Stephen Fry in America (UK - BD)
Scott McKenzie takes a trip across America in a taxi with Stephen Fry...
At the beginning of this series, Stephen Fry tells us that but for a twist of fate, he could have been born in America, which explains his love of the USA. The series follows him as he tours all fifty states in a British black cab and visits the more out-of-the-way places along the way. Most of all we get to experience America through his eyes and enjoy his exchanges with the locals and his surprising honesty with us.
It's his honesty that surprised me most about this series. I might be wrong, but I suspect Stephen accepted the job of touring America on the understanding that he could go wherever he wanted, not where the producers wanted to send him. His tour doesn't take us to the usual tourist traps you may think of, instead heading for odd and interesting places like the factory in Chicago where the Oscars are made and for a meeting with Apple's head designer in San Francisco. There seems to have been some kind of trade-off though because there are one or two moments where Stephen Fry obviously didn't want to be in the situation he found himself in.
Being a world-renowned public figure, it makes sense that Stephen would stop by some of his famous friends on his journey. Sting and Morgan Freeman make an appearance and he takes the opportunity to pay a visit to Ted Turner, who appears to throw Stephen off balance with his no-nonsense style. There are also a number of other characters that crop up along the way. One of the most interesting is an elderly woman who looks after holiday homes in Newport and appears to have an endless reel of anecdotes about past presidents.
In typical Stephen Fry style, there are a number of genuine laugh out loud moments, in particular when he is faced with the back-ends of dozens of sheep in Wisconsin. Another key section is when he takes part in a spy game in Las Vegas, but is secretly given the brief to sabotage the chances of his team, which is made up of off-duty Chippendales. It's not all a laugh riot though—there are some more serious moments to be found when he visits Angola prison and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
There are a few movie references thrown into the mix, in particular some music cues from Alien that will please fans. Stephen Fry in America is an enjoyable series from start to finish, where the most important part is that we see America through the eyes of a very clever and funny man who can wax lyrical on any subject. There is more fun to be had than just watching an ageing English man bumble around outside of his comfort zone, but to be honest that is where a lot of the enjoyment can be found.
The appearance of any BBC series on Blu-ray is always welcome, however those of you expecting presentation on the scale of the high definition wonder that is Planet Earth will be sorely disappointed. Since this series follows Stephen Fry on the road, there's a lot of handheld camerawork and it's no surprise that his crew weren't expected to carry the biggest and baddest high definition cameras around with them. The quality and detail in the picture is almost totally dependent on the lighting of the place he finds himself in. External daytime shots looks great but internal or dark shots can look very grainy at times. The transfer is very colourful though, especially the American Football game in the second episode, but while the quality is good enough for TV, I don't think it's up to scratch for a pricey high definition package.
I wrote down plenty of notes about the video quality while I was watching the series, but when I came to look back at them for prompts to write up this section, I realised I'd only written one word down about the audio— loud. Showing its TV roots, the audio track is a DTS-HD Master Audio Stereo track, so any surround action will be determined by how your amp handles the feed. While the audio may have been louder than most other Blu-ray discs that have passed through my player, I didn't notice the same interference that was evident in the picture so all I can really say is 'no complaints' and recommend that you lower your expectations a little.
Unfortunately all we get are six deleted clips, one from each episode. Not all of them add too much to the series as a whole but the first one where Stephen joins in a game of Left, Right, Centre is definitely worth watching.
Stephen Fry in America gives us a view of America that hasn't really been shown in other prime-time travelogues and (for this reviewer at least) the fact that it has Stephen Fry in the title gives it extra kudos from the beginning. It's difficult to see how the presentation could have been much better given the way it was filmed, but just don't expect to be wowed with the video and audio quality.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page.
Review by Scott McKenzie
Exempt from classification
Release Date: 17th November 2008
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English
Extras: Bonus Footage
Easter Egg: No
Director: John Paul Davidson, Michael Waldman
Cast: Stephen Fry, Morgan Freeman, Sting
Length: 375 minutes