Stephen Fry may not be a common household name in the United States, but he’s become a much-beloved figure in British popular culture. Something of a popular intellectual and polymath, he’s well-known there as an actor, comedian, author, and director. He had a long comedy partnership with Hugh Laurie (famous here for his title role on “House“), which included, among other things, the sketch comedy show “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” and “Jeeves and Wooster.” He played the title role in the Oscar Wilde biopic Wilde (recently released on DVD and a popular rental here at Video Station of late). He works frequently as a voice actor, playing the Cheshire Cat in Tim Burton‘s Alice in Wonderland and reading/performing the British versions of the Harry Potter audiobooks, of which I’m especially fond. He’s even referenced in a lyric in a hip-hop track by British group dan le sac Vs Scroobius Pip, which asserts, “thou shalt not question Stephen Fry.”
Two recent 6-part BBC documentary programs hosted by Fry have just been released on DVD, Last Chance to See and Stephen Fry in America, and they’re both well worth watching. Last Chance to See pairs Fry with Mark Carwardine, a zoologist who, with late author Douglas Adams, traveled around the world in 1989 seeking out endangered species. Fry and Carwardine re-trace that trip to discover how some of those same species are faring in the 21st Century. Fry is endearingly out of his element much of the time in this series, as the duo hike through sometimes rough and inhospitable locations, but he generally seems happy to be along for the trip. As they hop around the globe from episode to episode, the passion and exhilaration of their journey becomes quite infectious. Even when they are confronted with environmental devastation and extinction, the program doesn’t try to be preachy and provocative, but rather philosophical and informative.
Stephen Fry in America is, as you might guess from its title, fairly straightforward. Fry makes a road trip through each and every one of the 50 States in an iconic black London cab. He explains at the outset that had his father accepted a position at Princeton in the 1950’s, he himself would have been born an American, and that he has long been fascinated by his alter-ego, “Steve.” This 6-part series documents his exploration of all things Yankee, often eschewing easy landmarks and cities and finding locales a little off the beaten path. This is our country seen from a moderately sympathetic and extremely thoughtful outsider’s perspective, and Fry is an exceptionally entertaining tour guide. Along the way, he rubs elbows with Morgan Freeman, Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia), and Jonathan Ive, who designed the keyboard on which I’m currently typing this review. He offers a series of candid first impressions, and it’s fascinating to hear what he admires and dislikes about the United States.
The two series also dovetail nicely with each other. The filming of each clearly overlapped with the other. As he strolls through the French Quarter of New Orleans, Fry sports the broken arm he got while stepping off a boat in the Amazon searching for elusive manatees. Whilst he is cruising the Sea of Cortez in pursuit of blue whales, we see him wearing a tee-shirt he got from a resident of the north shore of Oahu. This, I suppose, dispels the illusion of an unbroken road trip or naturalist excursion, but it’s really rather fun to watch them back to back and just revel in Fry’s self-deprecating charm for a few hours. – [DVD]