Stephen Fry in Central America, TV review: Seeing the national treasure careering down a zip wire at 80mph was a rare treat

For his Latin American odyssey, Fry had at his disposal an old American school bus, a chauffeur, and a seemingly limitless budget

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The most breathtaking scene in Stephen Fry's latest travelogue was seeing him travel at 80mph down a zip wire across the biggest, deepest canyon in the world, the Copper Canyon in Mexico. The sight of a national treasure crossing a global natural treasure at such velocity was a novelty, and all the more welcome for a format that has become, like an over-seasoned traveller, just a little jaded.

You see, when Alan Whicker and the like jetted off to exotic places 40 years ago, the monochrome results beamed into our homes offered up impossibly strange vistas and stranger peoples. Nowadays, seemingly everyone has been to uninhabited atolls in the south Pacific, seen the jaguars of the Brazilian rainforest and penetrated the depths of the Congo to meet mountain gorillas just like David Attenborough did.

Thus, the telly traveloguers' bounds have to be set wider and wider still to impress us, with the likes of Michael Palin traversing the globe latitude by latitude, longitude by longitude until he runs out of native tribes to perform the Dead Parrot Sketch at. Hence, also, Stephen Fry. You may recall his drive across the United States in a London taxi. Well, now he has at his disposal for his Latin American odyssey an old American school bus transformed into a camper van, plus whatever the Spanish for chauffeur is, and a seemingly limitless budget.

 

Still, Fry did find us some good stuff. Surprisingly, the most affecting wasn't the obligatory "natives doing funny dances" sequence (though they certainly did – cowboys in clown shoes as it happens), but a demonstration by the relatives of 43 students who "disappeared", presumed slaughtered, in one of those murky episodes linked to the narco-crime that is all-too common in this otherwise lovely country. It was a silent, dignified protest against arbitrary abduction and the connivance of the authorities in such atrocities. Fry wept.

Fry also got vertigo, and bricked it frequently around the hillier bits, and also when he attempted to peer over the edge of the steep cliffs on the way to Acapulco where divers drop hundreds of feet into 12ft of water, just for the hell of it. He was more at home exploring the majestic Aztec ruins and discovering the secrets of the earliest food colourant, the juice of the eggs of the cochineal beetle, which produce a rich crimson dye when squashed. He also found himself with a non-speaking part as a butler in a Mexican soap, or TV novella, reprising his memorable performance as Jeeves in a previous ITV hit series. Again, not the sort of thing your average punter gets invited to do. Apparently the Mexicans like melodrama.

We also learned that the Mexicans have now overtaken the yanks as the most obese people on the planet, and that there is a particularly unpleasant gang of drug smugglers called the Knights Templar, though Fry wisely decided not to try to get them to do some funny dances. He also declined to consume a funny little desert plant that produces hallucinogenic effects, especially on the part of the local Roman Catholic/Shamanic clergy. As Fry mentioned, his past experiments with mind expanding drugs had led to something of shrinkage in intellect as he approaches his late middle age. Proof, then, that travel doesn't always broaden the mind.

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