BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — For many in the United Kingdom and around the world, Stephen Fry is the quintessential Brit.
For over 40 years, Fry has made his name as an actor, author, television presenter, public figure, and more, having hosted shows like “QI” and been featured in several documentaries on the BBC. However, there was once a scenario where Fry possibly could never have become one of Great Britain’s most well-known celebrities, but an American.
Before Fry was born in 1957, his father was offered a job to come to the United States to teach at Princeton University, but ultimately turned it down, keeping the family in England. Fry’s fascination with this fact, as well as his interest in exploring the nuances of America, led him to take part in a six-part documentary series in 2008 called “Stephen Fry in America,” where he traveled to all 50 states, exploring what made each unique.
“I don’t think anybody, as far as I know, had done, certainly for British television, a visit to all the 50 states of the union, and I thought it’d be an interesting thing to do,” Fry said during a recent interview while staying in Los Angeles. “And I was particularly excited about visiting the states that don’t get much coverage on British television or world television.”
In the series, Fry did everything from performing with an improvisational comedy troupe at The Second City in Chicago, visit a family living in a nuclear fallout shelter in the Midwest, fish for lobster in New England and fly over lava fields in Hawaii. However, one of the most notable stops on Fry’s trip was traveling to Auburn, Alabama, on November 24, 2007, to watch the Iron Bowl.
“There is no question that one of the most extraordinary memories was that Iron Bowl matchup, which was just extraordinary because it shocked me. I had no idea,” he said.
For his trip to Alabama, Fry and his team wanted to explore a couple of themes about the state. First, he visited the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles to understand the criminal justice system. However, he also wanted to highlight a different side of Alabama.
“I can remember the conversation we were saying that we don’t want that all for Alabama, because it just perpetuates this sense that Alabama is some place that when you think of it, you think of civil rights, you think of punishment and prisons and chain gangs and brutal officers of the law. And so we were looking around and literally looking online for tourist places and having a thought about schools and various other things. And then Selma we considered obviously, but thought that’s sort of a cliché. And then this whole Iron Bowl thing came up and we thought, ‘This is brilliant. We haven’t done anything like this college game. What a great idea.’ And so that’s how it arose and I’m really pleased we did as well because it is important, I think, when you’re doing it, when you’re going on a journey like this to be surprised and not to just check all the boxes that fulfill your expectations.”
During the second episode of the series, titled “Deep South,” Fry introduced his audience to the Iron Bowl like this:
“It’s an indication of the size of the U.S. economy and their passion for sport that this is the stadium of Auburn. No more than a medium-sized college. And this is their annual game against another college within the same state, the University of Alabama, based in Tuscaloosa, a few hours drive away,” Fry said as the camera panned over Jordan-Hare Stadium. “This fixture has the scale, intensity and hoopla of a grand national final, but is in reality nothing more than a local derby between amateur students. Only in America.”
During the episode, Fry could be seen talking with football fans, getting an orange-and-blue “AU” painted on his hand, and become visibly emotional seeing “The Star-Spangled Banner” be sung by thousands of fans as jets flew overhead.
Looking back, Fry said seeing the Iron Bowl up close gave him a sense of not just the pageantry that goes into the game, but the community that forms around both schools.
“It was exciting because it was so immediately apparent that this was more this was a college game, students playing each other, some of whom it would be their last major engagement on the on the on the gridiron, you know, on the field of play,” he said. “There’s no NFL franchise in Alabama. Therefore, all the tribal belonging and passion that would otherwise go into an NFL franchise, goes into the college games. And so people who have no connection to the universities as they weren’t students there, but they have formed an affection and a bond with the particular college. They’ve decided they’re Auburn until they die or Alabama until they die.”
Fry, himself a sports fan who was recently named president of the Marylebone Cricket Club in London, admitted that the Iron Bowl game itself was not particularly interesting to him then, with Auburn beating Alabama 17-10. However, what he took away was how much passion went into the game and how many came out for it.
“I think if you took away this these sporting occasions, you’d take away something very deep in the soul of all of the citizens of Alabama and that would be terrible,” Fry said. “And Alabama, let’s face it, outside America you think of Governor Wallace, you think of the worst aspects of the fight for civil rights. And, you know, that’s sort of it with Alabama. What else do you think of if you’re British? So something as pure and splendid as college football, I think, and it’s Corinthian ideals of amateurism combined with passion and commitment is a noble thing.”
For Fry, looking back 15 years since first traveling to Alabama for the biggest college football game in the state, what made the Iron Bowl so wonderful for him were the same reasons that America itself was wonderful.
“One of the things I came away from was if you were to say in Britain ‘Only in Britain,’ it would mean something to do with queuing misery, grayness, bureaucracy, waiting, inefficiency, a dullness of spirit. If you say ‘Only in America,’ it means something daring, dazzling, original, weird, often mad, someone trying to fly by jumping off a building or walking across a tightrope between skyscrapers or something really out there, and it’s a positive thing, whereas in Britain, it’s a negative thing. And that’s what I came away with,” he said. “That game exemplified that yes, it’s preposterous that for kids, students who should be learning Socrates and mathematics and there they are, being more professional in their sport than most professionals in Europe are. It’s the hoopla, the marching band… and the painting of their faces and the release of an eagle and a jet flying overhead. It’s mad and the hoopla is insane, but my God, it’s wonderful. It makes goosebumps rise on your flesh and you feel a privilege to be a part of it. And that is the great American paradox, I think. It’s the great the mix of madness and brilliance and the excess, which has a glory to it. And I think most of us, if we’re honest, envy you. That is part of your national identity to call on.”