The Magazine

Man Onstage

The importance (?) of being Stephen Fry.

Jan 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 18 • By KYLE SMITH
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What makes Stephen Fry so (his words) “slappable .  .  . odious .  .  . punchable”? Part of it is the smug expression, the striped socks. We may also curse the ubiquity. Here he is on dramatic television (Bones), film (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), hosting documentaries, whipping up novels, sprawling across newsprint. He turns up like the Cheshire Cat—and supplied the voice of that elusive feline in last year’s Alice in Wonderland film.

Photo of Stephen Fry in 2006

Stephen Fry, 2006

Newscom

To cast an eye over the life story is to invite disbelief. Seemingly born at Cambridge and made a fully licensed celebrity immediately upon graduation, Fry became a millionaire in his twenties by accident. His agent handed him the book for his father’s vintage musical “Me and My Girl” and ordered up a coat of contemporary polish that became a long-running 1980s revival both on Broadway and in the West End.

Meanwhile, on the basis of a Cambridge sketch-comedy show, the BBC and other television producers simply handed him the keys to the box, giving him and his friends the opportunity to create and star in one show after another. All this for a man who (now in his fifties!) is capable of such shudder-inducing phrasecraft as: “These pages deal with some of the C-words that have dominated my life. Before the chronology of the chronicles commences, let me catalogue a couple more Cs.” Just a few pages later in this, his new (and second) memoir, he offers, “Caries, cavities and cankerous ulcers were constant companions.” The book ends with Fry—aged 30, wealth growing exponentially, career leaps taking place with lunar ease—plunging nostrils-first into a cocaine habit. Greater triumphs are still to come. Can’t something be done about this would-be Wodehouse, this Oscar Milde?

And yet resistance to Stephen Fry’s charms proves impossible. His success, it turns out, is as much a bafflement to him as it is to you and me. He is properly observant of fortune’s quirky tastes, sweetly appreciative of the importance of his many famous friends (including university mates and frequent costars Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson), profoundly rooted in family and mournful about his moral stumbles. The overwhelming sentiment of the present volume and its equally delightful predecessor, Moab Is My Washpot (1997), is gratitude. In the previous book he wrote, “Someone once said that all autobiography is a form of revenge. It can also be a form of thank-you letter.”

The Fry Chronicles begins badly, with a segment about Fry’s childhood fixation on candy that feels like an outtake from the previous book, which covered early youth, boarding-school expulsion, a decreasingly larky thieving custom, a suicide attempt, and rousing climactic arrest at 18 for binging with a stolen credit card. In this book he spends a few weeks in prison (the gravity is undermined by the name of the institution, Pucklechurch), then rights himself to win admission to Queens’ College, Cambridge.

Arriving in 1978, he affected tweed and corduroy, a pipe. He confesses that he devised a single facile theory of Shakespeare’s tragic and comic forms and deployed it at every opportunity. In three years he attended three lectures. Time was free for the vital: “talk a lot, listen to music, drink coffee and wine, read books and go to plays. Perhaps be in plays?” In one eight-week term he performed in 12 productions, putting off his tutors with such pleas as: “I’m really sorry, Dr. Holland, but I’m still trying to engage with the eschatology of ‘Paradise Lost.’ I think I’ll take another week to come to terms with it.”

Amusing, but self-serving. Here comes the Fry touch, the inviting admission: “It is shameful and lowering to confess how I would mine dictionaries of literary and philosophical terms for words like eschatology, syncresis
and syntagmatic.”

The authenticity of such self-deprecation isn’t in doubt. It comes with a depth that is rare in literary memoirs (where I place these two books) and nearly unknown in the entertainment variety. Upon receiving a note from a professor who favorably compared his Volpone with Paul Scofield’s, he showed the missive to only two people. 

[For] my pride in refusing to allow myself to appear boastful .  .  . was even more intense than any pride I might have had in my achievements. There was sometimes a fight between these two species of pride, but usually the first type won and was mistakenly called modesty.

Fry twinkles with anecdotes (we learn that outsiders to show business are “muggles” to the charmed circle). A first glimpse of Emma Thompson on stage delivers the insight that one of the best things a performer can do is to relax an audience, another to provoke a feeling of unpredictability. Thompson, he realized, could do both at once. Tom Stoppard appears, at a time when he “smoked not just between courses, but between mouthfuls.” Admonished by a dinner-party guest—“And you so intelligent!”—Stoppard replied, “How differently I might behave if immortality were an option.”

Neither the Wilde nor the Wodehouse has been wasted. “You will see therefore that writing, ghastly at the time but great afterwards, is exactly the opposite of sex” is a line worthy of the former, while P. G.’s spirit frolics in an aside about springtime amid the Cantabrigians: “As St. John’s College alumnus William Wordsworth put it, ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!’ He was writing less about May Week and more about the French Revolution, but the thought holds better for the first.”

Nor are Waugh and Forster, two more models, entirely absent here. Fry’s years on the Cam blended seamlessly into life among actors (“embarrassing featherheads and ludicrous naifs,” but kind, funny, and loyal) to create a never-ending tableau of comedy and champagne. Fry never grew up, never had to. Why begrudge this grateful child his many gifts? As he writes of dappled undergraduate days:

Blazers and flannels, self-conscious little snobberies and affectations, flushed youth, pampered youth, privileged youth, happy youth. Don’t be too hard on them. Suppress the thought that they are all ghastly tosspots who don’t know that they’re born, insufferable poseurs in need of a kick and a slap. Have some pity and understanding. They will get that kick and that slap soon enough.

Kyle Smith writes about film for the New York Post.