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British TV’s Nasty Spin on the U.S. (Part 2)

Stephen Fry in America is an annoying BBC series that's obsessed with exposing all the country's warts. (Read part one here.)

by
Carol Gould

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February 10, 2009 - 12:00 am
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Stephen Fry, who loves Americans, nevertheless irritated me in his BBC America series, for which he traveled across the U.S.

I will not go into a scrutiny of every visit to the fifty states, but is it not significant that my beautiful hometown, Philadelphia, is omitted from his journey altogether and that Louis Theroux, in his own BBC program, spends an hour showing us one mercilessly violent section of the City of Brotherly Love?

Fry travels across the American continent in a London black cab, most of the time looking like a weary, disheveled tramp. However, because Americans do adore anyone and anything British, he is given a royal welcome wherever he ventures. I kept wanting to take him to a barber.

In his first sojourn he visits New England and correctly observes that Britain could learn from the United States as he watches democracy unfold during the 2008 New Hampshire primary. Likewise he reminds us that Britain and Germany reaped benefits from the 1944 Bretton Woods conference in Mount Washington. What is notable about Fry’s peregrinations is the generosity of spirit afforded him, bordering at times on obsequiousness and, at its worst, reverence. How many expatriate Americans would love to be treated this way in Britain! (My most recent encounter with a cab driver: “You people don’t do yourselves any favors, do you? I mean, you don’t do much to make anyone like you!” Hmmm.)

Fry meets Peter Gomes, the black, gay, and Republican chaplain of Harvard University, who greets him as if the prince of Wales himself had graced his presence; we are told that “America had to make up its past.” This annoys me: it is a discourse into which Yanks place themselves when they meet Europeans, as if they have to apologize for being American. Inasmuch as many nations have tried to devise constitutional aspirations on the Jeffersonian model, the majesty of the Founding Fathers’ prose was hardly “made up.”

Fry quotes Gore Vidal: “The Pilgrims went to the New World to persecute” and introduces us to a real Salem witch. This is where the series goes horribly wrong for me. There is so much to see in the United States — its remarkable cultural institutions, orchestras, art collections, museums, and theaters, for one — and Fry spends six weeks touring with oddballs and vulgar specimens who are on the margins of society.

He dismisses my beloved childhood haven, Atlantic City, as a collection of “trashy, tawdry palaces” and fails to see the charm of the famous old boardwalk. “I personally find the whole business vulgar, tasteless, and desperately sad,” he says, an observation I found “desperately sad” because the place brought so much cheer to my late mother’s declining years. She was a supremely cultured woman — the quintessential intellectual, a respected Philadelphia teacher, and even a snob — but she adored her bus trips “down the shore” where she always beat the casino. In the 1800s Atlantic City was a resort frequented by impoverished immigrants and everyone went home happy. Stephen Fry is a foodie and had he had an American script editor he would have discovered the exquisitely delicious James’ salt water taffy, its historic factory in the same location since the mid-eighteenth century. It thrives amid the credit crisis. Oh, Stephen, how blind is a man who cannot see.

Fry goes to Washington, D.C., and refers to the points of interest as “nationalistic symbols.” I know my British friends of many years’ standing think Americans are “nationalistic,” but I challenge any nation on earth to boast as inspiring a spot as the Lincoln Memorial. James Wales, the head of Wikipedia, tells Fry, “America has a very bad reputation all around the world for various reasons.” (I suspect Wikipedia labeled an entry an anonymous admirer had made for me “not noteworthy” because James found out I am a flag-waving patriot.)

In Gettysburg we are told that the great address was “made over the bodies of slaves.” Puzzled, I tried to work out what was meant by this and did a considerable amount of research. Being a Pennsylvanian I could not understand how a slave-free state could have their bodies interred. What I did discover was the fact that nineteenth-century black men and women owned real estate in Gettysburg and that it was a crucial link in the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War three thousand Confederate white corpses were disinterred by free blacks and returned to their home states below the Mason-Dixon Line.

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