Upstairs at the Café de Paris, a nightclub in Piccadilly, an unattended mobile phone is ringing. More accurately, the mobile is barking out the words, ‘Stephen, answer the sodding phone. Stephen, answer the sodding phone. Stephen…’ The velvety bass voice is unmistakeably that of its owner, Stephen Fry. He emerges to retrieve it a few minutes later – nine feet tall, jawline like the prow of a ship, a physically awkward, middle-aged schoolboy checking his side-parting with his hand – and apologises profusely for keeping me waiting. ‘The, um, photographs took longer than, er. Do accept…’ It’s wonderfully effective, and completely unnecessary. I haven’t been kept waiting and, anyway, it was our photographer he was posing for. In fact, the only reason he is in this dingy nightclub in the middle of a cold December afternoon is that we have asked him to be.
As the club’s management are busy hammering and cursing and shifting in preparation for the evening’s revelries, I lead Fry to a quiet, brothel-red backroom I have found, behind plush red curtains, lit by red light bulbs. He sits down in the corner and, even though his eyes are darkly hooded and one side of his face is bathed in a demonic red light, and though he is chain-smoking full-strength Marlboros and wearing a black poloneck and a leather jacket, he still comes across as being a big, gentle, eager-to-please bear. He does realise, does he not, that when I come to write this interview I’ll have to lie and say that he was wearing tweed, from his pocket handkerchief to his socks; that he was smoking not cigarettes but a tweed pipe? ‘Absolutely, yes, indeed. No no. Goes with the turf. Exactly. Goes with the territory. Yep.’
Since Radio 4 broadcast Fry’s eight-and-a-half-hour-long reading of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone last Boxing Day, the reformed juvenile-delinquent-cum-Cambridge-graduate-cum-comedian-cum-actor-cum-best-selling-novelist-cum-charity-fundraiser seems to have amplified another role he’s developed for himself: that of favourite uncle to the nation and the nation’s children. Hugh Laurie, Fry’s best friend and sometime comedy partner, once said, ‘I’ve never seen a child who isn’t thrilled to be with Stephen, probably because in many ways he is very childlike himself.’ Fry himself once said, ‘It would be lovely to turn into a teddy bear for the young, a kind of amiable eccentric.’ How can he say things like that without blushing? ‘Well being a multiple godfather and uncle, one feels that that’s one’s role, really. I’m not going to be a parent so I think to be a more or less ursine avuncular figure is my role.’
But why shouldn’t he become a parent? Being homosexual didn’t prevent Oscar Wilde – Fry’s hero and the man he played in the film Wilde (1997) – from procreating. ‘Well, that’s true, yes, I suppose. Never say never, obviously. And, um, who knows these days? You just have to leave a toenail behind and the next thing you know there are five million of you marching across the countryside like killer ants. But for the moment I’m satisfied being a godparent and some of my godchildren are getting to the age now where they need a godfather who’s not going to sneak to their parents when they confess that they’ve started smoking. I had such a turbulent teenage myself that most of my godchildren probably know that they’re never going to be quite as disastrous as I was.’
Disastrous is the word. Stephen Fry grew up in Norfolk, the middle child of well-off parents – his father, Alan, was an electronics engineer and inventor. He went to Stouts Hill, a prep school, as a border at the age of seven (where he still wet the bed and where an IQ test revealed he was ‘approaching genius’); and at his next public school, Uppingham, he developed a passion for cricket, chess and Wagner, passed all his O-levels, became infatuated with ‘Matthew’, a fellow pupil, began stealing, got expelled and saw a psychiatrist who diagnosed him as having ‘developmental delay’, all by the age of 14. He was expelled twice more, and, following a mad adventure with some stolen credit cards, ended up serving a three-month prison sentence. His ‘turbulent teenage’ had a happy ending, though. Pucklechurch remand centre – where he was known as ‘the professor’, not only because he could read and write but also because, every day, he would complete The Times crossword in about ten minutes – proved the making of him. After his release, he sat his A-levels at a crammer and won a scholarship to read English at Queens’ College, Cambridge (he was still on parole when he arrived there). It was at university that he met Hugh Laurie, with whom he went on to find television fame (in, among others shows, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster). And, while still in his twenties, Fry became a millionaire – thanks to the libretto he wrote for the musical Me and My Girl.
In his autobiography, Moab Is my Washpot (1997), Fry writes about his formative years in an amused matter-of-fact way, but fails to offer explanations for his behaviour. What, for instance, does he think was the trigger for his kleptomania? ‘I don’t know – and I do say at some point in my book that it’s not my business to say why – but I never believe people who explain themselves, who say they know why they are like they are. You’re in danger of sounding post-therapeutic aren’t you? You know, the kind of, “Oh, it’s because I had low self-esteem when I was this age”, or, “I was in denial” – which, as you know, is a river in Egypt.’ He sweeps his hair back from his forehead. ‘I mean, my brother Roger was fed on the same food and had the same parents and was close enough in age to have been said to have had the same upbringing, and yet you couldn’t ask for a more decent law-abiding fellow. I could sit and talk about my relationship with my parents as an explanation to some extent, but it wasn’t that different from my brother’s relationship with them.’
No? In his autobiography Fry portrays his father – who’s still alive – as a misanthropic and arrogant man with an ‘infuriatingly cold, precise ratiocinating engine of a brain fuelled by a wholly egocentric passion’. He adds that whenever his father was in the house ‘instantly fun, freedom and relaxation turned into terrified silence.’ After one argument with his father – he claims not to remember what it was about – the 17-year-old Stephen attempted to commit suicide. He took a combination of Paracetamol and Lentizol and woke up in hospital having his stomach pumped.
Frankly, his father sounds a nightmare. Formidable, to say the least. ‘Yes, he was, he was indeed formidable. Though I describe him as being like a Sherlock Holmes figure and… urm. But er… [sigh]… what you have with parents, especially when you’re kind of happy with them… when all the troubles have slid away, or just about, the past doesn’t matter. That’s the huge surprise of the past. So I don’t think either of us felt that personally involved by retelling a story [in the autobiography] that no longer had relevance – in fact, you know, we laugh at how appalling I was.’
Crushingly, his father once said, ‘Stephen spends a lot of energy doing things that aren’t worthy of him.’ Has this left him with a feeling that he’s wasted his life? He rolls his eyes and gives a mock grimace. ‘Of course, all of us feel that sometimes. I mean, whatever platonic paradigms are up there as things to be achieved are never going to be. Perfection is unachievable and we’re all going to be on our notional deathbeds saying, “Why didn’t I climb a mountain? Why didn’t I see an opera? Why didn’t I lick breast milk from the armpits of a Nepalese maiden?” And that’s just the trivial side of it. There’s the bigger side – what kind of a person was I? It’s the curse of being human.’ He takes a deep breath. ‘That sense of consciousness that animals so manifestly appear not to have. One of the nice things about looking at a bear is that you know it spends 100 per cent of every minute of every day being a bear. It doesn’t strive to become a better bear. It doesn’t go to sleep thinking, “I wasn’t really a very good bear today.” They are just 100 per cent bear, whereas human beings feel we’re not 100 per cent human, that we’re always letting ourselves down. We’re constantly striving towards something, to some fulfilment.’
Is this what Wilde was referring to when he said there are two forms of tragedy, not getting what you want and getting it? ‘Absolutely, yes.’ He wrings his hands. ‘I do feel a bit like someone who is returning footsore from a golden city which was appalling, cold, hostile and unattractive, and scrambling up the hill passing me are people on the way to it and one wants to say, “Why? Don’t go there! It’s pointless! There’s nothing there! Fame and money are hollow shams.”‘
Yes but as hollow shams go, they’re two of the best. ‘Well, true. We all suspect fame and money can’t buy happiness but we still want to find out for ourselves.’
There’s something else Wilde said that seems relevant here: ‘I have put my genius into my life; all I’ve put into my works is my talent.’ Arguably, Fry’s best work has been as a comedian on television and radio – Saturday Night Fish Fry on Radio 4 in the mid-1980s was sublime. In his various film roles – such as Peter’s Friends (1992) and IQ (1995) – he has rarely seemed more than adequate. In Robert Altman’s Gosford Park he was embarrassing. Perhaps directors have difficulty disguising his physical appearance and tweedy voice, for he often appears to be playing himself (a criticism he hates). Though his four novels have sold well, none of them could be considered a literary masterpiece. They show his talent, not his ‘approaching genius’. Perhaps if future generations remember Stephen Fry it will not be as an actor or writer but as a dazzling conversationalist – ‘the e-mail of the species is deadlier than the mail,’ for instance. The vocabulary is PG Wodehouse with swearwords, the sentences are both finely wrought and meandering, weaving an array of subordinate clauses and philosophical and literary allusions. Does he ever wonder whether his monument will be the ephemeral conversation of a dinner-party – or worse, a talk-show – guest? ‘Perhaps, yes. Yep. Someone whom I greatly loved as a man but whom before that had admired enormously as a comic genius was Peter Cook. You could say that of him, too. When he fully achieved his Peter Cookness it was as likely to be when buying a newspaper and observing something to the person he was handing his money over to. He was in that sense profligate with his wit, he didn’t store it up for professional packaging and presentation.’
The comparison with Peter Cook is intriguing. Whereas Cook held the Establishment in contempt, Fry with his clubbable, over-English Englishness has often seemed beguiled by it – the Prince of Wales is one of his closest friends. While at university Fry said, ‘I sometimes think if I wasn’t Jewish and queer I would be the most appalling right-wing person.’ As it is he is, broadly speaking, a socialist who would like to pay more tax, but he is also pro-foxhunting and he would never dream of travelling anything other than first-class. And, as a wit, Peter Cook could be savage. Fry’s early comedy seemed by contrast safe and cosy; he could be mildly iconoclastic but seldom dangerous.
Yet Fry’s dark side is apparent in his novels. You suspect he is capable of Cook-like cruelty but holds back from it because, ultimately, he wants to be liked too much. He rarely loses his temper, he says, having inherited from his mother Marianne an abhorrence of confrontation. ‘Yes, [Fry adopts an EL Wisty voice] Peter would always speak as he found. But also he had a patrician laziness to him. You know, he would talk about writing a book or doing this or doing that but never get round to it. Whereas I have, for whatever reason, um, and again your guess is as good as mine – perhaps it’s my Jewishness – this desire to prove myself and to do things, however lazy I feel.’
Does he throw himself into work as a way of avoiding self-absorption? ‘Yes, I believe in the Socratic idea that you should “know thyself” but I also realise that to know oneself is a very strange journey. And it isn’t necessarily best achieved by sitting and thinking about oneself.’
If people want to understand him, he says, they should read not necessarily his autobiography but his first novel The Liar (1991), in which the hero is accused of living by pastiche and pretence, and having an intelligence which renders his emotional life meaningless and makes him callous. Fry, it seems, thinks of himself as a dissemblingly cheerful impostor who cleverly cons people into liking him.
But wasn’t the autobiography written at the time it was, a year after his nervous breakdown, precisely because he needed to ‘sit and think about himself’? Wasn’t it a Socratic exercise in trying to know himself? ‘An exercise and an exorcise. It’s true, I did feel the need to stop and reflect. I had a feeling of someone who’d been in an expensive and exciting car in the fast lane but who had never actually once stopped to look at the countryside around him. I had never even consulted a map to work out where I might actually be going. The ride was all and then the moment the engine went phut! I found myself shivering on the hard shoulder with the bonnet up wondering what the hell it was all about. You know, it was a, a piddling midlife crisis compared to those of many, but…’
Piddling! It was so dramatic it made front-page news. In 1995 Fry walked out on a production of Cell Mates – a play by Simon Gray in which Fry co-starred with Rik Mayall – partly prompted by the bad reviews the play and his performance received. He came close to committing suicide – sat in a garage with a duvet against the garage door and his fingers on the ignition key of his car – but decided against it because he couldn’t bear the thought of upsetting his friends and family. Instead he fled the country, taking the ferry to Zeebrugge. English tourists spotted him in Bruges wearing a black beret, they informed the press, Fry contacted his family by e-mail, and his father drove to Belgium to collect him. Fry then spent a few months in California, seeing a psychiatrist and working out in a gym. Fry grins shyly. ‘Well, yes, I suppose it was dramatic because of course I’m well known but, I mean, it’s probably happening, even as we speak, to someone somewhere. Someone saying, “I’m just off to the Post Office, dear,” and she will never see him again. You know, it’s a very common story.’
But wasn’t it harder for him than it is for most people who aren’t famous? Even if he had phoned the Samaritans, wouldn’t they have recognised his voice? ‘That’s true, and you just feel you’re not getting a proper shake at it. Not that the Samaritans aren’t very well trained – I’m sure they wouldn’t betray any confidences or, or, or say, “Ooh, what’s it like working with Rowan Atkinson?” in the middle of a conversation about how miserable one is but, erm. Of course it’s harder to some extent if you have some kind of whatever it is – somewhere halfway between a wobble and a breakdown – in public because of the intense scrutiny and the fact that so many people are aware of it. But there are compensations in terms of the warmth and kindness of strangers. I received hundreds of letters and e-mails from people making a direct emotional connection with me. The people who wrote seemed to understand I was not the supremely confident and secure person full of self-knowledge I previously seemed to be. They could see I had been in as bad a pit of despair as anyone. And that was strangely comforting.’
Presumably he didn’t receive a letter from Simon Gray? (The playwright wrote a book about the episode and said, ‘I hope I never see him again.’) ‘Oh yes! Yes! We did exchange letters, and he was very kind in his, but, um…’ He’s never really forgiven Fry? ‘I don’t know if he’s forgiven me. I think that once he knew I was sort of OK and had been discovered and was recovering it started to irritate him, the fact that his play had collapsed. And I don’t blame him.’ Pause. ‘It’s just, you know, if I could have chosen when I would have a breakdown, I’d have had it before the play started, but of course I couldn’t.’
Does Hugh Laurie understand why he felt he couldn’t talk to him before his ‘trip to Bruges’? ‘He probably found it hard at first, thinking, “Come on, what are friends for?” but I know he understood. That’s the nature of friendship. If he did the same, I would understand it, too. Most of us, if we had some weird wart growing on the end of our genitals, we would not want to show it to our best friend.’ Throaty laugh. ‘We’d be much happier to show it to a complete stranger, a doctor that we’d never met before. Otherwise I would find it embarrassing and so would the friend.’ He impersonates Hugh Laurie: ‘”Yes, yes, of course you can show me… Woah there!” You know? And one feels the same about the emotional warts, one’s unsightlinesses.’
Do Laurie and his wife now keep a close eye on Fry, looking for early signs of another breakdown? ‘Yes, and fortunately the one great saving salve, lubricant, whatever one wants to call it, of all these kinds of things, is humour. That’s sort of what humour is for. “We laugh that we may not weep.” I sometimes say, “I can see you looking at me with that sliiiightly worried expression.” And they will giggle, and I will giggle – and that makes things a lot easier.’
As of six years ago, Fry has another best friend he can giggle with – as well as share his house in Hampstead, apartment in New York and Georgian manor house in Norfolk. After 15 years of celibacy, Stephen Fry fell in love. The man – Fry prefers to keep his name out of print – is ten years his junior and not in show business. Fry’s friends say this relationship has made him a lot calmer, and Fry himself says that it has helped him discover the real root of his previous problems: loneliness. ‘Yes, indeed. Who’d have thought it? I’ve finally came on in and found the water is lovely. It’s terrific. I’m thrilled with it. Still have to pinch myself. Can’t quite believe it’s true. Excuse me.’ He blows his nose. ‘Damn, I thought I’d shaken this bastard off, sorry.’
Part of the reason for Fry’s celibacy had been his loathing of his own body – he said the thought of inflicting it on others repelled him. But he was also chronically insecure about his looks, convinced that everyone thought him an ugly Caliban. It was partly to do with his lopsided nose, which was badly broken when he tripped up at school. Was he never tempted to bolster his self-esteem by having it cosmetically corrected? ‘I was, yeah. When I was 12 I went to see an ENT specialist with my parents and he said, “Young man, we’d better wait until you’ve grown. So come back when you’re 18 or 19.” But when I was 18 or 19 it was when I was doing stuff – got into Cambridge – and it just didn’t seem to matter any more.’ He folds his arms. ‘The fact is if I straightened my nose, I wouldn’t suddenly look like Gregory Peck, I’d just be Stephen Fry with a slightly straighter nose.’
His broken nose has left him with a sinus problem which was aggravated by his heroic drug abuse in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At one stage he was Hoovering up £1,000 worth of cocaine a week. Did he not worry that cocaine would disfigure that beautiful alpha brain of his? ‘Absolutely! It is one of the daft things about taking coke, you know it can’t be good for your intellectual capacity, yet… In fact, in my coke-taking days, I used to do stupid things like, the next morning, I would make myself do The Spectator crossword, just to reassure myself that I could still do it.’
Has he been prescribed any medication for his depression? ‘No, I resisted Prozac because I had a few friends on it and I really didn’t like what it did to them. I took Lithium for a time, when it was quite bad, otherwise no. I mean really I’m not that bad. Many people have it – a bi-polar affective disorder, they don’t call it manic depression any more – much worse than me. I try to get through the depression by thinking that it’s like the weather. If it’s raining, you can’t pretend that it isn’t raining – “No, no, the sun is shining!” – you have to accept that it’s raining, that you are feeling really low. But you keep somewhere inside yourself the belief that, absurd as it seems at the time, the next day the sun may pop over the horizon with a joke, and a brass band may play and a bluebird may twitter and everything will be, if not perfect, better. Like the weather, it is something over which you have no control. That’s the point. You know it’s time for an umbrella but you must not lose faith in the idea of sunshine. That sounds pathetic, doesn’t it?’ He laughs and mimics himself in an American voice: ‘Do not lose faith in the idea of sunshine.’
The sodding phone rings again. ‘Stephen, answer the sodding phone. Stephen, answer the sodding phone. Stephen…’ Fry says, ‘So sorry, please excuse me,’ and picks it up. It’s about his next appointment – in ten minutes at the Groucho Club. He is casting someone there for a film he is to start directing in March, an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies, for which he, Fry, has written the screenplay. I walk with him, through the dark backstreets of Soho, and as I do I notice that, like a lot of tall people – he’s 6ft 5in, actually – he keeps one arm folded across the front of his body to create a horizontal that breaks up the vertical, and he stoops and bends one knee and cocks his head to disguise his height, to disguise himself, to become 100 per cent bear. But people still stop and stare at him as he passes, mouthing the words, ‘Wasn’t that Stephen Fry?’