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On the road to nowhere

If nothing else, Fry's ramble proves that class is alive and kicking in the US

<strong>Stephen Fry

In hard times, people watch more television and they don't go on holiday, which means, in theory, that Stephen Fry's new series (Sundays, 9pm) will get nice ratings. Around Britain, people will sit in front of it, eating their Domino's pizzas and drinking their Lidl cava, and dream of what they are missing now that Virgin flights to New York and beyond no longer seem the bargain they were five minutes ago: the fall of leaves in New England, the rattle of slot machines in Nevada, the whirr of cicadas in sticky old Georgia.

Then again, perhaps, like me, they will be struck by its weird pointlessness and try to find an old episode of Taggart on ITV3 instead. Fry, in his adorably tight knitwear, never fails to charm, of course, but I'm still damned if I can work out the point of this travelogue, with its whistle-stop visits and its fondness for emblems: lobsters in Maine, cabbies in Queens, rich old bags in Newport. Did he just fancy a break, or what?

And then, of course, there is the fact that he is touring the Land of the Free in a London taxi. Why? This sort of gimmick drives me nuts, and I found myself fantasising that unwittingly he might have hired one of the kind recently found to have a fault that causes unpredictable engine explosions. I longed for him to leave the elegant confines of the Mount Washington Hotel in New Hampshire (where, credit-crunch junkies, the World Bank was established at the Bretton Woods conference of 1944) only to find his precious cab smoking like a bit of brisket on a Texan barbecue. Then it occurred to me that he'd only end up hiring another cliché instead - a red Corvette, probably - and I calmed down. For a bit.

When he picked up Sting in New York for the sole reason that he once sang a song called "An Englishman in New York", I started getting worked up again. Sting told Fry that countless cover versions of this infinitely boring track have been made, in which the Englishman becomes a Croatian, a Greek, a Sikh, whatever. And he gets a royalty cheque every time! Tell me this: is there anyone alive who wants to hear about the size of Sting's royalty cheques?

But back to Fry's journey. Part one took him through New England, and it was all pretty dull - his trip to Ben & Jerry's ice-cream factory in Vermont being a particular low - until he got to Newport, Rhode Island, at which point I snapped back to life. Fry, or his researchers, had found a serious bit of old money in the form of a woman whose first name appeared to be Oatsy (no subtitle was forthcoming), who lived in a converted barn that was attached to a house where Edith Wharton had once resided.

Oatsy, as far as I could gather, had grown up in the big house long, long ago. Crikey, she was magnificent. I do love it when the American class system, that thing that isn't supposed to exist, is revealed in all its sharp-toothed glory. There is nothing quite like an American snob, and I should know: I once interviewed Gore Vidal.

Oatsy, nails painted the colour of blood, fingers as gnarled as ginger roots, took a cocktail with Fry and told him about the good old days, when she had servants. Then Fry brought up the subject of the Kennedys. Now, in old Newport circles, the Kennedys are thought of, not as American aristocracy, but as Boston Irish, which is to say, common as muck. "Well, I went to the wedding," said Oatsy (she meant John and Jackie's). "And it was too funny. It was really so awful." She then denounced the entire Kennedy clan for being overdressed at an event that was "only", after all, a wedding. Fry denounced Joe Kennedy, JFK's pop, as a racketeer. "Attractive, though . . ." she said, sly as a snake.

In episode two (19 October), Fry heads for the Deep South. I do hope he finds Oatsy's equivalent there - or at least the kind of woman who, over a mint julep, will be moved to condemn General Sherman as a war criminal.

Pick of the week

Timewatch: Young Victoria
18 October, 8.10pm, BBC2Brilliant film about Queen Vic before she started to resemble a potato.

Bond: the South Bank Show
22 October, 10.40pm, ITV1
Who has better hair: Craig or Bragg?

Mum, Heroin and Me
23 October, 9pm, Channel 4
A mother's relationship with her addicted daughter. Harrowing.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, My year with Obama

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SRSLY #14: Interns, Housemaids and Witches

On the pop culture podcast this week, we discuss the Robert De Niro-Anne Hathaway film The Intern, the very last series of Downton Abbey, and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel Lolly Willowes.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

Listen to our new episode now:

...or subscribe in iTunes. We’re also on Audioboom, Stitcher, RSS and  SoundCloud – but if you use a podcast app that we’re not appearing in, let us know.

SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s web editor and editorial assistant. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

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If you’d like to talk to us about the podcast or make a suggestion for something we should read or cover, you can email srslypod[at]

You can also find us on Twitter @srslypod, or send us your thoughts on tumblr here. If you like the podcast, we'd love you to leave a review on iTunes - this helps other people come across it.

The Links

On The Intern

Ryan Gilbey’s discussion of Robert De Niro’s interview tantrums.

Anne Helen Petersen for Buzzfeed on “Anne Hathaway Syndrome”.


On Downton Abbey

This is the sort of stuff you get on the last series of Downton Abbey.


Elizabeth Minkel on the decline of Downton Abbey.



On Lolly Willowes

More details about the novel here.

Sarah Waters on Sylvia Townsend Warner.


Next week:

Caroline is reading Selfish by Kim Kardashian.


Your questions:

We loved reading out your emails this week. If you have thoughts you want to share on anything we've discussed, or questions you want to ask us, please email us on srslypod[at], or @ us on Twitter @srslypod, or get in touch via tumblr here. We also have Facebook now.



The music featured this week, in order of appearance, is:

i - Kendrick Lamar

With or Without You - Scala & Kolacny Brothers 

Our theme music is “Guatemala - Panama March” (by Heftone Banjo Orchestra), licensed under Creative Commons. 

See you next week!

PS If you missed #13, check it out here.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.