Stephen Fry: Inquisitive Documentaries

Stephen-FryStephen Fry is described on the box of this collection as “Britain’s national treasure” and the documentaries presented here go some way to demonstrating why. Whether sweating in the jungle or exploring a traditional paper mill in Italy, Fry is witty, charming and urbane. This is a slower, more measured style of TV from what viewers of American-style documentaries might be used to – but once you adjust (or if, like me, you get impatient with the pervasiveness of reality-TV-style drama-at-all-costs) it’s very engaging.

This box set collects together two series (Stephen Fry in America and Last Chance To See) that he made between 2007 and 2009, along with a pair of TV specials – Return Of The Rhino and Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press. They’re all eminently watchable, and Fry is an engaging host. If there’s one thing to complain about, it’s that the box perhaps misleads you into thinking you’re getting more than you are – Return of the Rhino is essentially just an extra episode of Last Chance To See, and The Gutenberg Press (while fascinating) is a single 56 minute TV special. That said, I’d still highly recommend it, especially if you’re already a Stephen Fry fan.

Stephen Fry In America

As Stephen Fry says in his introduction to this series, he was very nearly born an American. Just before Fry was born, his father was offered a job at Princeton University, in New Jersey, but chose to turn it down in favour of Hampstead. Out of an abiding fascination with the homeland he never had, Stephen Fry travels America in a black London cab, visiting each of the States in turn in an attempt to define the essence of the USA.

This turns out to be a difficult task. America is a stupendously huge country, and at a mere 6 episodes (albeit long ones) the series was always going to struggle to do justice to all the places Fry visited. As a result, the episodes feel incredibly dense (binge-watching them in order to write this review left me feeling like I had mental indigestion for a couple of days) and yet some of the states feel like they receive only the most cursory attention. In the end, it comes down to what Stephen Fry was interested in at the time, so your enjoyment is probably going to be fairly proportional to how much you personally agree with him. Fortunately for me, that was most of the time.

Stephen Fry is a practitioner of tact at all costs – he never disagrees with any of his hosts (at least, to their faces) and rarely directly criticises what he sees. If you’re looking for a Louis Theroux-style interrogation of the darker parts of America, you’d be better off elsewhere. Fry also has a somewhat simplistic and very English view of the essential America he’s looking for – big, brash, magnificent, and slightly ridiculous. This does add to the slightly shallow feeling of the series, but I found that his genuinely open-hearted sense of wonder and poetic turn of phrase counterbalanced this enough to keep me on board. It helps that the series is beautifully shot and evocatively (at times hypnotically and hauntingly) scored.

This is neither an effectively encyclopedic look at America, nor Stephen Fry’s best work. It is an engaging look at a fascinating and diverse country, presented by an entertaining host who is himself often entranced and delighted by what he sees. Recommended, especially if you’re already a Stephen Fry fan.

EXTRAS: Previously unseen bonus footage

DIRECTOR(S): John Paul Davidson, Michael Waldman | COUNTRY: UK | YEAR: 2008 | RUNNING TIME: 375 minutes in total | ASPECT RATIO: 16:9

Last Chance To See and Return Of The Rhino

In 1989, author Douglas Adams embarked on a trip with zoologist Mark Carwardine on a round-the-world trip to seek out endangered animals. This was documented as a radio series (and accompanying book) called Last Chance To See. 20 years later (and 8 years after Douglas Adams’ untimely death) Stephen Fry sets out on a new journey with Mark Carwardine, to see how the animals he documented in 1989 have been faring. Each episode they travel to a new location in search of one of the animals from the original series, and take in any incidental wildlife they come across on the way.

Stephen Fry is (as he says a number of times in the course of the series) not a natural choice for this sort of adventure. Very much a city creature, he misses his comforts and manages to break his arm about halfway through the first episode. In contrast, Mark Carwardine has always been fascinated with animals and has traveled extensively in order to photograph them. The evolving relationship between these two men (who each find the other initially somewhat intimidating) is a charming bonus, but the main focus is of course the animals.

Because the locations are so varied, the incidental wildlife often ends up being as interesting as the creature they’ve come to try to find. Trying, it turns out is a major part of this exercise as many of the animals they are looking for were elusive to begin with, and have become rarer over the last 20 years – but with such engaging presenters, the wandering about phases are very watchable. New Zealand audiences will particularly enjoy the Kakapo episode – if for no more reason than the novelty of seeing New Zealand and hearing the accent crop up in a non-NZ-produced series.

This is not whizz-bang documentary making in the Discovery Channel mould – even the formidable komodo dragon is described, rather than shown in action. However, in my view complaining about this would be to miss the point. Stephen Fry’s strength as a presenter is his enthusiasm, and this comes into full force here. Mark Carwardine is a font of information, and manages to keep him seemingly permanently enthralled – it’s a lot of fun to watch.

One of the more heart-breaking episodes focuses on the Northern White Rhino – which is declared extinct in the wild while the crew are in the country. In 2010, four Northern White Rhinos were sent home to Africa from a zoo in the Czech Republic. Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine return to document the process in Return Of The Rhino. This is essentially an extra-long postscript episode to the previous series. It’s a fascinating look at the many logistical struggles involved in a project of this kind, and provides an uplifting coda to the original series.

I’d recommend both of these – especially to fans of the older style of British natural history programmes, and of course to fans of Stephen Fry.

EXTRAS:Deleted scenes from Last Chance To See

DIRECTOR(S): John Paul Davidson, Tim Green | COUNTRY: UK | YEAR: 2009 | RUNNING TIME: Last Chance To See – 375 minutes; Return Of The Rhino – 71 minutes | ASPECT RATIO: 16:9

Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press

When the first printing press was built in the 1450s, it changed the world. Within a matter of decades there were presses all over Europe and the number of books in circulation skyrocketed. All this came from the work of one man, Johann Gutenberg. In this series, Stephen Fry travels to Germany to see what he can find out about Gutenberg, and commissions a modern-day craftsman to build a replica press, so he can do some printing of his own.

Gutenberg’s story is a fascinating one, with recognisably modern elements (industrial espionage and betrayal-in-business most notably) and Fry is clearly enjoying himself as he travels around significant sites and uncovers details. Back in England, the process of building the press itself is also incredibly interesting. Gutenberg’s original prototype was built before machined parts were available, so all the parts (screw threads etc.) need to be hand-made from wood. Stephen Fry also makes a side trip to a traditional paper mill so they can have authentic medieval-style linen paper to work with, and tries his hand at the arcane art of punch-cutting.

This is a fascinating look at a piece of technology that changed the world when it was built, and hardly seems less magical operating today. Highly recommended.

No extras

DIRECTOR(S): Patrick McGrady | COUNTRY: UK | YEAR: 2008 | RUNNING TIME: 56 minutes | ASPECT RATIO: 16:9

Available on DVD from Madman Entertainment.

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