in very old age), and enjoys a scrumptious Thanksgiving dinner. I wish the cameraman had filmed more of the different foods. I only got a glimpse of Fry’s plate and of some sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows. I got intrigued, but unfortunately that and some turkeys was all I saw of the food. 

He finds Miami and Miami Beach in Florida “less friendly” in many ways than the “true South.” There’s inevitably a part about snowbirds. He goes to a dance club where there are ten times (or so it seems) more women than men. Women outlive their husbands, one guy says. And, by the looks of it, they also like to dance. Much more than Stephen Fry.

He goes to the Everglades as well, but we don’t see much of them.

Then there’s Alabama, with a parole board and a college football game, all very interesting.

U.S. States Covered in the Second Episode of Stephen Fry's America Documentary

States Covered in 2nd Episode
States Covered in 2nd Episode

Episode 3 (Mississippi)

Episode 3 starts in New Orleans. We see a bit of the Mardi Gras festivities and glimpses of a voodoo ceremony. After some more talk with a voodoo priestess and a car ride with an American soldier who has returned to his neighborhood in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to find it looking a lot like Irak (Humvees included), Fry moves on to the Angola prison in Louisiana, where there are 5,000 inmates, 90% of them without the possibility of parole, on 18,000 acres (about the size of Manhattan, we’re told). Just like the car ride through New Orleans, this landscape, too, gets you pondering about the lives of all those life prisoners, some of which do change for the better in some respects even as they have no chance of changing their lot. We learn that they work the land, making all or most of the food they need, and that they create other useful products as well.

In Mississippi Stephen Fry drives by some really nice architecture and talks with actor Morgan Freeman in the latter’s own blues bar. Then he canoes on the Mississippi (he doesn’t do the rowing himself, no), and . . . I’ll skip Missouri, Iowa and Indiana. I’ll just say there’s a bit about yoga and transcendental meditation, too. What I’m coming to appreciate in Stephen Fry’s choice of subjects is that he chooses a large variety that he feels represents many facets of America. It’s not a bland travelogue, which is to be commended. Yes, he is opinionated (and that's much of his appeal) but he also does a number of firsts for him on this trip, breaks an arm somehow (didn’t understand how), and generally exposes himself to things he feels he understand and things he doesn’t (TM or a homeless person telling him that he “chooses” to live that way).

After Indiana there’s Ohio, with images from the Kent State riot of 1970, and Detroit in Michigan, with talk about Ford and GM. When he arrives in Chicago, we’re treated to a bird’s-eye view and the sounds of Chicago blues (Buddy Guy, whom Fry talks with on camera as well). Buddy Guy makes some poignant comments about a world he sees vanishing, one with more blues and fun – speaking of which, there’s also The Second City in this Chicago bit, and Stephen Fry gets on stage as well.

But the real comedy bit is in Wisconsin, where Stephen Fry gets really funny in the company of ewes and a cheese-making lady.

This episode’s journey ends in Minnesota, where he talks about the Hmong community, meets with a senator representing these people (40,000 of them) and then takes to a frozen-over lake for some ice fishing. It’s really cold outside now, and the landscapes are rather beautiful with all the snow. In fact, even without the snow, the Wisconsin town he drives through and the horse and buggy (he goes into Amish country as well, but doesn’t film there) are rather picturesque.

U.S. States Covered in the Third Episode of Stephen Fry's American Road Trip

States Covered in 3rd Episode
States Covered in 3rd Episode

Part II

Stephen Fry in America: The Last Three Episodes of the Six-Part BBC Series -- covers Episodes 4 (Mountains and Plains), 5 (True West), and 6 (Pacific).

Stephen Fry in America

The Book

Stephen Fry in America

The BBC Documentary
Updated: 07/20/2018, Mira
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Mira on 01/21/2016

It's possible that he got mixed up about that. This was quite an undertaking.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/20/2016

Mira, Stephen Fry's reference to Amish country always puzzles me because by the time of the filming they were long gone from Wisconsin. The fact that it's not authentically Amish may number among the reasons for not getting filmed what he talks and writes about. Does he not know?

Mira on 01/13/2014

As much as he says he "abhors" the notion of "fun," he's quite fun to watch, listen to, and read himself!:)

WiseFool on 01/13/2014

I watched the documentary on TV a few years back and loved it. I'd forgotten there was a book accompanying it, too. I'll have to check that out. Stephen Fry is always great to watch, listen to and read!

Mira on 01/11/2014

You're right. It's part travelogue, and part social documentary. Thank you, ologsinquito!

ologsinquito on 01/11/2014

They do look really interesting. This is a good way to "explore" parts of the US you're probably not going to get to. Pinned to my See the World board.

Mira on 01/11/2014

They are not the usual fare, that's for sure!

AbbyFitz on 01/10/2014

I have got to watch these. They look so interesting.

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