Big Fry

 

Armed with an impressive vocabulary, flawless delivery and extensive experience of the English public-school system, the schoolboy criminal Stephen Fry was well equipped to survive his time behind bars. "It's not that public schools are like prisons, it is rather that prisons are run like public schools. So yes, I did have a considerable advantage."

Now rather better known as an actor and writer, Fry gives the impression of having entered the world as a knowing, uppermiddle-class English gentleman. Benignly alert to nuance and sub-text, he has long been at the mercy of his famous intelligence. Some suspected Fry was destined to remain famous for cleverness alone. Expectation of high achievement was another burden. His distant father expected his middle child to apply himself to something, anything; while his mother had hoped he would be a barrister, a role he seems ideally suited to.

"Ah yes," he nods mock-sagely, Jeeveslike, "the theatricality, the cunning, the rhetoric" - he smiles at the thought and refers to having just completed four days playing the part of a barrister in a film starring Sir John Gielgud. Expectation has also been central to his portrayal of the Irish writer Oscar Wilde in the new film version of Wilde's life.

Any random survey of the best of British comedy dating from the mid-1980s to the present would feature Fry as a prominent writer/performer. He belongs to the anarchic, innovative generation which created Not The 9 O'Clock News and later wrote and appeared in several series of Fry & Laurie as well as playing Jeeves to Laurie's Wooster in the incomparable Jeeves And Wooster. In the second Blackadder series Fry played the unctuous, scene-stealing Lord Melchett. By the time the fourth series had leap-frogged 300 years of English history to arrive in the trenches of the Great War, Fry had metamorphosed into the dangerously crazy General Melchett.

Known for the accuracy and hilarity of his subtle variations on the upper-middleclass snob, Fry is fluent, clever, charming and an obvious Oscar Wilde - so obvious that well before he was offered the role in Brian Gilbert's film version, observers had been chanting that Fry was simply "Born to be Wilde". It seems both a help and a hindrance. "Well I'm tall and look a bit like him." Certainly there is physical resemblance. Questions had, however, been raised about Fry's dramatic range. But his performance is convincing, moving and interestingly subdued. Possibly his finest scene is the eloquent anger Fry displays while appearing to shake with rage when expelling Queensberry from his house.

The facts of Fry's life seem to echo aspects of Wilde's. Even to Fry being approached, during that stint in jail as a teenager, by a fellow prisoner who told him prison was not "for the likes of you" - just as Wilde had been told in Reading Gaol. Fry's reaction is interesting: "I saw it as a social injustice. But then it is in keeping with the fact that the classes perpetuate the divides between them. I had committed crimes why was I not entitled to be in prison?"

Although he plays down the parallels between himself and the writer, he does claim a life-long admiration of Wilde. "I think he is one of the great writers; an artist, an outstanding intellectual. History has treated him so badly. The first public sculpture to him in London is only being unveiled next year." Aware that Dublin's first public sculpture was unveiled this week, Fry says: "I can remember visiting Number One, Merrion Square and seeing the plaque to Sir William Wilde with no mention made of his son. So great was the scandal it served to overshadow the work. Even if I had never been an actor, I should have always felt drawn to Oscar Wilde. I can remember the first time I heard of Beatrix Potter. I can remember the first time I heard of Harriet Beecher Stowe. I can recall with piercing clarity the moment when the name of Fyodor Dostoyevsky first came to my ears. . . But no matter how hard I try, I am unable to think of a time before I had heard of Oscar Wilde. It is as if he had been with me always, like Christ and the Queen."

Considering the expectation surrounding his portrayal of Wilde, it must have been daunting for Fry the comedian, in the company of fine actors such as Tom Wilkinson (Marquess of Queensberry), Jude Law (Bosie) and Jennifer Ehle (Constance), to attempt the part. After all, the public is used to Fry making them laugh, a feat he achieves with the slightest raising of an eyebrow. Laughter, however, is not the ideal response for this role. He agrees.

"We were determined that he [Oscar] would not be a camp, primped queen dripping witticisms. There was a great sadness in him. His affair with Bosie was such a cruel disaster." Conscious of the difficulty in repeating Wilde's famous epigrams with a convincing freshness, Fry explains: "That's why we left them out." Throughout the film, his Wilde appears a man looking doom in the face. The quality of melancholy Fry brings to the part might well owe much to Fry himself but is equally true of Wilde. Whether with his wife and children or with his lovers, Wilde seems apart, always a visitor. He never achieves a sense of intimacy. When watching Bosie's sexual antics in a hotel bedroom, Wilde is most definitely not a voyeur, he is merely watching.

"I think Wilde was an outsider; outside his time because of his honesty, an outsider because of his belief in art as a religion." Based on Richard Ellmann's Oscar Wilde (1987), the film also draws heavily on the facts as presented in Wilde's magnificent De Profundis - his powerful examination of the relationship with Bosie.

Large, though leaner than he appears on the screen, Stephen Fry is a big man, capable of moving with a diffident grace when he has to. There is nothing sheepish about the way he stares back at the camera. His movements are busy, even emphatic rather than camp. Wearing a comfortable, well-worn jacket and corduroy pants, he looks like an academic and responds to questions with care and some deliberation, despite the speed at which he dispatches his eloquent replies. He waves his cigarette and flips his hair out of his eyes with a sharp stabbing motion.

"I thought I would be a don; I'm a natural teacher, I just adore passing on information. I understand that interest Wilde had in the young. I'm always happier with younger people. I have that teacher-student thing."

Agreeing that he has not approached the film as a way of rehabilitating Wilde, he stresses he is not Wilde's champion: "I don't see my portrayal as definitive, it's merely an interpretation." The central focus of Wilde is the relationship between Wilde and Bosie. "If it [the movie] encourages people to return to the work, most especially the essays, and to De Profundis, it will have been of some service."

Fry's cleverness has passed into myth. One day at school while snooping through the headmaster's private papers, Fry happened upon an assessment which rated Fry's IQ as approaching genius. Genius presented no problems, he was less pleased with "approaching". Of course he joined Mensa. When appearing on a special edition of University Challenge, Fry, on the graduate team, achieved the highest score, surpassing the opposing team of dons. "I have a good memory that's all. I don't think I'm uniquely clever but I do remember, er, everything."

Face to face, his tired blue eyes seem smaller and are less hooded than they appear through a camera lens. Friendly and remote, he is attractive in an odd, charmingly indulgent, other worldly, kindly way. It would be possible to listen to him for ever, not only for the quality of his conversation but for the ambiguity he exudes. In a good mood he is unsurpassable. But a feeling lingers that should he happen to feel like jumping out of the window, he probably would. His demeanour is dictated by his mood of the moment.

Success is something he appears surprised at, yet he is as ambitious as he is hardworking. "It's like I want to belong, to join. I want to be part of everything. I want to sing and dance, not to be a star, but just to belong. And yet, I also like being apart. I want to belong, but I also want to stand apart and observe. To judge."

Most people seem to love him and even at the height - or should that be nadir - of his wayward youth, Fry could exploit his natural charm, good breeding and his ability to baffle. Even now, famous and therefore increasingly vulnerable, Fry appears capable of doing no wrong. The waitress reacts to his request for a bagel with cream cheese as if he had just presented her with a small fiefdom.

"I don't like hot milk," he says of his coffee and she seems glad to help. "Oh such ridiculous little requests." If he has enemies they all appear to be English journalists who remain fascinated by his homosexuality. "I seemed to have been psycho-analysed by everyone, at least the newspapers, those guardians of our moral well being. But I have no control over that."

Recently he was asked had he ever taken the drug ecstasy. "I said I had some years ago." On explaining that its effect on him was one of making him wish to dance on table, he dismissed the experience. But his reply was to ricochet: journalists attacked him for his remarks and bereaved parents accused him of being irresponsible. "I was expected to make pronouncements, condemning drugs and so on."

Addicted to telling the truth about even the most embarrassing things, the mildmannered Fry speaks at length about the evils of English hypocrisy. Punching his fist into his hand, he is momentarily angry but soon returns to his characteristically urbane self. Interestingly, each time he makes a general comment about the Britain of today, he returns to the subject of Wilde's society.

"I don't know whether Wilde was sincere, but I do feel he was authentic. I think this is important. It also cost him dearly." Conscious that the film has been criticised for its sexual content, Fry points out that Wilde was not a pervert and did not seem particularly interested in sex. He agrees the writer was more concerned with the cult of beauty and art. "Bosie was not interested sexually in Wilde, and Wilde knew this." Just as the scandal overshadowed the work, the sexuality has overshadowed the relationship. "I think Wilde was besotted by Bosie's youth and beauty, but it is clear Wilde knew it interfered with his work and worried about this." Fry's Wilde is the older man mesmerised by Law's superb, viciously capricious Bosie.

As a child of privilege, the young Stephen Fry got away with a variety of nasty offences such as petty theft and lying. Much of which is candidly chronicled in his autobiography, Moab Is My Washpot, which he wrote at speed. "It took about a month and half." The title comes from the Psalms, but the story is neither religious nor even particularly confessional, despite its often explicit nature. In ways an act of self-expurgation, it is primarily a childhood memoir, alternating between the hilarious and the tedious - played for laughs yet deadly serious as is Stephen Fry. None of his misdemeanours was premeditated.

"I didn't know what I was doing. I was just horribly, deeply unhappy and in a mess of madness." As a mixed-up child and son of a "wilfully unworldly father" who looked like Sherlock Holmes, he quickly retreated into a world of words most of his peers didn't understand. There was also an ongoing spiral of bizarre behaviour.

"I felt I didn't belong anywhere. I wanted someone to take over my life and tell me what to do." When his career of crime finally ended on being discovered in the possession of a stolen credit card, Fry was relieved. As he recalls in Washpot: "I was so happy, so blissfully, radiantly, wildly happy that if I could have sung I would have sung. If I could have danced I would have danced. I was free."

As a young prisoner, Fry could claim only a couple of O Levels; freedom made him eager to aspire to greater things and he set about preparing for university. This he did with a late burst of scholastic glory. Arriving at Cambridge at 20, Fry had collected life experiences far beyond those of the typical undergraduate.

"I was older than the others and this has become part of me, being the older person. The adviser-figure." Did he enjoy his college years? "Oh yes, immensely. I was in 30 plays." He read English and took a first - stressing, somewhat anxiously: "I did very little work." Though perhaps not actively studying, Fry did read widely, becoming particularly interested in modern American poetry such as Charles Olson and the Black Mountain poets. He mentions writing an undergraduate thesis on Joyce, "Ulysses and Secrecy". Throughout the conversation it is obvious that Fry is at his best speaking about literature and would happily discuss books and nothing else.

Just as his accent had set him apart for years, Cambridge helped to consolidate the aura of privilege which surrounds Fry. "There is this perception that being Oxbridge opens all possible doors and on the very day you enter Cambridge, you are handed your very own BBC parking permit." But isn't that what happens? "Not quite", his attention returning to the cream cheese bagel.

Social class is still important in England and Fry agrees that notions of class are perpetuated by those who would profess disapproval. Is it more correct to refer to his comfortable rather than wealthy background as "middle class" instead of "upper middle class"?

"Oh no, you would have to say `upper' because middle class really means bourgeois," he says helpfully. His confusion, his sexuality and his cleverness all helped create Fry the outsider. There is also the fact of his Jewishness which he has often mentioned yet it now seems to have become less important. "My mother might be entirely Jewish," he writes in Washpot, "but my surname is entirely English, and that made all the difference to me in terms of my perceived identity. To the English it meant I was Jewish with faintly exotic overtones." His mother's family were not strict Jews. "Their Jewishness came more from being the victims of Hitler". He pauses before referring to his bagel and cream cheese, as "a very Jewish breakfast".

Just as Fry's humour balances sophisticated wordplay and the lavatorial, his approach to life manages to be open as well as secretive. Appearing to tell everything, he reveals very little. For all his affability, Fry is tough. Of his notorious disappearance from Simon Grey's West End production of Cell Mate, Fry says: "I'd had enough."

He claims his motivation in life is "doing whatever I think will be fun. I love laughing." Is it not audacious to have written a biography at 40? "Why? If I were 80 and wrote about my first 60 years would that be audacious?" Fry agrees it is less an autobiography than a lament to childhood, especially adolescence.

"I didn't want to grow up. By the time I understood adolescence, I was no longer an adolescent." Is he surprised to find himself 40?

"Well the mathematics of my life - I was born in 1957 - make me 40. But inside," he says with judge-like gravitas, "I feel 15."

Moab Is My Washpot by Stephen Fry is published by Hutchinson at £16.99 in the UK.

Wilde, starring Stephen Fry, opens in Ireland tomorrow.