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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