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

by Mira

In episodes 3, 4, and 5, each an hour long, Stephen Fry visits the (Rocky) Mountains and Plains states, the True West, and the Pacific states.

Stephen Fry’s documentary about the US is not your usual fare. While some of the most famous monuments do make an appearance, Stephen Fry’s travelogues is as much about a social geography of America as it is about tourist sites. The focus is on social types and mavericks, and on social groups and their history.

In this second part, covering episodes 3, 4, and 5, he visits Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas; New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada; California, Oregon, Washington state, Alaska, and Hawaii.

The views are spectacular, and the way he combines nature and culture, the present and the past, commendable. There's a lot to strive for in six hours, and yet he manages to meet a whole variety of interesting people, all of whom invite reflection about America’s present and future. It’s also a very personal travelogue, which is as much about Stephen Fry’s interests as it is about highlighting important tourist sites and social phenomena in the US.

Cable Car, San Francisco
Cable Car, San Francisco

Episode 4 (Mountains and Plains)

The first part of Episode 4 (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming) is about wilderness: bison, wolves, and a sled pulled by huskies and other dog breeds. It’s about a couple who lives two days away from the highway, accompanied by the sound of wolves howling, and about Ted Turner, who owns more land than any other person in the US (2 million acres) and 46 thousand bisons (that’s what I heard; seems huge) between his 10 or so ranches. There are some beautiful landscapes and animals to see.

In North Dakota he eats a deep-fried hamburger and some scrumptious blueberry pie we don’t get to see (and which the waitress calls by some other name, perhaps the German Kuchen). In South Dakota he goes to see the famous faces on Mount Rushmore – faces of presidents George Washington (b. 1732 – d. 1799), Thomas Jefferson (b. 1743 – d. 1826), Theodore Roosevelt (b. 1858 – d. 1919), and Abraham Lincoln (b. 1809 – d. 1865), sculpted there between 1927 and 1941.

Then he goes to see another grand sculpture, that of an Indiana chief called Crazyhorse. He offers his comments, though not to the sculptor who continues his father’s work: the piece is kitsch. Also in South Dakota he goes to the memorial of the Chief Big Foot Massacre of 1890.

In Nebraska he visits a truck stop, and in Kansas a ghost town. An octogenarian, whom people call Wolf River Bob, explains that the town died when it lost its steamboats and railroads. The shots make for some powerful viewing. Villages and small towns die all over the place in the world when the industries that have supported them disappear or relocate. What remains are derelict houses with old signs, and people who are too old and probably too poor and also too connected to their hometown to move elsewhere. But what happens when they die too? Why don’t countries support the rebirth of these places by offering various subsidies, for instance, so that people move there and start businesses?

In Kansas he visits hippies Ed and Diana Peden, who live in a former missile bunker. As he notes in the filmed travelogue and in the accompanying book, it’s an interesting concept, that of turning this concrete underground construction with walls 18 feet thick, a symbol of warfare, into a pleasant, happy home for a couple of peaceniks.

There’s not much about Colorado; just a glimpse of Aspen.

In Oklahoma, as in many American cities, there’s a Salvation Army food counter and some belly dancing. By this point you cannot help but wonder if Stephen Fry is perhaps pushing too far his interest in laying out a social panorama of sorts rather than focusing on things that are truly specific to each state. But right when you do that he shows you “mutton busting,” something you may have had no idea existed: little kids riding muttons rodeo-style. It’s, of course, a much easier ride than that of a rodeo cowboy, but just as tough for these little sportsmen.

In Texas, a state we learn is the size of France, Stephen Fry attends a gala of the rich, one of those events where a table can cost up to $100,000. His companion there tells him that someone who moves into Houston can make his/her name in high society in six months by attending such events: one $10,000 table here leads to an invitation elsewhere, and so forth. Talk about social mobility!

Eventually he reaches the pass between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Madre mountain range: El Paso, at the border with Mexico.

U.S. States Covered in Episode 4 of Stephen Fry in America

U.S. States Covered in Episode 4
U.S. States Covered in Episode 4

Episode 5: True West

Stephen Fry starts his journey into the True West in a hot air balloon over the Rio Grande. Then he makes it to a self-sufficient community in New Mexico, the members of which enjoy all the amenities of modern life without using fossil-fuel energy. They also cultivate most of the food they need: vegetables, grapes, oranges, etc. They have hot and cold water, which they recycle. It’s all about living “without any utility bills.” Quite tempting, although a few questions remain. There must be things they need to dispose of, for instance, since they use electronics and have all sorts of other modern conveniences.

Then there’s Santa Fe, with adobe-style buildings and the laboratory at Los Alamos, where Stephen has a very interesting discussion with a researcher about quantum computing and other ideas of contemporary science, such as self-aware materials. In the Monument Valley in Utah, on a Navajo Indian reservation, he spends some time with a woman who weaves various products. This part is also captivating.

Following is a boat ride (jacuzzi included – trust Stephen Fry to surprise you) on a man-made lake. Somewhere along the way he stops to look at the largest natural bridge: a bridge in stone carved by a water course. It’s beautiful.

I take it he likes to vary his means of transportation a lot, because we see him next in a Boeing B-17 from the 1940s. Okay, he likes planes and knows a bit about their role in WWII – so it’s not surprising he’s heading next to an airbase. Then he’s off to Tucson, Arizona. Well, he doesn’t make it to Tucson – only to the Old Tucson Studios some fifteen minutes from the city, where they were set up in 1939 for the movie Arizona.

Nevada is rather interesting. Not so much the first part, with some sort of spy game Fry tries to get into but really can’t, as much as he is playful about other things. The second part however, about a legal brothel, sheds a lot of light on things most of us aren’t aware of. He talks to the madam as well as to a working girl there. There are also some very interesting comments about Mormons in this section, too (not the brothel section, but the one on Nevada).

U.S. States in Episode 5 of Stephen Fry's American Travelogue

U.S. States in Episode 5, True West
U.S. States in Episode 5, True West

Episode 6: Pacific

Episode 6 takes Stephen Fry to California, Oregon, Washington state, Alaska, and then Hawaii. He rides the cable cars in California, and meets various people. One of them is Jonny Yves, the designer of the iMac, iPod, and iPhone. Another one is the sheriff of Mendocino County, a place where you can grow a number of cannabis plants for medicinal purposes and where this right is much abused. There’s more to the meeting. I’m just trying to give you a sense of some of the social geography of the places he visits, as this seems what Fry is doing in his American travelogue. He accompanies the cops to a marijuana bust. Apparently marijuana sells for up to $3,000 a pound; and a plant can produce up to two pounds.

Oregon is very interesting, too. Besides the nice forests lining the road on each side, there’s a whole way of going about protecting the environment which forest lovers use to their advantage. In this case, it’s about finding redwood voles, which the northern spotted owl, an engendered species, feeds on. Once the vole is found, trees in an area of 10 km around have a chance to survive, protected by law. Quite nice. It shows that protecting the environment can often be done in very small steps -- steps that require not only passion but also science, skill, and patience. Watch the film. It’s an interesting section.

There’s one more discussion, and then comes Washington state with some wanderings around Seattle, which include a visit to a see some seals and sea otters, and then he flies to Alaska, leaving behind his London cab. Alaska, we learn, is over three times the size of France, and thirteen times the size of England. He visits a Russian Orthodox church, has a conversation with a priest about its history, tells us a bit about Russian merchants in Alaska – all very interesting, and worth studying in more depth. This was on Kodiak Island. Then he flies to Barrow, the northernmost city in the US. Alaska is beautiful and you really have to see the film to get a sense of the landscapes, people, and their beautiful and hard life there.

After Alaska there’s one more state to visit: Hawaii. Beautiful state, too. Of course there’s a discussion of land development and “the curse of tourism,” which “destroys what it most desires.” It reminded me of the movie The Descendants with George Clooney, where Hawaii is essentially one of the characters. He also swims with sharks, among other things. But, again, there’s more to this bit than what I’m giving out here.

U.S. States in Episode 6 of Stephen Fry in America

U.S. States in Episode 6: Pacific
U.S. States in Episode 6: Pacific

First Three Episodes of This Documentary

And the Book Stephen Fry in America

If you like what you read, then have a look at my summary of the first three episodes of Stephen Fry in America as well.

I really encourage you to see this documentary for yourself. And read the book, too. I read Stephen Fry in America before watching the film, and it didn’t take away from the documentary.

Both book and filmed travelogue are truly wonderful, and they complement each other nicely.

Stephen Fry in America, The Book (2009)


Stephen Fry in America, On DVD (2010)

Updated: 10/29/2020, Mira
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Mira on 01/20/2016

I missed your article on Brian Unger. I'll make sure I read it. Thanks for stopping by :)

DerdriuMarriner on 01/19/2016

Mira, It's interesting to compare the perspectives of Stephen Fry as a Brit and of Brian Unger (whom I've reviewed) as a Romanian-American regarding different regions and states. It's interesting what they choose to spotlight, such as Mr. Fry focusing on geological formations and native textiles for Utah's Monument Valley.

Mira on 12/19/2015

Thank you!

Mira on 12/19/2015

Thank you, Marsha!

MBC on 12/17/2015

Decided to tweet this article.

MBC on 12/17/2015

Well written and interesting. Thanks for this info.

Mira on 06/21/2015

Yes, it's highly enjoyable. Thank you for visiting!

blackspanielgallery on 06/21/2015

This must be an interesting series.

Mira on 04/25/2014

Thank you!

ologsinquito on 04/25/2014

I'm pinning this to one of my group travel boards.

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