If there’s a game show, a documentary, a movie or television series featuring Stephen Fry I’m likely to watch it. He’s always immensely interesting, devilishly charming and gives off the aura of an incredibly knowledgeable and worldly man.
Which is why his autobiography “The Fry Chronicles” was such a disappointment and dare I say it, thoroughly boring in large parts.
Perhaps all the very best bits were either in his first chronicle “Moab was my washpot” and covering the first 20 years of his life, which I have not yet read (but have read good things about) – or in his yet to come third volume, likely to begin with his addiction to cocaine.
“The Fry Chronicles” ostensibly covers the years from his time at Cambridge to the success of the musical “Me and my girl” on Broadway, for which he revised the story and dialogue (otherwise known as ‘the book’).
I was expecting to learn something of the inner workings of Stephen Fry’s mind (what makes him tick), his battle with manic depression and various addictions, and where he gets his ideas from – all the elements that make up a good biography – but none of them get any fair treatment. His depression is considered not worthy of his readers, while his addictions to sugar, cigarettes and gadgets are only glossed over. The very last few section of the book – just a paragraph – come under the heading “C” – for cocaine. And then it ends.
It’s not just that he leaves out the juicy bits, but that much of the book is plodding and dull, especially as he narrates the steps he took to achieve success: writing and performing sketches for various Cambridge shows and revues, getting hired to write for Granada TV (now called ITV Granada), the BBC, his friendships with Emma Thomson, Ben Elton, Rowan Atkinson and of course, Hugh Laurie. It’s all either too gushing – or worse, apologetic (he’s especially sorry for having money and spending it on frivolous, expensive gadgets).
Now to be fair, there are some brilliant anecdotes, recollections and insights thrown in amongst “I did this….then I did that…then I met him…then the money starting rolling in” narration that goes on page after page.
One of the most intriguing is Fry’s recount of a visit by Alistair Cooke, the famous journalist and broadcaster and founder of the Cambridge Mummers, the university’s first theatre group open to both sexes. Fry invited Cooke as guest of honour to the 50th anniversary celebration of the Mummers.
Cooke (as remembered by Fry) tells of being on a walking tour through Germany in the 1930s with a friend and coming to a “perfect beer garden”. Later, while they enjoy their beverages, a stage is set up, chairs are laid out and soon the garden is full. An ambulance arrives, then a procession of open top Mercedes limousines. A small man gets out to address the crowd. He speaks. Women duly faint. After he finishes speaking, the little man walks down the aisle and his elbow barges against Cooke’s shoulder, who has leant out to see the intriguing man depart.
“Entschuldigen Sie, meine Herr” (Excuse me, sir”) the little man says to Cooke.
Cooke says in his speech:
“For some years afterwards, whenever he came on in the cinema newsreels as his fame spread, I would say to the girl next to me: “Hitler once apologised to me and called me sir.”
There are many other gems scattered throughout the book and some very funny lines my favourite being when Fry meets the actress Miriam Margoyles (now an Australian citizen) who introduced herself by saying:
“How do you do? I’m Mir…” She stopped and plucked at her tongue with her thumb and forefinger, “Miriam Margoyles. Sorry about that. I was licking my girlfriend out last night and I’ve still got some c-nt hairs in my mouth.”
Unless you’re a prude you’d have to agree that’s hilarious.
Sadly there is not enough of this in the book and too much apologising from Fry: for getting gigs when he thought he did not have the talent, when the money came rolling in and he spent, spent, spent; and for all the good fortune that came his way.
He’s either flattered by offers of work from famous people (Ben Elton, Rowan Atkinson etc) or flattering others and defending their reputations for brilliance, particularly Ben Elton for some reason.
He spends too much time gushing over the obviously incredibly talented Rowan Atkinson and Emma Thompson and not enough revealing his inner workings, his thoughts on the new wave of comedy that swept over Britain from the likes of Rick Mayall, Adrian Edmondsen and Alexei Sayle and too much timed worrying that no one will find his form of “sketch” comedy funny anymore.
Fry highlights all his privilege and wealth, continually apologizes for having it, and then goes on to describe scenes such as when he and Ben Elton visit some swanky private conservative club called “The Carlton” where the joke is on the old crusty Tory members (there’s a bust of Margaret Thatcher there) because they don’t know who they have let in. The thing is Fry appears more Tory than Labour.
Sadly, an utterly boring account of what has been a remarkable life.
Perhaps Stephen Fry should plead: General ignorance and have another go.