The Englishman abroad is a documentary formula that has never lost its appeal; the comic, stereotypical insularity of England might be partly to blame. This format has been practised and perfected by Alistair Cooke and Michael Palin, and Karl Pilkington has more recently taken the English distrust of anything foreign to parodic heights.
Stephen Fry is perfect for this role, as we saw a few years ago in Stephen Fry in America, in which he gleefully visited every state. Some were given a lot of attention, others warranted a sentence or two, but the show just worked.
— Stephen Fry (@stephenfry) August 27, 2015
His new show, Stephen Fry in Central America, sees Fry travelling around what he calls “Uncle Sam’s backyard,” in an old school bus. Episode 1 is a rapid (some would say too rapid) tour around Mexico. Fry distinguishes himself from the Karl Pilkingtons of this world by clearly wanting to be there, bringing a boyish glee and impressive level of amateur Spanish.
There are plenty of obligatory expressions of amazement, ranging from “that’s absolutely spectacular,” all the way through to “that’s heavenly.” A dutiful watcher of these types of travel documentaries (excluding those of Pilkington) would be excused for thinking that all food outside of England is heavenly. But Fry also adds his own frequent touches of light comic relief. Whilst preparing to zip-line across Copper Canyon (“Arizona, eat your heart out,” according to Fry, after describing it as “absolutely spectacular”) he informs us all that “I’m not a coward, I’m just very afraid.” Another clue as to what makes this genre so immortal might be found in our justly celebrated gifts for sarcasm and irony.
A jam-packed episode
He certainly packs a lot into one hour. Not content with merely watching an unusual and exotic Mexican dance (another staple of the genre), Fry joins in. He also manages to cameo as a butler (Jeeves!) in a Mexican soap opera, but has to remain silent due to trade union laws. There is even a nod to Fry’s recent admission, namely that he once (or twice, or thrice) snorted cocaine in Buckingham Palace. Invited to try a hallucinogenic drug called peyote, he politely declines, on the grounds that, “My mind expanding days are over. My mind is starting to shrink as a result of earlier expansion.”
The episode has periodic references to the darker side of Mexican life; the drug wars and the institutionalised political corruption, two horrors that are by no means completely separate issues. Driving into Michoacán, Fry ominously informs us that this state is home to a notoriously brutal drug cartel, the ‘Knights Templar’, before abruptly and cheerfully marveling at the splendors of a particularly miraculous butterfly migration. I think he is right to emphasise the culture, food and flora of Mexican life, but it also would have been interesting to learn more about the sordid and corrupt underbelly of the society.
He does attend one demonstration that is ostensibly about the horrific ‘disappearance’ of 43 students, but which is also a protest against the general state of Mexican politics. Fry gets emotional, and this is clearly not affected, but it would have been nice to have been told a little more about the source of these discontents. However, this is often the sign of a good documentary; it makes you want to learn more about a subject. Time constraints have always been the main drawback to the documentary form. Attempting to adequately represent a country as large, varied and interesting as Mexico in one hour is always going to be difficult, but this, so far, is a valiant effort.
Episode 2, covering Belize, the Caribbean and Guatemala, airs on Thursday 3rd September on ITV at 9pm.