Sunday, 1 August 2010

Ours Not to Question Why

'Thou shalt not question Stephen Fry' said Dan Le Sac in his 2007 bleepy electro-sermon Thou Shalt Not Kill. Quite right, nodded listeners across the land in earnest agreement; quite right sir. Question Stephen Fry? The Stephen Fry? Encyclopeadius Stephenus? The Lord of the Twitterverse? Why sir the very idea is preposterous. It simply will not do. Of course one should not question Stephen Fry. He sir, is Poppins-esque; practically perfect in every way...

So it was and so it continues to be. Quite when one Stephen John Fry stopped being just another Blackadder alumnus, Hugh Lawrie's comedic other half and that bloke who ran away to Belgium and became the Lord Privy Seal of gently pompous mirth and sardonic wit and Knower Of All Things is hard to gauge, especially from here in Australia. Yet there is no doubt that right now in 2010 he occupies a unique space in public life - a unilateral kind of critical and popular adulation enjoyed by perhaps only Jarvis Cocker, Brian Clough, Terry Wogan and John Peel.

Fry's deification is all the more remarkable in Britain because unlike Jarv, El Tel, Cloughie and Peel dear, darling Stephen is resolutely, irredeemably and slightly apologetically posh. Articulate, verbose and unashamedly intelligent he speaks as though he has a whole plum duff in his mouth and is ever so gently pompous. This is enough to get you stabbed in many parts of Britain, yet even a cursory glance at the internets shows that there are at least eight online campaigns for Fry to be elected UK Prime Minister. If people could be granted keys to an entire country then Stephen Fry would be in need of a very large novelty key ring.

“I stooped to pick a buttercup… why people leave buttocks lying around, I have no idea”

And the rest of the world? Well even the afternoon spent in his company at the beautiful Regent Theatre in Collins Street yesterday only happened because several ute-loads of Australian fans twittered and blogged and pestered their hero into submission after his announcement of Sydney-only shows. A Melbourne date was quickly added and when tickets sold out they chucked in a matinee just to meet demand. The room was still full - not bad for a man who started his own show by admitting he isn't a stand up and doesn't have an act.

Advertised as A Talk with Stephen Fry our session with his Royal Fryness feels more impressive in retrospect than it was at the time. Speaking unaccompanied for over two hours straight without ever losing his way, being boring or losing any of his lustre was quite some feat. I say in retrospect because at the time I think I was lost in some kind of pleasant hypnosis, quite unaware of just what a nice time I was having until Stephen said he'd better wrap up soon to appreciate just how effortlessly good it was. I remember thinking 'oh what a shame, please, do go on... '

So what does everyone's favourite clever person talk about for two hours? Well, himself of course. From woe to go we were regaled with anecdotes about the formative incidents in his life, and in particular his childhood and adolescence when he was apparently 'an evil little bastard.' Stories of public school life and beatings, regular suspensions and expulsions and his eventual arrest and imprisonment for credit card fraud by the age of 17 will be familiar to anyone who has read his novel The Liar or autobiography Moab is my Washpot. Still these tales only gain in the retelling, particularly because of the perspective and self-realisation the adult Fry now has.

Much of the show is spent working through an invisible wish list of Fry topics including his spell at Cambridge University Footlights, working with Lawrie, his love (and portrayal) of Oscar Wilde, technology (a white iPhone 4 is proudly revealed), Tw*tter and his struggles with bi-polar disorder. This latter topic is still clearly difficult for Fry and even he can find little in it to laugh about it, even amongst such an understanding and partisan crowd (he does a rather better job in the TV special The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive). Interestingly I think people understand it's a big part of what makes him who he is more than he realises, but it makes sense that it's painful in the eye of the storm. Still, eternal credit for honesty and trying to explain why.

I suspect that this quality is a big part of what people love about Stephen Fry and why he is currently so popular. His intelligence, wit and charm make him admired, but his self awareness and honesty make him loved. Rather than being the latest in a long line of brilliant but impenetrable English comics - Sellers, Milligan, Morecambe, Williams, Cooper - people like Stephen Fry because feel that they know Stephen Fry. In an age of self-help and analysis, reality television confessions and tabloid exposes, people see Fry as someone who has seen it all, come out the other side, can tell us some of it was a bit shit and then make a joke about it using the word floccinaucinihilipilification... en Francais. Frankly, what's not to love about that? He may not be the messiah, and he was certainly a very naughty boy but if a little charm gets you a long way yesterday showed why Stephen Fry is so far ahead of the rest.

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