Stephen Fryby Felicity Monk
Felicity Monk talks to Stephen Fry about his film Bright Young Things and about being a former bright young thing.
Clever, slightly pompous and terribly eloquent, Stephen Fry in the flesh is just as I imagined. Charm oozes like lava. He rises to greet me with a soft handshake, and we exchange pleasantries before he comments on how lovely he thinks my name is. He likes how the two words sound together - they complement one another, apparently. "But don't you agree?" he asks.
Fry talks about the English language as though it were his lover. "It is an extraordinarily rich, variant, organic, living thing ... and there is the pleasure and the texture of the language, the sound of the tongue hitting the back of the teeth is, in itself, pleasurable."
It is his passion for language that is, perhaps, the most fascinating thing about him. He is a great actor, a talented writer and a funny guy, but it is when he dons his literary crusader cape that he distinguishes himself from his peers - many of whom, I suspect, would rely upon a dictionary to decipher his prose.
He makes no effort to conceal his disdain for those who, in his opinion, abuse the sanctity of language. "They believe that if something is well expressed, then, actually, it must be less than true. Because surely real truth is inarticulacy and struggling, more of a kind of whiny egoism that you get on Oprah Winfrey, which is just, 'I need, I want, I am special, I, I, I, I.' Really, almost any sentence that begins with 'I' is valueless and seriously interesting people just don't use the word 'I', because they are too interested in ideas and they are too interested in exchange of thought to waste their time stripping naked and masturbating, as it were, in front of others, which is what Americans do, mistakenly, which is the seed of their neuroses, I believe. I just think language is this great pearl beyond price that we have cast in the dung heap and we are constantly trying to search for it."
Fry is wearing a lilac shirt and rimless glasses that sit upon a soft and rubbery face. He takes his tea very, very strong and he smokes cigarettes as though he is doing the 100m dash. In, out, in, out ... even I feel puffed.
In Auckland for three days last month, Fry was here to promote Bright Young Things, his film directorial debut (opening December 26). An adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel Vile Bodies, it is set in London during the roaring 20s, a time when spirits were high, cares were fewer and the youth generation were hellbent on liberating themselves. Girls bobbed their hair, flattened their chests and threw away their girdles, boys shaved off their moustaches and together both sexes indulged in a fair amount of "naughty salt". The film follows a group of young friends who are careless, wild, hedonistic and always looking for the next party.
This rebellion, Fry says, "came from the fact that their parents' generation so f---ed up the world that they created the carnage of the First World War ... and how could they therefore trust all the Victorian certainties of family and home and religion and values that proved themselves to be absolutely useless in the face of the failure of that war?"
And so their reaction was simply to party. "But in that brief period in which irresponsibility ruled, there was a lustre and, yes, it was irresponsible and you could argue that it was shocking and trivial and frivolous and, as it were, they were fiddling while Rome burned, but there is something admirable about the wholeheartedness and the wit and the style and the flamboyance with which they led their lives."
Especially, Fry adds, when you compare them to today's celebrity generation and their deals with sponsors for every party and weddings paid for by magazines. "It is very unadventurous and unimaginative and has no wit, no art, no flair, no style, no grace and that's a shame."
As an established actor and writer, Fry has enjoyed fame and success, most notably with the television series Fry and Laurie and Blackadder and the film Wilde. So now that he can add the title "director" to his résumé, does he prefer one role to another?
"I find them all fantastic. They are all me, me, me, really." He says there is a part of him that loves performing, a part that loves to throw himself into every aspect of the film-making process and a part that loves to be "absolutely on my own at home with nothing but some drawn curtains and some music playing in the background, and creating a world in which nobody can interfere with, it is your world as a writer.
"I am just very lucky that I don't have to decide to be one of them. We are not living in a Huxley brave new world in which everybody is categorised as a working unit, fit only for one thing, like bees, we are very fortunate human beings. In a sense you could argue that it's a kind of definition of a human being - we do everything, we are, by almost by genetic definition, jacks of all trade and masters of none."
Somewhat of a rascal in his youth - Fry confesses he had "a very stormy childhood" - he was expelled from "any number of very expensive schools". At 17, he nicked some credit cards and went on a bender around England, staying in hotels and buying clothes. Eventually, the police caught up with him and he spent three months in Pucklechurch Prison for credit card fraud. He also got two years' probation.
"That's when I thought I had better sort myself out, so I took a Cambridge entrance exam and fortunately got a scholarship." Did they know about his time in prison? "They never asked, funnily enough. I told them about two years in. I said to my tutor, I said, 'Do you know, incidentally, I am actually on probation at the moment?' And he said, 'Oh, how splendid.' They are not interested in that kind of thing, they are not puritans."
There were aspects of the Cambridge social life that were very "Bright Young Things", says Fry. Despite being the president of the Cherubs Drinking Club - "It was a place for sybaritic, hedonistic excess" - he says there were people who led far more excessive, impressive lives than his.
Along with his two Cambridge buddies Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson, Fry joined the legendary Footlights revue (past members include Peter Cook and John Cleese). "That was our pleasure far more than parties. We would rather do that than get drunk on champagne and oysters and lounge around all afternoon trying to be a 1970s aristocrat. It seemed rather a poor pose and it was much more fun what we did. But, then, horses for courses."
In 1981, he was asked to rewrite the old 30s musical Me and My Girl, in which he cast Thompson as female lead. It was a massive success and he was a millionaire by the age of 30. "It was extraordinarily fortunate and it's not the kind of thing you could ever predict could happen, but it was marvellous." Since then, Fry has hardly been out of the spotlight.
In 1988, he declared that he was gay and celibate, prompting questions such as, "Well, if you don't have sex, how do you know you are gay?" His response? "I reserve the right to choose the sex of the people I don't go to bed with." Then in 1995 there was the infamous bolt-to-Belgium breakdown, when he took off mid-season from a starring role in a West End play. He says he still doesn't claim to understand why.
Now, his website proclaims, "Stephen Fry is a man content." Is he?
"I wouldn't presume to say I am a man content, particularly. I think I have fewer neuroses about trying to succeed and trying to achieve things in life. You eventually learn late in life that, actually, fulfilment lies in other places. It is what satisfies you and not what is necessarily successful in the eyes of the world.
"But I wouldn't dare to presume to say that I don't act badly, or without upset if criticism is vicious. I'm not absolutely immune to the barbs that Earth sends my way, of course I'm not. So, I suppose, a man content? Reasonably, yep, absolutely, but I don't mind tempting providence."
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