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Stephen Fry in America

Stephen Fry in America

Brian Donaldson finds likeable amateurs and accomplished pros poking around America

With the USA on the brink of its most epoch-making presidential election since the one four years ago, chances are that Afghan cable networks and Iraqi terrestrial channels will be doing their utmost to ignore the ensuing bunfight between Barack and John Boy. Upon these shores, however, Brits were never likely to go anything other than ape over the battle for US hearts, minds and dwindling paychecks as Dubya prepares to make his less than tearful farewells.

Chances are that George the Second isn’t a huge fan of John Adams, the man who served two terms as George Washington’s Vice-President before being elected to the big chair himself in 1797. For Bush, Adams was surely too much of a woolly liberal who was less than keen on tarring and feathering (the waterboarding of its day) while seeking to ease his nation away from the ‘special relationship’ it had with Britain (albeit one where the Brits were calling the tune, often in a bloody fashion).

In the multi-Emmy winning John Adams (More4, Sat 4 Oct, 5.30pm) ••••, the doe eyes of Paul Sideways Giamatti turn into piercing flames of Founding Father ambition. As Adams, he plays a mild-mannered but determined pioneer seeking freedom for his own people and trying to quash injustice wherever he sees it, even making himself incredibly unpopular for representing some British soldiers charged with firing into a crowd of uppity Bostonians. Occassionally threatening to topple into mawkish, string-laden sentimentality (the executive producer credit list doesn’t feature Tom Hanks for nothing, you know?), the mini-series stays onside with excellent dialogue (Deadwood without the Dadaist profanity) and measured performances from Laura Linney as the second First Lady Abigail Adams, Stephen Dillane being Thomas Jefferson and Tom Wilkinson playing Benjamin Franklin. John Adams is the kind of thing that instantly gets dubbed ‘epic’ because it’s about the past and has acres of screen time devoted to it. On this occasion though, they’re spot on.

John Adams would probably have furrowed his brow over today’s US penal system and while at first it appears the makers of America’s Toughest Prisons (Five, Mon 6 Oct, 10pm) •• are expressing a similar disdain, at the root of it all, they’re simply revelling in the fear-laden physical and psychological squalor within those walls. Claiming to ‘unlock the truth’ about some of the country’s most notorious ‘correctional facilities’, the fact that they are able to get cameras right into jail cells to capture the all-angle ‘tension’ between new prisoners and hardened brutes makes proceedings appear as likely as Bagpuss playing live and unplugged at San Quentin.

Even more unlikely is a week going by without a comedian grabbing their passport on the back of a tidy commission to head off into some uncharted televisual waters. Paul Merton is jaunting around India for Five at the moment while Stephen Fry in America (BBC1, Sun 12 Oct, 9pm) ••• gets to mosey across the US in a London black cab. As likeable as Fry is (he does look temporarily guilty while helping a Maine lobster reach boiling point), just what does his travelogue tell us about the world we live in when he has that Sting in the back of his taxi talking about ‘Englishman in New York’? Although Fry was chosen to write and present this show on account of him very nearly being born in America (is there a TV award category for Most Tenuous Reason for Hosting a Documentary Series?), we suspect that this whistlestop tour of the States is merely a front for him to ambush Hugh Laurie and demand to know why he has become more famous.

When it comes to being an authority on a subject, they don’t come much more compelling than Simon Schama. In terms of a documentary focus on the US, it’s unlikely that we’ll see anything better over the coming weeks than The American Future: A History (BBC2, Fri 10 Oct, 9pm) ••••. Schama digs deep into the conflicts of America’s history to understand what the candidates are really fighting for in November. Race, religion, war and resources are all tackled in this fascinating four-parter which is as entertaining as it is educational. God bless Simon Schama.

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