Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Stephen Fry in America, Episode Two: The Deep South

Stephen Fry in America
Episode 2, The Deep South
The original air date for this episode on BBC One was October 19, 2008.

In this, the second part of Stephen Fry in America, Stephen leaves the hustle and bustle of the busy eastern United States and heads for the more laid back life of the Deep South.  In this episode, Stephen encounters colorful locations and even more colorful people.

Our first stop is the state of Virginia where Stephen watches a military parade at Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day. 

Next, we move on to West Virginia.  Stephen gives us the story of the Mason-Dixon line and actually takes us to the stone marking the line itself.  For something that is so famously referred to by many in the South, the Mason-Dixon line is in a remote location with not even a formal sign marking it.  Stephen next visits a coal mine where he gears up and goes down into the mine with the brave men who work it.  It is a dark and frightening place he goes into.  It's like a hot, black and endless tomb.  And with all the recent stories of mine cave-in's that have been in the U.S. news, I can't help but look at the faces in this episode and wonder if they are all still alive.  They truly are brave men.

After leaving West Virginia, we enter the state of Kentucky.  Stephen takes some time to look over the horse flesh in the state.  He speaks with a young man who actually has a tattoo of the state of Kentucky on his posterior.  Now, I'm sure we all love where we live but, really, would you have where you live tattooed on your heiny?  Stephen attends an auction at a horse trading house and later talks to the auctioneer about the method of speaking during the auction.  Stephen is quite fascinated by the fast way of speaking of the auctioneer.  After a drive through a Kentucky rain shower he visits the Woodford Reserve Kentucky Bourbon Distillery for a tour and a tasting session where he appears to have a very good time.  One of the crew had to drive him home after that session, I bet.  Next, we go to London, Kentucky to a barber shop where he talks with the locals and even tries out the Kentucky accent while getting his hair cut.

Stephen next heads to Kentucky's neighbor to the south, Tennessee.  He visits a former school on a Friday evening to listen to Bluegrass Music being played and enjoyed by the locals.  He learns to pronounce the name of a Bluegrass band he's listening to and is told by one of the players that "ya'll talk funny over there" meaning Stephen has a funny accent.  Next, Stephen heads to Knoxville to visit the Department of Forensic Anthropology or the 'body farm' at the University of Tennessee.  This isn't a place you'd want to visit on your yearly family vacation.  It isn't even a place you'd want to think about visiting.  Here, the University of Tennessee has a collection of dead bodies that are left out in the elements to decompose.  Forensic students use the over 180 bodies to learn about forensics and the decomposition of the human body.  It's a gruesome and frightening place but, at the same time, a very positive and hopeful place.  It's comforting to think that the important work being done at the U of T "body farm" goes a long way to helping the loved ones of those who have died horrible deaths the closure and peace they need.

On to North Carolina and the Smokey Mountain National Park where he sees a black bear in a tree chewing a branch to get a great stash of berries.  Stephen takes a balloon ride over the Mountains to see them from the air.  The sights the camera catches from over a mile into the air are stunning.  It is fall when Stephen visits North Carolina so all the trees are a blaze of red, orange, yellow and green as far as the eye can see.  They go down to treetop level and Stephen is able to lean over the edge of the basket and pick a leaf from a tree.  Sometimes, from the air is the best way to view the beauty of the mountains.

Next, to the lowland coast of South Carolina and Gullah culture.  Gullah is a culture brought to America by the slaves.  He speaks with Anita Singleton-Prather, a descendant of slaves brought to the United States from Africa and a Gullah expert.  She defines Gullah as "the blending of different cultures of West Africans that were brought here with that of the Europeans that became the masters of the plantations with the Native Americans that were the originals owners of the property and the plantations".  She gives us a treat of speaking a bit of the Gullah language.  She's an amazing woman.

Stephen visits Georgia on Thanksgiving day.  He spends the day at an old southern Georgia plantation with the family that owns it.  He rides Shadow, a Tennessee Walking Horse.  Shadow is described as a very gentle horse, especially for people who don't know how to ride.  However, when Stephen gets on the horse, Shadow just has to start galloping instead of just leisurely walking.  He speaks with two ladies, one who is a young 91 and 98.  Their grandfather fought in the United States Civil War.  Later, Stephen stands by as the family sings "America the Beautiful".  Then, now that the deep fried turkeys are done Stephen has Thanksgiving dinner with the family.

Next, we hit the state of Florida where Stephen goes to Miami, a city he clearly is not fond of.  He thinks it a "hole" and says it isn't his kind of city.  It is "horrible, horrible concrete buildings".  He heads to Miami Beach hoping it isn't quite as "revolting".  I get the impression that Miami and Miami Beach are two places Stephen will not be visiting for pleasure very often.  He stops in at a "Snowbird" party of retired people who migrate to Florida for the winter.  Stephen hates dancing and sees the party as the "living embodiment of Hell".  Next, he's off to take a ride out into the Everglades.

Our final stop is the state of Alabama.  Stephen makes a stop in Montgomery and sits in at a Pardons and Paroles session.  This is another bit of Stephen Fry in America that focuses on the darker, gritter part of American life.  It isn't something you want to attend on your family vacation.  He listens to some of the cases and what the friends and loved ones as well as the victims have to say in behalf of the prisoners.  Stephen attends one of the most extravagant and insane displays in southern culture:  a football game.  He stops in to the Auburn University Stadium for a game between Auburn University and the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.  Stephen describes he whole event:  "I really don't know if anything sums up America better.  It's simultaneously preposterous, incredibly laughable, impressive, charming, ridiculous, expensive, overpopulated, wonderful, American."  I must agree that "preposterous, incredibly laughable, ridiculous, expensive and overpopulated" are perfect ways to describe the spectacular that is sports in the South.

Stay tuned for the next part of Stephen Fry in America when we visit the "Mighty Mississippi River".

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