Stephen Fry in America

I was so nearly an American. It was that close. In the mid-1950s my father was offered a job at Princeton University – something to do with the emerging science of semiconductors. One of the reasons he turned it down was that he didn’t think he liked the idea of his children growing up as Americans. I was born, therefore, not in NJ but in NW3.

An excerpt from my book Stephen Fry in America
Stephen Fry in America on BBC 1 from Sunday 12th October @ 9.00pm

I was ten when my mother made me a present of this momentous information. The very second she did so, Steve was born.

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Steve looked exactly like me, same height, weight and hair colour. In fact, until we opened our mouths, it was almost impossible to distinguish one from the other. Steve’s voice had the clear, penetrating, high-up-in-the-head twang of American. He called Mummy ‘Mom’, he used words like ‘swell’, ‘cute’ and ‘darn’. There were detectable differences in behaviour too. He spread jam (which he called jelly) on his (smooth, not crunchy) peanut butter sandwiches, he wore jeans, t-shirts and basketball sneakers rather than grey shorts, Airtex shirts and black plimsolls. He had far more money for sweets, which he called candy, than Stephen ever did. Steve was confident almost to the point of rudeness, unlike Stephen who veered unconvincingly between shyness and showing off. If I am honest I have to confess that Stephen was slightly afraid of Steve.

As they grew up, the pair continued to live their separate, unconnected lives. Stephen developed a mania for listening to records of old music hall and radio comedy stars, watching cricket, reading poetry and novels, becoming hooked on Keats and Dickens, Sherlock Holmes and P. G. Wodehouse and riding around the countryside on a moped. Steve listened to blues and rock and roll, had all of Bob Dylan’s albums, collected baseball cards, went to movie theatres three times a week and drove his own car.

Stephen still thinks about Steve and wonders how he is getting along these days. After all, the two of them are genetically identical. It is only natural to speculate on the fate of a long-lost identical twin. Has he grown even plumper than Stephen or does he work out in the gym? Is he in the TV and movie business too? Does he write? Is he ‘quintessentially American’ the way Stephen is often charged with being ‘quintessentially English’?

All these questions are intriguing but impossible to settle. If you are British, dear reader, then I dare say you too might have been born American had your ancestral circumstances veered a little in their course. What is your long-lost nonexistent identical twin up to?

Most people who are obsessed by America are fascinated by the physical – the cars, the music, the movies, the clothes, the gadgets, the sport, the cities, the landscape and the landmarks. I am interested in all of those, of course I am, but I (perhaps because of my father’s decision) am interested in something more. I have always wanted to get right under the skin of American life. To know what it really is to be American, to have grown up and been schooled as an American; to work and play as an American; to romance, labour, succeed, fail, feud, fight, vote, shop, drift, dream and drop out as an American; to grow ill and grow old as an American.

For years then, I have harboured deep within me the desire to make a series of documentary films about ‘the real’ America. Not the usual road movies in a Mustang and certainly not the kind of films where minority maniacs are trapped into making exhibitions of themselves. It is easy enough to find Americans to sneer at if you look hard enough, just as it is easy to find ludicrous and lunatic Britons to sneer at. Without the intention of fawning and flattering then, I did want to make an honest film about America, an unashamed love letter to its physical beauty and a film that allowed Americans to reveal themselves in all their variety.

I have often felt a hot flare of shame inside me when I listen to my fellow Britons casually jeering at the perceived depth of American ignorance, American crassness, American isolationism, American materialism, American lack of irony and American vulgarity. Aside from the sheer rudeness of such open and unapologetic mockery, it seems to me to reveal very little about America and a great deal about the rather feeble need of some Britons to feel superior. All right, they seem to be saying, we no longer have an Empire, power, prestige or respect in the world, but we do have ‘taste’ and ‘subtlety’ and ‘broad general knowledge’, unlike those poor Yanks.

What silly, self-deluding rubbish! What dreadfully small-minded stupidity! Such Britons hug themselves with the thought that they are more cosmopolitan and sophisticated than Americans because they think they know more about geography and world culture, as if firstly being cosmopolitan and sophisticated can be scored in a quiz and as if secondly (and much more importantly) being cosmopolitan and sophisticated is in any way desirable or admirable to begin with. Sophistication is not a moral quality, nor is it a criterion by which one would choose one’s friends. Why do we like people? Because they are knowledgeable, cosmopolitan and sophisticated? No, because they are charming, kind, considerate, exciting to be with, amusing … there is a long list, but knowing what the capital of Kazakhstan is will not be on it.

The truth is, we are offended by the clear fact that so many Americans know and care so very little about us. How dare they not know who our Prime Minister is, or be so indifferent as to believe that Wales is an island off the coast of Scotland? We are quite literally not on the map as far as they are concerned and that hurts. They can get along without us, it seems, a lot better than we can get along without them and how can that not be galling to our pride? Thus we (or some of us) react with the superiority and conceit characteristic of people who have been made to feel deeply inferior.

So I wanted to make an American series which was not about how amusingly unironic and ignorant Americans are, nor about religious nuts and gun-toting militiamen, but one which tried to penetrate everyday American life at many levels and across the whole United States. What sort of a design should such a series have? What sort of a structure and itinerary? It is a big country the United States…

The United States! America’s full name held the clue all along, for America, it has often been said, is not one country, but fifty. If I wanted to avoid all the clichés, all the cheap shots and stereotypes and really see what America was, then why not make a series about those fifty countries, the actual states themselves? It is all very well to talk about living and dying, hoping and dreaming, loving and loathing ‘as an American’, but what does that mean when America is divided into such distinct and diverse parcels? To live and die as a Floridian is surely very different from living and dying as a Minnesotan? The experience of hoping and dreaming as an Arizonan cannot have much in common with that of hoping and dreaming as a Rhode Islander, can it?

So, to film in every state. I had a structure and a purpose. But how would I get about? I often drive around in a London taxi. The traditional black cab is good and roomy for filming in and perhaps the sight of one braving the canyons, deserts and interstate highways of America could become a happy signature image for the whole journey. A black cab it would be.

There is no right tempo for a project like this. The whole thing could be achieved in two weeks by someone who just wanted to tick off the states like a train-spotter, or it could be done over the course of years, with great time and attention given to the almost infinite social, political, cultural and physical nuances of each state. The pace at which my taxi and I zipped along provided me not with definitive portraits but with multiple snapshots of experience, which I hope when taken together will cause a bigger picture of the country and its fifty constituent parts to emerge.

The overwhelming majority of Americans I met on my journey were kind, courteous, honourable and hospitable beyond expectation. Such striking levels of warmth, politeness and consideration were encountered not just in those I was meeting for on-camera interview, they were to be found in the ordinary Americans I met in the filling-stations, restaurants, hotels and shops too.

If I were to run out of petrol in the middle of the night I would feel more confident about knocking on the door of an American home than one in any other country I know – including my own. The friendly welcome, the generosity, the helpfulness of Americans – especially, I ought to say, in the South and Midwest – is as good a reason to visit as the scenery. Yes, Americans are terrible drivers (endlessly weaving between lanes while on the phone, bullying their way through if they drive a big vehicle, no waves of thanks or acknowledgement, no letting other cars into traffic), yes they have no idea what cheese or bread can be and yes, strip malls, TV commercials and talk radio are gratingly dreadful. But weighing the good, the kind, the original, the enchanting, the breathtaking, the hilarious and the lovable against the bad, the cruel, the banal, the ugly, the crass, the silly and the monstrous, I see the scales coming down towards the good every time .

There is one phrase I probably heard more than any other on my travels: Only in America!
If you were to hear a Briton say ‘Tch! only in Britain, eh?’ it would probably refer to something that was either predictable, miserable, oppressive, dull, bureaucratic, queuey, damp, spoil-sporty or incompetent – or a mixture of all of those. ‘Only in America!’ on the other hand, always refers to something shocking, amazing, eccentric, wild, weird or unpredictable. Americans are constantly being surprised by their own country. Britons are constantly having their worst fears confirmed about theirs. This seems to be one of the major differences between us.

VERMONT, Vermont, how beautiful you are.
Not the absolute last place in which you would imagine Rudyard Kipling writing ‘Gunga Din’ and The Jungle Book, but surely not the first, either. Yet he did. And ‘Mandalay’ too, ‘where the flyin’-fishes play’, in Battleboro, VT, the home of his American wife, Carrie.

I reckon that if you ask the average American what they know of Vermont, the first thing they will mention is maple syrup. The sugar maple is the ‘State Tree’ of Vermont – it is also more or less the state industry. The maple brings tourists who come to marvel at the blazing colours of the autumn leaves and it brings cash dollars in the form of the unctuous, faintly metallic syrup that Americans like to pour all over their breakfast, on waffles and pancakes, but on bacon too. Sounds alarming to English ears, but actually it is rather delicious. Like crack, crystal meth and Chocolate HobNobs, one nibble and you’re hooked for life.

I am a little late for catching the legendary beauty of Vermont’s fall. The best days for ‘leaf peeping’ have gone and the time of maple tapping is yet to come.

What else does Vermont have to offer? Not a thrusting metropolis, that is for sure. Montpelier is the smallest of all the state capitals, with a population of barely eight thousand. The nickname Green Mountain State suggests pastureland, and pasture suggests cows and sheep and goats, and cows and sheep and goats suggest dairy produce – milk, cream and cheese. There is a bastard concoction that dares to call itself ‘Vermont Cheddar’ but that we will ignore, presenting it with the coldest of British shoulders. No, I am in search of a product altogether more desirable, a world more indulgent and disgraceful, wholly addictive and dreadful and proudly American: it is the prospect of this which has me hurtling northwest with the intense concentration and merciless swiftness of a shark streaking towards blood in the water. Except that sharks don’t drool and shout ‘Come to mama!’

It was in 1978 that the two sainted hippies, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield opened their first ice-cream parlour in Burlington, Vermont’s largest town. After many adventures, tribulations and law-suits against Häagen-Dazs they established themselves as just about the best known brand in ice-cream.

The factory in Waterbury, VT, is about thirty miles southeast of Burlington and constitutes Vermont’s single biggest tourist attraction. The moment I arrive I feel like Veruca Salt standing at the gates of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. With golden ticket clutched in fist I want it and I want it now.
I am to be given the freedom of the ingredients cabinet, a chance to mix my own flavour. This is an honour rarely bestowed. It is as if Château Margaux asked me to blend their cabernet sauvignon and merlot for this year’s vintage. Well, all right, it’s nothing whatever like that, but it is a great honour nonetheless.

‘Welcome, Stephen, we’re very excited that you’re here!’ says Sean, the flavorologist. ‘But if you’re gonna mix like a pro, you’d better dress like a pro.’

He hands me a white lab coat while I ponder the task before me.

The base, I decide, should be of good vanilla-bean ice-cream, nothing more fancy than that. To hand are spatulas, spoons and little pots and bags of semi-frozen ingredients: cookie dough, biscuity substances, chocolate in the shape of a cow and so forth. I try to stay calm. I mustn’t be too childish about this, what little dignity I have left is at stake. The temptation to produce a pink confection filled with marshmallows, strawberries and cake mix is strong, but I feel the need to fly the flag for British style and discretion. I find an ingredient called English toffee and swirl it into the vanilla base. Good. Not the kind of hard black toffees Kensington nannies gave children in their prams to keep them quiet while they kissed the footman, but a good start. To this promising base I add chocolate fudge, a gloopy substance that freezes when added to the ice-cream, like a lava flow meeting water. A granulated texture is added with which I feel well pleased.

Very fine – strong, adult, not too sweet, but there’s something missing … I rootle and scrabble, searching for the magic extra ingredient that will transform my mixture into a true flavour, my rough prototype into a working masterpiece. The clock is ticking, for a tour party is about to come in at any moment and I am to feed them and then stand with bowed head to receive their judgement.

Just as I am about to give up and offer my acceptable but now to my mind rather lame decoction my fingers curl around a bag of knobbly somethings. I have found it! It adds crunch, a hint of sophisticated bitterness and a rich musty, nutty centre around which the other flavours can play their unctuous, toffee-like, chocolaty games. Walnuts! I stir them in with my spatula and Sean helps me transfer the giant mixture into small tourist-sized tubs. This is done by squeezing a kind of piping bag. Within seconds I have lost all feeling in my hands.

‘It’s very cold,’ I observe.

‘Many are cold,’ says Sean, ‘but few are frozen.’

Before I have time to throw something at him, the tour party enters.

‘Welcome everybody,’ beams Sean. ‘This is a special occasion. You will be trying a new flavour, mixed by our Guest Flavorist, here. His invention is called …?’

‘Er … I … that is … um …’

‘… is called “Even Stephens”!’ extemporises Sean happily.

I stand meekly, submissively, hopefully while the tourists surge forward to begin the tasting. Despite my humble demeanour, I know, I really know that I have struck gold. There have not been many moments in my life when I have been quite so sure of success. But here, I am convinced, is a perfect blend of flavours.

The tourists agree. Once the filming stops and the camera crew have dived in too there is nothing left of Even Stephens but my memory of a solid-gold vanilla-based triumph.

Stephen, you created an ice-cream flavour. And it was good. Now you may rest.

A TENNESSEE BOLTING HORSE
Georgia: Outside the Spanish moss profusely drips, as it should, from the live oaks and distant cypresses; all is as it ought to be at a plantation house in the Deep South. Except that I am expected to get on a horse.

Blackwater has a celebrated (apparently) stable of Tennessee Walking Horses, a breed of animal unfamiliar to me.

‘Oh they are so gentle and docile and sweet!’ My hosts, with whom I have come to spend Thanksgiving, tell me. ‘Docile’ rhymes with ‘fossil’ in American, which makes it sound even gentler. ‘You will adore them!’

Yes, but they won’t adore me,’ I whine.

‘Nonsense! They are the kindest, calmest horses in the whole wide world. You’ll see.’

We go round to the stables where a large horse called Shadow is being saddled for me.

‘Look,’ I try to explain, ‘for some reason horses really, really don’t like me. No matter how calm and friendly I am they…’

‘Nonsense!’ they all giggle.

I step up from a block and just manage to get my feet in the stirrups before the sweetest, gentlest, most docile horse in the whole wide world screams, bucks and bolts. The family are all so astonished it takes them some little while to realise what has happened. A ‘some little while’ that is filled by me shouting ‘Whoa!’ and pulling as hard on the reins as I dare as below me a ton of mad jumping flesh gathers its hindquarters and prepares to charge a wooden fence. A last desperate yank on the lines and the crazed beast slows down enough to give the others time to catch up and grab it.

Naturally everybody thinks this is hilarious.

‘Well he’s never done that before…’

‘I declare!’

‘Who’d a thunk it?’

‘I should have made it clearer,’ I say. ‘Every time I have ever got on a horse it has ended with the remark you have just made: “He’s never done that before!” “But Snowflake is usually so calm…” There’s something about me and horses. Well. Make the most of the comedy, because that is the last time I shall ever, ever be seen on the back of a horse for the rest of my natural life.’

THE BOARD OF PARDONS AND PAROLES
The judicial and penal systems of the South have always had a quality of their own. Cinema, literature, music and folklore have long revelled in the special cruelties and indignities of crime and punishment, Southern style.

Many years ago, Alabama’s state legislature brought into being in the capital, Montgomery, an institution called the Board of Pardons and Paroles whose job it is to hear both sides of an appeal for parole petitions. By both sides I mean that both the representatives of the convicts and the representatives of their victims get the chance to speak.

I am here to meet three members of the board, Robert Longshore, William Wynne and VeLinda Weatherley. They sit at their long bench, the seal of their office on the wall behind them, exuding Southern charm, courtesy and authority. I cannot believe that any equivalent British institution (were there such a thing) would ever allow a film crew to come poke around their proceedings with so little supervision or bureaucratic impediment. Mr Longshore explains to me in a drawl of stupendous charm that the pardons were the most enjoyable part of their work: as a rule these take the form of applications from criminals long since released who needs a pardon in order to be able to vote or own a gun. Paroles however are an entirely different matter. This is where the pain of crime comes home; this is where the wisdom of Solomon itself cannot guarantee to bring about a happy outcome.

On either side of the back of the tribunal space, which is laid out not unlike a courtroom, there is a door. Each door leads to a waiting room, one for parole petitioners, the other for families and representatives of the victims.

After a few straightforward cases of pardoning, a parole case begins. A family shuffles through the victims’ door. A late-middle-aged woman is so tearful she has to be supported. With them is a pale young white girl who works for an organisation called Victims of Crime and Leniency (VOCAL) who automatically, whatever the circumstances, always support the victims and oppose parole, whatever the case. Their default position is never to favour early release. For any prisoner. Ever.

Through the other door shuffles another, equally distressed family. The young man whose case for parole they are making is not present. The prisoners themselves never are, only their families and occasionally (if they have money, which is rare) their lawyers.

A story emerges that is so sad, so squalid and so unfair that within minutes I (and many in the court, including some of the camera crew) are wiping away tears.

The prisoner is twenty-seven years old and has been in jail since he was seventeen on a charge of manslaughter. He was given a twenty-year sentence. He had been horsing around with a gun when he had shot his fifteen-year-old friend in the head. Apparently it was all part of some game that had got out of hand. No one in the original sentencing court and no one here at the Board believed that it was anything more than a terrible accident. The two boys, the two families, had been friends, but the mother of the dead boy will not hear of clemency for the imprisoned boy.

She stands up now, a central casting picture of tottering maternal woe. She wails, she screams, she cannot put into words her continuing upset and has to be led from the proceedings sobbing and keening. The woman from VOCAL speaks for her. The boy in prison is still alive. He has only served half his sentence. The court wanted him in prison for twenty years, the board should respect that. He should not be allowed even to apply again for another five years, the maximum length.

The family of the imprisoned boy make their case. Their son has served exemplary time: not one punishment for infractions of prison rules. He has learned new trades and has passed examinations. He was never a criminal. What good can be done by keeping him locked up? It was an accident after all, a terrible accident.

To me it is, as they say in America, a slam dunk. Surely the boy must get his parole?

He does not. It is not the Board’s duty to look into the rights or wrongs of sentencing, only to respond to the case as it is. This boy’s first appeal will not be accepted, says Mr Longshore, it is too early.
However his good behaviour is noted and he is therefore given the right to appeal in four years. Another four years of hard time ahead of him.

I am astonished. Astonished that the family of the slain boy should want such revenge against the friend who so tragically took a game too far. It could have been their son who shot the other boy, had fate dealt different cards. Surely they should embrace the boy who killed their son, wouldn’t that help them heal? I am astonished too by the callousness of the woman from VOCAL and her absolute lack of sympathy for the killer. I am no Christian, but I know that the founder of her religion would feel differently. Is it not possible to care for both victim and perpetrator?

I bid farewell to the Board and to Alabama, mixed feelings churning in my breast. Rarely have I met people more charming, more polite and more hospitable. The boy who pumps the gas in the forecourt really does call you ‘sir’, the receptionist at the hotel has a wide smile when she asks ‘how y’all doing?’ and the smile is warm and real. But this is not a place where I would ever want to be poor or independent-spirited, and certainly not a place where I would want to fall foul of the law.

SPY GAMES

Las Vegas, Nevada: I sit in my slate grey and chromium hotel suite fretting about the fact that I haven’t found a way to turn off its real-flame fireplace, but European eco-guilt has as much place in Las Vegas as a stripper at a synod. Less.

The doorbell rings and within seconds I am embroiled in a nightmare of identity, treachery and betrayal. She calls herself Trixie. She wears a raincoat and a fedora. She tells me that I have been selected to act as a double-agent, a mole: my mission is to infiltrate myself within … well, to be perfectly honest with you, quite what I have to infiltrate myself into is for the moment beyond me. Dark powers working against the common good have conspired, that much is clear. The forces of good must be marshalled and the marshalling place is somewhere, it seems, on Howard Hughes Parkway. I have five minutes to get there. Your country needs you.

‘Britain?’

‘America!’ whispers Trixie.

‘Ah.’

‘Remember. At each place you visit there will be a contact. You must give them each one of these tokens. The others cannot know. You must keep your double-agent status secret from them.’

‘The others?’

Trixie and I zip down to the rendezvous in the taxi. I have to let her out before I meet the others, for they must not know that I have been contacted by her. The others, it turns out, are the Chippendales. Yes, the bow-tied male stripping combo that has for years delighted hen nights and Christmas parties the world over.

I am soon plunged into the guts of this ‘Spy Game’. From first to last I have no idea what is going on, but some quality of American-ness seems to allow the Chippendales to be absolutely clear about the whole proceeding. They accept their spy packs and cell phones and cameras as if they do this every day.

Spy games have become all the rage in Las Vegas. They are a structured, if expensive, way of seeing the town, and companies also use them for team-building exercises and the like. One is sent from venue to venue, mostly via the city’s monorail. From Caesar’s Palace to the Mirage, from the MGM Grand to the Flamingo we flit, meeting ‘contacts’ – who turn out to be obvious rain-coated, sun-glassed spooks. I manage to offload two of my mole-tokens before the smartest and most mouthy Chippendale, the ‘team-leader’, stops me, bids me empty my pockets and exposes me to all as the mole. Naturally I change sides immediately and am now a triple-agent.

It is all most confusing, but by the end of the afternoon I at least know Las Vegas better than I ever could have done otherwise.

MORMON CALENDAR BOYS
The unique moral outlook of Las Vegas seem somehow to have penetrated even the fastnesses of the Church of Latter Day Saints. The morning after my adventures in espionage, I arrive at a photo studio somewhere off the Strip to find myself surrounded by semi-naked young men whose more than ordinarily sparkling eyes, unblemished skin, gleaming teeth and air of sexless perfection tell me that they are Mormons, members of a church that forswears sex before marriage and stimulants or narcotics of any kind, from caffeine to nicotine and cocaine. These are all good Mormon boys who have done their ‘missionary work’, in other words they have travelled within America, or beyond, wearing white shirts and dark suits and spreading the word of Mormon. This is the second year of their (strictly topless and genital-free) calendar. It raises money for charity and seems to have won the reluctant acceptance of the Church Elders back in Salt Lake City.

I chat to Cody, a personable nineteen-year-old who is happy to discuss any part of his religion to me. He is surprised and pleased, I think, to learn that I do not find his faith particularly absurd, in the way many mainstream Christians do. I forebear telling him that the reason I do not find Mormonism especially ridiculous is because I find all pretend invisible friends, Special Books and their rules equally ridiculous. Mormon ideas about realms of crystal rebirthing and special underpants are no weirder than the enforcing of wigs and woollen tights on orthodox Jewish women or laws and dogmas about burkhas and Virgin Births. The religion of the Latter Day Saints is not deserving of especial contempt simply because it is newer. It is as barmy as the rest and I cheerfully treat it as such. It has the same impertinent views concerning women and gays, of course, but Cody is clearly embarrassed about this and says with a touch of defensiveness, ‘We aren’t as bigoted as some fundamental Christians.’ Mm. Yes. Well. I bid my farewells and head for Reno and some good old-fashioned hookers.

© Stephen Fry 2008

Stephen Fry in America
Stephen Fry in America on BBC 1 from Sunday October 12th @ 9.00pm

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107 comments on “Stephen Fry in America”

  1. Jessa says:

    “Stephen Fry in America on BBC 1 from Sunday October 11th @ 9.00pm”

    Is this a typo for Sunday October 12th or Saturday October 11th? :)

  2. Is this where the American sequence in Making History comes from, then?

  3. Ed says:

    I think you mean the programme is on on Sunday 12th rather than 11th.

  4. lexid523 says:

    Oh I can’t wait! That is, will it air in America? It’s only a slight hurdle, mind, if it does not, but it would make life a little easier. At any rate, it sounds like you had fun over here!

  5. Rev-Views says:

    Thank you for a wonderful read about a super-country I’m very fond of indeed. I’m looking forward to watching the show itself with great anticipation now.

    Also, what do old-fashioned hookers have in comparison to the new fangled ones?

  6. taluta says:

    My father was offered a job in Australia shortly before I was born, regrettably he turned it down owing to the fact that he was ill, an illness he succumbed to a couple of years after I was born. Instead of being born in SomegodforsakenPlace Australia, I was born in the equally, if not more, godforsaken East London, South Africa….. words fail me! Are we bonding yet Stephen?

    I look forward to getting my hands on a copy of this book as soon as I am able. I trust that it will be available in South Africa. I usually have to especially order your books, which is a bit tiresome, but always worth the wait.

  7. AngloAmericanAlice says:

    I can assure you as someone from NJ that Steve would never say “swell” (not since the 1950s and only the socially clueless said it then), “cute” (only girls say that), or “darn” (only 8 year-olds under the watchful eyes of their religious mothers). In other parts of America maybe, but New Jersey no. If you found any who do, I would very much like to know which part (north, south, central?).

    And growing up in an English household in America, Steve would end up speaking both ways, mixing British and American English (saying both “Mom” and “Mum”), doubling up pronunciations (“Renaissance” with or without the “i”), and arguing over whether there really was a “u” in that word or not, much to the bafflement and amusement of both friends and family. I hope you find that encouraging. Steve doesn’t sound all that bad.

  8. zfiledh says:

    Had it been accomplished before Martial Law, my family would have relocated to the USA and I would be typing this from one of the 50 states. I might have known how to ice skate on a lake instead of slipping and sliding around at one of the two ice skating rinks in Manila. Despite that, I managed to make at least two Americans do a double-take with my un-accented American English. :)

    And don’t fret about the jeering of your fellows, good sir. It’s not unique to Britons: Americans do just about the same to Canadians, if memory serves.

  9. monochromeprincess says:

    Hurrah! Looking forward to the TV series immensely.
    And generous indeed to give the reading several (masses, more like) a free excerpt: another reason, if one was needed, to purchase the fine book in all its written and photographic glory. It is truly an amusing and informative read. =D. Smiles all round.

  10. muchadou says:

    Oh thank you Stephen, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your percipient and perspicuous point-of-view!

    As a Yankee gal living in the UK these 12 years, you should see the rhino-hide I have developed to allow the (crass, boring) British insights about my country and its people to bounce harmlessly back into the smuck (smug muck) like so many buzzing flies. I ripple with glee.

    I have the distant memory an ex-husband (straight from the pages of a Viz comic!) that you have now exorcised completely from my spirit. All hail, Even Stephens. :))

  11. hob says:

    Very much looking forward to seeing this !

  12. Momgoth says:

    There are parts of the US, like in northern/central Appalachia, where people call their mothers “Mum”. My own Mum is from that part of the country. So even though I grew up in New Jersey (on the northern part of the Jersey Shore) myself, it was always Mum and Dad. Oh, and what AngloAmericanAlice said – in our corner of New Jersey, “darn” was only spoken when there were adults around. Sometimes not even then.

  13. sunnydisposish says:

    I don’t think I was meant to be born in America.

  14. bailey says:

    I’m so looking forward to seeing this! And your excursion to the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory is practically a dream date to me! Glad you had such a great time traveling around this magnificent country of ours. It has its great attributes and its deficits but hopefully you were able to see the best of us. Cheers, Stephen! And tell Steve “howdy” for me as well.

  15. markhope says:

    “I have often felt a hot flare of shame inside me when I listen to my fellow Britons casually jeering at the perceived depth of American ignorance, American crassness, American isolationism, American materialism, American lack of irony and American vulgarity.”

    As Aldous Huxley said, “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”

    We give thanks for Stephen, as “Steve” would never have met Hugh and 80s TV would never have been as funny.

  16. BritSwedeGuy says:

    A lovely piece, I can’t (but will) wait to see the series, particularly after seeing Michael Moore’s wonderfully moving Slacker Uprising (http://slackeruprising.com/) which gives me hope once more for those United States.

  17. zfiledh says:

    Read my earlier comment and laughed. I do mean to say I’d have ice skate on a FROZEN lake. If I could do that on an unfrozen one, I’d be in the Guinness books! XD

  18. scrochum says:

    I just finished watching Simon Schama’s The American Future: A History, I believe it is something all people who are looking forward to Stephen’s show would enjoy. He also seems to share Stephens lack of animosity, for want of a better description, of America and its people.

  19. bnt says:

    Just seen the first episode on BBC1: thoroughly engrossing this far, looking forward to the next episode, which I presume will involve one or more Elvii…

  20. vaughny says:

    I’ve just watched the show on the iPlayer. Very good indeed.

  21. Vicus Scurra says:

    Sorry, old chap, much as I love you, the programme was trite drivel, and you should be ashamed of being associated with it. Try as I might, I could not find anything about it that set it aside from the other Palin clones where someone is paid too much money to go somewhere and make superficial comments about it. I hope that your next project marks a return to wit and intelligence.

  22. Wingrove says:

    Mmmm… disappointed with the first installment last night. Too fast and furious. Same states on warranted a few seconds! No depth. In a word: “bland”? A stark contrast to Stephen’s excellent programme on bipolar disorders and Stephen’s own propensity to the condition. Although the juxtapostion of the two is telling given the subject matter of the latter.

    That said, the informal chats are infinitely better than formal interviews thus giving you an insight into real people’s lives so I’ll keep watching.

    Ian.

  23. Criosaidh says:

    Hi all,

    I have just finished watching this, and doing so led me to register with this website.

    I’m afraid I have never been an enormous fan of the USA, due in all probability to their political process and current administration, but this program was superb. I particularly enjoyed the historical background information, which was wonderfully comprehensible and interesting, but did not feel “Dumbed down” in any way.

    Fabulous, Sir Fry, as always.

    Thank you.

  24. Julesdream says:

    I was really looking forward to this programme. I was then appalled by the way
    lobsters were treated. Stephen Fry casually remarking that he had, ‘broken,’ a large claw as if the creature was not alive. He again casually remarked about it being cruel to boil the creatures alive but implied that they were good to eat. He refrained from filming the killing of a deer but lobsters are very intelligent sensitive creatures. Look on the Animal Aid website. Shellfish Network will also provide you with details. Most of the large American food stores have now stopped selling live lobsters as it has been proved that lobsters feel great pain when bolied alive. Very
    disappointing and surprised that Stephen Fry is not more knowledgeable.

  25. Hollie says:

    I am super glad you came to America! I’m glad you liked it too. I’m also slightly jealous because you have seen more of my country than I have. I hope you found my home state (or commonwealth, rather) of Kentucky to be enjoyable.

  26. Liberty says:

    It’s good that the content of the programme differs substantially from that of the book (so far), but still manages pleasantly to echo it. I love learning about America this way, state by state. And I truly can’t think of a better person through whose eyes to see it all. Your enthusiasm, perceptiveness, linguistic sensibility and humour make you perfect for it. Good show.

    If the book and TV series go any way at all to persuading English people out of their blind anti-Americanism, this has been a very noble endeavour indeed — and I thank you for it.

  27. Acer Hartford says:

    Could someone please tell me what Stephen means by “yes they have no idea what cheese or bread can be” because I’m more than usually bewildered by it?

  28. Buffy says:

    (Psst…In the programme, during the DC segment, you said ‘Luckily, the Fourth Amendment guarantees free speech.’ I listened to it a few times in case I’d misheard ‘fourth’ for ‘first’ as the Fourth Amendment guards against unreasonable searches and seizures. Free speech is covered under the First Amendment.)

    I can’t wait for the California segment but, this is proving a very dangerous show for me – I’ve now got to try to talk myself out of buying a Fairway Driver and shipping it to the US!

  29. mick4recycle says:

    if you liked the US states jigsaw in the opening credits ..

    heres a free online variation
    http://www.shockwave.com/gamelanding/fiftystates2.jsp

    by the end of the series youll know most of them

  30. lizp_nm says:

    So far, love the first installment of this series. It is a beautiful, diverse, and complex place. I hope you will also include the Spanish/Mexican history that preceeds the Brits, and established much of the west. So many historians/travelogues forget to mention that the east coast’s history is not much of the lefts sides history.

    Look forward to watching more. Thanks!!

  31. geekchic says:

    As a Fry fan from Baltimore, Maryland I couldn’t wait to see Stephen’s opinion of my little state. I watched with baited breath until he sort of… well, drove though it. Just to let you know lots of lovely things are from the old line state including the “Star Spangled Banner”, Billie Holiday, Edgar Allen Poe, crabcakes, Frank Zappa, the Preakness Stakes, Spiro Agnew (the VP that was too corrupt for Nixon’s White House), John Waters and Micheal Phelps. Oh and the Maryland state flag is certainly the brightest in the nation (perhaps the world?!) and can be spotted from miles away.

  32. jgardiner says:

    Really loved this program. Looking forward to more.

  33. MrPotarto says:

    Acer Hartford,

    Generally speaking, American stores sell a very poor range of cheese, bread and for that matter beer. Cheese tends to come in American, Swiss, (American) Cheddar, or if you feel like something exotic you can have Monterey Jack. There’s a wealth of loaves, but most of them taste of high fructose corn syrup. Beer is usually either Bud, Miller or a couple of others, all of which taste similarly insipid.

    Of course, this is a generalisation. There are many places to get fantastic bread and cheese, and bars that sell wonderful real ale, but they’re usually in the large cities and even then you have to look to find them.

  34. kimmysanders says:

    Bless you sir, for your rather lovely attitude about Americans. I’m often appalled by what some of your countrymen think about us–especially I suppose because I’m such a huge Anglophile. I also hope you enjoyed Kentucky (my home state as well, hello Hollie!)–please tell the world that most of us do indeed wear shoes and have more than three teeth! Much of America refuses to believe that, so I shudder to consider what the Brits think.

    “If you are British, dear reader, then I dare say you too might have been born American had your ancestral circumstances veered a little in their course.” I often think the same thing, only in reverse. Had my great x 11 grandfather James not been such a dogmatic Puritan, I might have been born in Devonshire instead of Kentucky. The vagaries of ancestry, religion, and Henry VIII’s libido, I suppose.

  35. heather_p says:

    Growing up in a British household in North America is strange, let me tell you. I moved to Canada when I was nine and, although both my family and I have actively fought assimilation, I dare say that I have adopted some Canadian-isms. I’m moving back to Britain when I graduate, in another year or two, but I often wonder what sort of person I would be had we not moved . . .

    On another note, it’s great to see a documentary where Americans are not being bashed in some way! They are often mocked for not knowing much about other cultures, but maybe we should learn a bit about theirs before we judge.

  36. Voigt says:

    While reading the book about the series, You mention the Danish architect Eero Saarinen as the one who designed the “gateway arch” in St. Louis, MO – only he wasn’t Danish! He was Finnish…
    I know there’s a lot of facts to be checked in a book like this, but as a Danish reader it stuck out like a sore thumb. I’m sure finnish readers will feel the same way.
    A part from that, I’m really enjoying the book, and it has made me want to go to America and explore. Only ever been to Boston years ago.

  37. Mike Reys says:

    I wished the media would stop depicting the Americans as ignorant, vulgar and not understanding irony as often as they do.
    Not everyone over here (Europe) has the means to meet a lot of Americans, so what we know about them is what comes through the media. I was (pleasantly) surprised that there’s so much more diversity, irony, and refinedness to discover in the US on many visits. So I think we ought to thank you for making an honest and un-biased documentary on the US and its people.

  38. Monty Jeeves says:

    I saw the first episode on I Player earlier on today. It is very good. The Programe is great for fans of Stephen Fry(Like Me!)
    it is also quite amazing, as I am British and really know nothing about America besides a little bit of History. I enjoyed this from start to finish and in particular the part where Stephen Fry was given a Tour of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory.

    I would recommend this to anyone who is curious about the history of America. I will be sure to catch the next episode when it appears on the I Player:)

  39. Revolvingaura says:

    I’ve just finished watching tonight’s episode, and I’m not as pleased at what I saw as I was last week. Not only did Stephen Fry get the date for the American holiday traditionally known as Thanksgiving wrong (I mean talk about ignorant, he just announced to the entire British nation that Thankgiving takes place a full week before it actually does.), he visited my hometown of Miami, and it would appear did not like it very much. Well off course he didn’t. Why would you like something having only skimmed it’s surface. Isn’t a place really about the people and their many varied cultures? Miami is a truly beautiful place, but you wouldn’t know that if you’ve only visited South Beach.

  40. jives11 says:

    Last night I watched the second episode. I’m enjoying this series and wonder if anyone has a list of the incidental music used. In the second episode about the Southern states, a piece of classical music, with distant muted trumpets, accompanied the balloon sequence. It’s vaguely familiar to me, and I’d love to get a recording. There were other pieces used which I liked, and I’d guess they are by American composers.

    If any kind soul has a list of music used in the series I’d be eternally grateful

  41. Alie says:

    Steven Fry, how could you get the date of Thanksgiving wrong? It’s the FOURTH Thursday in November. You were there, you could have counted on your pda!

  42. Golgot says:

    Having caught the baton-twirling end to last night’s show, I feel both you and Steve might enjoy this…

    Pride of Arizona Radiohead Part 1 (Band Camp 2nd Runthrough)
    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=L6wgRqOlxWE

    (This is the best version. It has ‘relentless determination’)

  43. SpeckledJim says:

    “While reading the book about the series, You mention the Danish architect Eero Saarinen as the one who designed the “gateway arch” in St. Louis, MO – only he wasn’t Danish! He was Finnish…
    I know there’s a lot of facts to be checked in a book like this, but as a Danish reader it stuck out like a sore thumb. I’m sure finnish readers will feel the same way.”

    Yup, Voigt. I was devouring the book until that mention of Eero Saarinen (a very typical Finnish name btw) being Danish—as a Finn I was a little bit disillusioned…throwing the book to the floor. How could SF get this wrong? I thought SF knew everything…sniff. Otherwise I am enjoying the book though. There’s much to learn about a huge country like that. One can’t possibly cover everything and if I was an American, I’d probably feel loads of things are left out. But it’s a nice roadtrip kind of book.
    Must get the DVD when it comes out.

  44. Aquae Sulis says:

    Doesn’t the state of Kentucky look fabulous??!

  45. Tom_Redfern says:

    Stephen,
    I just watched your programme episode about the Mississipi with great interest. In it, you visited the state of Minnesota, where you called on a sheep’s cheese farm.

    You expressed your loathing of US cheese, a subject that has plagued me on my many trips t the States. Just how do they manage to make one of life’s fundamental food products so inedible? It is so bland, so without taste and character that I have given it a name – CONFO – which stands for ‘Cheese Of No Fixed Origin’.

    Best Regards.

  46. adityad says:

    Hi Stephen,
    I am writing this from a hotel room in Amsterdam. I just enjoyed a segment of your show (in America) on BBC2 but I was sorely disappointed about the tiny segment on Wisconsin. You should make your way to Madison and see the giant college town. Crazy sports fanatics and American Football.

  47. Lesley says:

    I have loved the series so far, and as I have always had a very big soft spot for America, it is lovely to see it being treated with such tender loving care.

    I was involved in organising a convention for jazz festival organisers in New Orleans back in 1991 and spent a couple of weeks there for the convention. I fell in love with the place and the people I met. Though it was obvious at the time that NO was not on the radar for many Americans, and was a city that had many problems. Coming from Liverpool I know what it is like to live in a culturally vibrant city, but one that has seen better times economically.

    I was therefore saddened at the change in attitude to America from Europe – mainly due to W’s attitude – and after all the public sympathy after 9/11. so when Katrina came along I found it impossible to get any fundraising done, because the general thought was that USA should look after its own. Well that wasn’t going to happen was it! And Stephen’s programme ably demonstrated how much of NO has been left to rot.

    Sadly though Stephen missed the main raison-d’etre of NO, namely Jazz music! OK Voodoo is part of the fabric of the place, but not to mention Jazz…tut tut!

    Apart from that, a great series.

  48. bubbedude says:

    I really love this series. Fry is a perfect host. Almost better than Palin. An Island of civilization in a world gone mad.
    I hope this is the beginning of more world travels for Fry.

  49. racheldavis7 says:

    I am really enjoying the first episode, being a New Englander by birth and heritage. I do think Stephen missed out on quite a bit by zipping through so quickly (my part of New Hampshire was missed entirely, as were the parts of Maine and Massachusetts where I went to school), though I am a bit biased. A few quibbles:
    1) New York is NOT part of New England, as was insinuated.
    2) Of the 19 accused witches that were killed in the Salem Witch Trials, only 18 were women. The 19th accused “witch” was Giles Corey, a male. They pressed him to death (big heavy rocks on his chest).

    Regardless, I’m still looking forward to seeing more. Quite enjoyable and informational. I recc’d it to the Social Studies teacher with whom I team-teach.

  50. agneau says:

    very interesting and enjoyable programme, just a pity i have to tune into the BBC to watch it.

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