British Invasion (British documentaries in and around America)
For Brits, acknowledging the lure of America can be a self-deprecatory revelation. Dickens had trouble with all that spitting, and wound up denouncing America like a boy cursing the entire world after being forbidden a treat. Yet he couldn’t stay away. John Lennon and Christopher Hitchens retained citizenship of the soul from their first visits until their actual naturalization years later, when they were both in perfect positions to criticize it.
America is a place where there is no former glory, no struggle to reclaim a past. It’s not nearly old enough for that. There is no humour in its having lost stature in the world. Therefore, it is a place of immense curiosity, and Brits love to explore its many angles.
To that end, here are the top (Americans love their lists, you know) documentary series by British presenters.
Simon Schama’s The American Future – A History
Schama attempts to explain the psyche of Americans. No small task, that. Especially in four episodes. Yet the searching Schama gets in fairly close, respecting his audience by sidestepping the obvious. He’ll get to why they allow the banalities of a Sarah Palin to enter into serious political discourse, but first, he needs to examine the climate, the land, its people, and their struggles. Schama takes a detached look at his subject. Particularly rivetting is Episode Three, wherein the always thorny issue of American faith, especially Christianity – one true faith among many one truth faiths – is given the journalistic eye. Not even astonishment can blink this eye, though it may try.
Stephen Fry in America
Ever the genial cynic, Stephen Fry cannot hold back his revulsion for the concrete sterility of Miami, a town whose kitschy subsections “promise so much and deliver so staggeringly little.” As the series progresses from the starry (somewhat spangled?) eyes of Fry’s Americophilia in New England, things take a turn as he begins to explore the more seldom represented corners of the territory, an intrepid vacationer bound for the unbeaten track.
Fry is an extremely likeable guide, opting for participation over detached examination. Whether visiting surreal Las Vegas or the agriculturally-centric outposts of California, there’s not one moment of down time. The series is a gem.
Billy Connolly’s Route 66
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road showed us how Route 66 was thoroughly impractical for getting across the country. Billy Connolly says bollocks to that. The results are charming and, at times, surprisingly poignant. Surprisingly, because Connolly approaches America as someone who’d dreamed of it as a boy. His is the America of postage stamps. Of rock and roll and of folklore. Even when exploring racist attitudes in the Midwest, it’s the racism of history books, and little beyond. In other words, nothing here we don’t know about. Yet Connolly’s humour, if somewhat subdued here, enlivens the proceedings, and we get glimpses of the America of his dreams with all the reverence any dream — even a nightmare — deserves.
Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends
Louis Theroux, on the other hand, is the anti-Connolly. The camera here is unflinching as it invades private spaces in uncomfortable closeups. Here is the America of John Waters, of Terry Southern, skewed and served up exactly as it is. These are the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses without the benefit of poetry to glorify them. Theroux jumps headfirst into seedy worlds because no one else will. What he finds there is cruel, contemptuous, beautiful, scummy, and poignant – often all within the span of a few frames.
When he delves into all sides of the American pornography business (and if anyone out there didn’t realize there were different sides, and that those sides are as diametrically opposed as spring water is to machine oil, then that person should thank the Maker for candy and springtime and the laughter of children and call it a day), he decides at one point, “I’ve seen enough.” Oddly enough, the average viewer will most likely find himself reaching that conclusion simultaneously.
The overall effect here is not one of watching freaks merely for freak’s sake. Theroux takes us there because we need to be there, if only to feel the ecstasy of wiping our feet when we leave. His subjects, like the born agains who “witness” the homeless without much of a care for their physical welfare, are transformed from hapless curiosities into something much more malevolent, and back again. No matter from which dogmatic field the viewer may hail, Theroux’s camera has the eerie power to bewitch.
This article was written by The Note Show Contributor Paul L.