Friday 14 December 2018

Stephen Fry in America

Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Stephen Fry was very nearly an American. As he revealed in an edition of Who Do You Think You Are?, the quintessentially English writer, actor and comedian is actually the descendant of central European Jews on his mother's side, and just before Stephen was born, his father was offered a job at Princeton University, which he seriously considered but ultimately turned down.

So, instead of Princeton it was Cambridge for Fry, where Cambridge Footlights introduced him to Hugh Laurie and set him on the path to comedy. But Fry has retained a lifelong fascination with the vast country he might have called home, and in this engaging six-part series he takes his London taxi cab stateside and sets out to visit every one of the 50 American states.

The witty, affable and fiercely intelligent funnyman makes a very good travel guide, as he proved in last week's opening episode, where he explored the historic northeast. Starting out in New England, Fry then journeyed south to the nation's capital and the redolent Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg.

On the way, he stopped off in Boston and New York, where he consorted with mobsters and enjoyed a taxi ride with Sting. In this second episode, he reaches the Deep South, an area that particularly interests him.

As he says himself at the start of this show, "For years, I have been intrigued and enriched by what seems to be America's most characterful region -- a place of cotton, courtesy, gospel music, mint juleps, divine accents and sultry southern belles ... " He starts his tour of the old south in West Virginia, where coal mining is the traditional and dominant industry, and he stops off to join a shift of coal miners on a trip deep underground. It's hot, dark and, for a man of Fry's height -- he's nearly six foot five -- most uncomfortable.

From Virginia it's on to Kentucky, home of the Kentucky Derby, where Fry visits an auction house where the most expensive horse flesh in the world is traded. In Tennessee, he experiences the highs and lows of life, from a Bluegrass music jamming session to an altogether more sombre experience at a sinister scientific site.

The 'body farm' is a place where a team of scientists assists in murder cases by working with corpses to research "time since death". In North Carolina, he shakes off that grisly experience by taking to the air in a hot air balloon for a tour across the state.

Fry explores that most American of holidays when he celebrates Thanksgiving in Georgia and, after that, he heads for the beaches, swamps and permanent sunshine of Florida. But we soon learn that Fry is not a fan of Miami, and as he drives his taxi along Miami Beach, he reveals his extreme distaste for the southern-most part of America.

As he pithily puts it, "I'd rather be curled up in a snowy cabin with a hot whisky or, quite frankly, a Horlicks than I would spend half an hour in this rotting place".

Finishing his whistle-stop tour of the South in Alabama, Stephen savours the hoopla of a college ball game, complete with a deafening air force fly-by.

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