Stephen Fry in America Blu-ray Review
PictureAs many would expect of something made especially for TV, this series presents itself to us in a standard widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio. It is also 1080i, though how much of a problem that is for you may depend upon how you think such TV shows should be best transferred to Blu-ray. On to the matter of the picture quality and things appear to be as varied as the programme itself. Let me state for the record that judging the picture quality to a point where I can discover any hard and fast rules of the transfer was/is nigh on impossible. This being a documentary, there are no consistent lighting techniques used or similarities between shots. Couple this with much of the hurried nature of the series and the task became one of constant pausing and re-watching of shots that often lasted no more than seconds.
Positives can be quickly gleaned though as colours are good for the most part and skin tones are extremely natural and when well lit contain great detail. A quick look at the faces of the parole board in episode two shows up even minor skin imperfections extremely well. It is when we move away from decent bright interior lights that things become less clear, literally. Exterior scenes in the sunshine come to life pleasantly enough, though those expecting Planet Earth visuals I'm afraid will be sorely disappointed. However this being an on the road style affair there were always likely to be several low light scenes and here the difference is obvious. The camera used struggles to pick up any detail due to the insufficient light and we are left with what looks like a pebble dashed washed out water colour. It is at these moments when you can honestly wonder what the benefits of this version are over those of an upscaled DVD.
Many exterior scenes in daylight also suffer somewhat due to the lack of still shots. Often the tripod is forgone in favour of shooting out of a dirty car window whilst driving. Trying to pick flaws with the picture here is frankly a nightmare, as first you have to make your way past the dirt and reflections on the windows. I understand the idea was to create the feeling of one going on a road trip with Fry and thus seeing things from his perspective but the New England fall surely deserves a little better, especially on Blu-ray. In short there are so many inconsistencies here that it's almost impossible to judge, but judge I must; for every decent shot from the air that takes in a glorious vista in rich colours, there are half a dozen others that fall short of this mark.
SoundThe sound offering is far more agreeable in its consistency though. Here we are presented with an English (obviously) DTS Master Audio 2.0 track. As one would expect things are crisp, clear and Fry's voice is never less than distinct, as his tones should be. There is little in the way of extra noises that add much to the atmosphere other than the score which has a good degree of roundedness to it. For a TV show I was pleased to see a lossless track but much like some of the photography one wonders whether this really warranted it. An excellent track that is just lacking in sounds to reproduce.
ExtrasThere is only really one extra, that being unseen footage, stretched across the two discs. However for the sake of being thorough I shall list each scene separately.
The Peabody duck hotel, Memphis Tennessee - 1:43
Essentially we watch some ducks being ushered from a rooftop, into an elevator, and then down into a water feature in the hotel.
Judd's winery, Napa Valley, California - 4:55
Fry partakes in a little wine tasting. Other than making the distinction between American and European wine you'll most likely have watched a scene like this in a dozen or so programmes in the past year or so.
Oyster fishing with John Tesovic in the bayous of Louisiana - 4:55
We hear from a descendant of Croatian immigrants and how his family found work.
Left right center dice game in Eastport Maine - 1:56
Essentially we watch a gambling game take place on a pool table in a bar.
Whale talk with author Nathaniel Philbrick in Nantucket, Massachusetts - 2:39
Fry visits an island that was once the whaling capital of the world. We don't see anything of great interest although the whale skeleton in the background could warrant a pause.
Pilgrim father on The Mayflower in Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts - 5:05
A man with a truly odd accent, dressed as one of the founding fathers, talks about settling in America as if it were the present day. One funny moment occurs when Fry forgets which of our Kings was on the throne at the time of The Mayflower's journey.
Collectively this might be worth a watch if you have found the series to your liking, however for those who were looking for a more meaty insight this remains fairly lightweight fare, scenes obviously not deemed up to the standard of the rest of the footage and thus failed the final cut.
VerdictI came to review this as an avid fan of Fry and will remain so, however this woefully under uses his talents, selling him short in so many ways. This is made all the more galling when you realise this series shared a Director with many of the recent, poetically beautiful, Palin travelogues. Once again then, I hark back to my appraisal of this series instead, as a love letter from Fry to America. It is very much a postcard of a nation when compared to other BBC offerings that have been more akin to true travel diaries. That a teaming of a great director and presenter cannot between them produce something more deserving of the subject they are representing, is wholly depressing and merely highlights the flaws in the overall concept and subsequent pacing of the format. Had they been given at least twelve hour long episodes in which to look at fifty states, then perhaps they would still have fallen down as the task is simply too great. At least those extra hours would have allowed for more stable framed shots of the glorious scenery and a lot more time for Fry to tease out something more interesting from those he interviewed.
That the disc itself fares little better is merely salt in the wound. This was never going to be a feature packed extras extravaganza but an additional twenty odd minutes of footage is hardly a grand selling point. However, for those who enjoyed the series when it aired I'm sure you have already disregarded my take on things and will be rushing out to buy this already, my one piece of advice though would be to ask yourself how much the Blu-ray version will give you over the DVD. Personally I'll take the book every time.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £39.99
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