Try as I might, I can't seem to find information as to when British writer/actor/comedian Stephen Fry's six-part BBC documentary "Stephen Fry in America" will air in the United States. If ever. Anybody know? The accompanying book is available for preorder on Amazon, but it's not released until May, although you can get a good preview by reading chapters linked to on this earlier post.
However, despite this bit of unfairness to my readers west of the Atlantic, I can't help commenting on the first three episodes, which have aired over here on Sunday nights for the last three weeks. I've been catching up on them in quiet moments on my own by watching the BBC iPlayer versions (downloadable episodes that are, unfortunately, not available on the U.S. BBC site), but it would've been much more fun to watch them with a crowd of Brits and Americans so we could compare our varying opinions. (You can get an idea of those, by the way, by visiting Stephen Fry's blog site here).
It was episode three, broadcast last week, in which I found myself most at home. Fry commences the show in New Orleans and then drives and ferries his London cab up along the Mississippi River through the nation's heartland up to where the river starts in MInnesota, with a significant veer over to Chicago. And I must say that his Chicago coverage was simply lovely. Fry seemed to adore Chicago, including more of that city than he did of New York (hooray!) Although his coverage of some of the other states has been a bit strange--Massachusetts gets identified by Wiccans and witchcraft, New Orleans by voodoo, St. Louis by the homeless population, and Tennessee by forensic science and rotting cadavers--Fry seemed to happily pounce on Chicago's tourist trademarks and promote them to the full.
He starts out with a lengthy drive around the South Side, complete with loving camerawork of the beautiful but changing old neighborhoods, then visits a blues club where viewers are treated to some soulful music and a candid, rather heartbreaking interview with blues legend Buddy Guy, who recounts the decline of Chicago blues. Then it's off to the North Side and Second City, where Fry not only performs onstage during Improv Night but even heads off to try a Chicago hot dog at The Wiener's Circle with a few budding comedians.
I watched the Chicago segment with delight and bated breath, counting myself lucky that he'd spent so long covering my city in this crammed-full documentary. But it wasn't over yet. After the hot dogs, Fry headed up to the top of the Sears Tower at night, where his film crew did a wonderful job capturing the glowing lights of the city spreading out in every direction. The cameras swept round and round the city, showing the lights again and again, and I felt a deep pride as I watched. How wonderful it was to know that the United Kingdom's millions of BBC viewers were now seeing one of my very favorite sights.
In the rest of the series Fry also spent significant time in both Kentucky and Minnesota, other states to which I have deep ties, which was also great fun to watch (although I must say it was a little unfair that he visited Minnesota in the dead of winter, one of the coldest winters on record, and referred to its beautiful forests and lakes as "an icy waste", giving the place the rather bleak feel that comes across in the film "Fargo").
One of the best parts of the show, however, is Fry's interviews with assorted figures, most of them everyday Bubbas. He often just lets his subjects speak without heavy editing, which does more, I think, to give Brits a true picture of America than anything else. Extended scenes of the Missipppi rushing along and an Alabama football game also provide plenty of nostalgic charm for the expat American.
It's not perfect. His taste for the macabre and truly odd, as referenced above, does make for some strange moments (although I sympathize with a man who's trying to find something unusual to cover in each state). And, to be honest, I found the first episode, in which Fry drives through the northeastern states and D.C. area, a bit boring and bland. Perhaps he spent too much time setting up the premise of the documentary and couldn't focus on the individual states and stories, and perhaps I also felt this way because the one state in that region where I have lived is Maryland, and he literally drove right through with a throwaway comment like, "Too bad I haven't got time to show you all the great things about all of these states."
Still, the series has been a fun and informative way to visit my home through the eyes of one of my new neighbors, so to speak. I do hope the BBC airs it soon back in the good old United States.