Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Stephen Fry: Last Chance To See (DVD review)

Last Chance To See: BBC DVD (Madman)

The wild-life documentary field has been, let's face it, exhausted of possible new angles. David Attenborough's engrossing commentary of a lion eating a zebra is an image I can safely say we're all quite familiar with. A recent, excruciating addition to the world of beasts behaving beastly on camera, include awkward English blokes hooning around the African planes offering, in strained excitement, a more hands on approach to the animal kingdom or Kaki shorts-wearing galoots you'd cross the road to avoid. It's funny then that Stephen Fry, as metropolitan as they come, has inadvertently rescued the genre from those agonising adventure naturists, who you always secretly wished would stumble right into an 'un-planned' hungry bear.

The story of Last Chance To See began with the late Douglas Adams, (yes, the author of Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy) who made several pilgrimages to see some of the world's rarest species in their natural habitats during the late '80s. He had intended then to revisit the same locations 20 years on (in 2009) but due to his unforseen death, Fry along with Adams' original travel partner, Mark Carwardine set out to finish Adams' work and report on his endangered animals' progress. Although finding out the level of certain species depletion is the goal, Fry in particular seems also to be on a mission to test his own limits, and gain a personal level of respect for these creatures as Adams had done. Fry is well read and experienced in untold magnitudes, but Last Chance To See reveals a surprising side to him – in spite of a lack of any conceivable comforts, he simply needs to see and touch to fully know what most of us are content to read about. It is however, Fry's ability to bridge the gap between big long science-y things and school boy attention spans that makes him so watchable. 

Before the Amazonian manatee has even been properly introduced and Adams' findings on the creature revealed (in episode one of six in the series), Fry delights in telling a popular held belief that drunk sailors used to mistake the manatees for mermaids and have their way with the blubbery mammals. The fact that their Caribbean-derived name translates as 'breast' is even further cause for his amusement. Not so hilarious though, is the first port of call in Fry's Amazon visit; he despairs at the sight of golf carts carrying chunky American tourists along cemented path-ways. His contempt for the tender-footed "thrill seekers" is barely masked, but the pressing matter of rare sea mammals to track soon takes over. The very real danger of being killed by poachers in the 'lawless' Amazon forest is one of the many challenges that await Fry and Carwardine, but when Stephen actually breaks his arm falling on a boat's slippery deck in the first episode, the viewer is left wondering is he more a risk to himself? Cut to Fry sitting on a beach in Florida – "the absolute closest hospital, darling", arm in cast, and the realisation that a broken bone was a small price to pay for not being shot and dumped in a muddy ditch.

Fry's feverish love of technology is well known - you may already be one of his Twitter-following minions – so watching him struggle through jungle settings without so much as mobile reception is close to painful. The pain is only added to by his frequent mentioning of this fact, but a part of me did want to teleport directly to the Brazilian rain forests and put a comforting hand on his shoulder, while saying something like, "It'll be alright. I'm sure I see a tower around that next bend." But the well mannered, endearing nature of Fry makes even his occasional sulks a charming addition to this adventure series, rather than a blight on its strange landscapes. The big lumbering fellow, in a particularly sorry-for-himself moment, had me in stiches as he patiently waited in driving rain for his obsessed travel companion to catch a glimpse of a manatee - which may, or may not be anywhere near the area. In these moments, Fry can't help but make his ordinary suffering seem fascinating, while others more adventurous pursuits seem tiresome, without a hint of narcissism.
The fact that Stephen Fry's basically the last of his kind, isn't an irony lost on this reviewer. He maybe saw the pipe and slippers looming once his comedic and dramatic roles were replaced by docu-reality films, but it's his obsessive quest for information that's prevented a great mind from wasting. He's never seemed satisfied with knowing that he knows stuff, so now Fry is learning about the Brazilian capybara, (for example) simply because he didn't previously understand very much about them and as the viewer you can't help but be fascinated with him, and hope even a little of his lust for knowledge will catch on.


Fry... Out of his depth?

* A little diversion from my normal blog subject matter... But hey, it's Stephen Fry dammit, and much like a lot of music I write about on here and bands I interview, Stephen's language and work always fascinates me and seems to have a great resonance, I would argue somewhere in the same realm of music. *

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