Actor, author, director, playwright, linguaphile, polymath, son of an inventor, educated at Queens College, Cambridge, and (ye Gods) almost born American, Stephen Fry has come to represent everything that is wry, cultured, warm-hearted and grammatically correct about the British chap. For the majority of the last three decades, ever since first appearing on University Challenge, The Cellar Tapes and There’s Nothing To Worry About (later titled Alfresco) in the 1980s, Mr. Fry has been there to enunciate, entertain and educate our great nation. Picking a career highlight is tricky. There was his marvellous sketch show (co-written with fellow Cambridge Footlight Hugh Laurie) A Bit Of Fry and Laurie, his delightful role as Lord (later General) ‘Melchy’ in Blackadder Goes Forth, his acclaimed turn as Oscar Wilde in the 1997 film Wilde and, more recently, his role as learned host on QI, to name but a few of his accomplishments.
And yet, for all his success, there has always been a hint of the antiestablishment about Mr. Fry. After all, we are talking about the man who was expelled from more than one public school for assorted misdemeanours, and who spent three months in the rather Dickensian-sounding Pucklechurch Prison at the age of 17 for absconding from the Norfolk College of Arts and Technology with a purloined credit card. Far from emerging from the experience a ruffian however, Stephen Fry has gone on to become the country’s foremost expert on just about everything, it would seem, except dancing. In this exclusive interview, he airs his views on Englishness, cricket, clothes, gentlemen, gadgets and at some considerable length on the humble Panama hat.
I hope these questions aren’t designed to make a posing snob of me. I have no objection to others wearing quite as many flips and all the flops that fancy or need dictates.
What, for you, epitomises the very essence of Englishness?
Lawks. So hard to say. Church bells pealing out a triple bob major, villagers clustered inside the tea tent at a rainy summer fête, The Archers Omnibus, swallows swooping and diving over a cricket field as the sun sets. These are all very middle class English images, of course. But then, as E. M. Forster observed, the English character is defined by the character of its middle classes. One might as easily suggest nylon sheets drying on a revolving clothes line in a garbage filled garden, drunken vomiting in the streets, sullen service in a fried chicken take-away and vicious playground bullying. But you probably do not want such pictures in your head. Which of us does?
What is your idea of absolute heaven?
Sitting in a box at Lord’s cricket ground during an Ashes Test.
And your idea of a hell on earth?
Being at party where there is dance music or dancing of any kind. Having to dance. Not being able to talk because of the music at a party. Parties of any kind. Dancing of any kind. Having to watch dancing on television. Ballroom dancing is particularly inimical to me.
What three items of clothing would you rescue in the event of your wardrobe being invaded by a swarm of moths?
Two particular suits (one blue pin-stripe, the other dark blue) and my best dinner jacket. I should be unhappy to be pantless and sockless, however.
Are you happy with the way in which modern society is heading, or do you see room for improvement in any particular areas?
One must, as Gwendoline observed in The Importance of Being Earnest, always leave room for improvements. But there again I have no idea where modern society is heading. Nor do you. Nor does anyone else. Improvements? I hope you don’t want to me to wank on about manners, respect, courtesy and suchlike drivel? You aren’t the Daily Mail for heaven’s sake.
Where and when have you ever pined for the services of a good tailor?
I’m not sure I ever have. One might pine for a good bookshop when stuck somewhere remote and in need of reading matter and I have certainly pined for an Apple Store, but to pine for a tailor would be strange and – dare one say it? – pretentious beyond permission.
Airs of louche sophistication cannot be said, surely, to derive from exhibitions of virtue? It is hard to be louchely sophisticated while demonstrating impatience, anger or any outward affect that involves vanity, egoism or malevolent energy.
What is your idea of a perfect English gentleman?
One who entertains no thought that he is any such thing. One who would more easily fly through the air than judge anyone else for being or not being a gentleman. One who would never use the word.
Can you name an example, living or deceased?
Martin Gilliat, now no longer with us. He was the Queen Mother’s secretary for many years and came as close as anyone I have met. Not because of the caste into which he was born, but because of the kindliness, energy, sweetness of nature and eternal delight with which he met people and the radiant sense of bonhomie he propagated.
And his female counterpart?
I wonder what that might be? The word “lady” is almost impossible to utter without inducing nausea. “Gentlewoman” will hardly do… At any rate, amongst the most perfectly charming and excellent women I have met I would certainly count Phyllida Law, the actress.
Have you ever considered the wearing of sportswear for any activity other than sport?
Heavens yes. Who do you think I am, Sebastian Horsley (whom God preserve)? Not a shell suit, perhaps, but a rugby shirt or a cricket sweater are all unexceptionable about the house, surely? Fives gloves are ideal for gardening. Who has not flung on a badminton sock, racquetball shorts or hockey trousers when the need arises?
Have you ever found it necessary or appropriate to wear a pair of flip-flops?
Often, but I have never done so, owing to an inability to find comfort in that class of footjoy. I don’t have the toes for it. The rubber stem that is supposed to go between big toe and second toe will chafe and rub so. But I hope these questions aren’t designed to make a posing snob of me. I have no objection to others wearing quite as many flips and all the flops that fancy or need dictates. They seem perfectly appropriate for beach, pool or light tropical terrain. They are the sandal of choice for two thirds of the world’s poor, if not an even greater proportion. Waterproof, cheap, durable and available in a dizzying array of colourways. I have seen many children in poor villages in Africa, Madagascar, South America and South East Asia who own literally nothing other than shorts and flip-flops.
“My kingdom for a horse!” declared Richard III. What object have you ever craved with such intensity?
Any digital gadget a month or so before its due release. It is as if my whole being undergoes a need-a-pee-now experience. I am bent forward in urgent wanting, my face strained into a rictus of desperation and hope. At the moment I am feeling this for Snow Leopard, the next Apple operating system, for the iPhone 3, the Palm Pre and the Nokia 97. Perhaps, such are the long lead times of magazines, these longings will have been fulfilled by the time this number of The Chap hits the news stands.
Had you asked me in 1912 what type of facial hair I think is suitable for a gentleman, we should be agreed that only a hound of hell would go about clean-shaven.
What item of clothing are you determined never to wear?
To be determined never to do something seems to be rather poor-spirited, bumptious and mulish, don’t we feel? Was it not Arnold Bax who said that in this life one should try everything once, except incest and country dancing?
Which of the vices, if any, do you think can lend one an air of louche sophistication?
Most of them. Airs of louche sophistication cannot be said, surely, to derive from exhibitions of virtue? Perhaps it is hard to be louchely sophisticated while demonstrating impatience, anger or any outward affect that involves vanity, egoism or malevolent energy.
What type of facial hair do you think is suitable for a gentleman?
These are all issues of fashion and the moment. And therefore beneath one’s notice. Had you asked me in 1912 we should be agreed that only a hound of hell would go about clean-shaven. Today things are a little different. Personally – and this is my preference only, not a prescriptive or proscriptive attempt at definition – I am all for scraping away the whiskery excrescences of nature and letting the skin shine free, but I have no objection to the growths that other men might sport.
How many different varieties of hat do you own, and which is your favourite?
Gracious heavens. How many varieties of hat, rather than instances of hat? Anyone who owns or wears a panama is asking to be thrashed, that much is clear. It’s the kind of hat that unimaginative art directors dress sixty-year-olds in for TV advertisements that suggest a happy future for pensioners. Midsomer Murders costume designers will, I’m afraid, commit the same sin – which they compound with Viyella shirts and shooting sticks and other such nonsense. I would place elastic-waisted trouserings, leather-buttoned cardigans and electric golf-carts above the vomit-inducing embarrassment of the panama. Yes, I truly would. At least your elastic-waisted trouser is honest. It isn’t reaching for an effect it cannot understand, it isn’t so blind to nuance, history and humanity as to be not a lapse, not an error but a mortal sin. The panama is, let us not palter with the truth, exactly the kind of horror that is advertised in the back of the Mail on Sunday or the Telegraph magazines and fit only, therefore, for the most lost and hopeless cases of bourgeois embarrassment. As well to have tattooed on your forehead the words “I am a fatuous twat” as to wear a panama. Since the heyday of headwear, almost all styles and classes of hat have become loathsome, as a matter of fact; the panama is only the most extreme example. A hat is now a self-conscious style statement that only the very few can get away with. Not only do you have to be socially and morally the kind of person who can get away with a hat, you also have to have the kind of head that a hat suits. A millimeter either way and you are no longer Wearing A Hat, you simply have An Object On Your Head – there is a great difference. I have a top hat for weddings and absurd race meetings and that is about it. I don’t ever wear hats when filming in the jungle, which I have been doing a lot of lately. They obscure the face with their shadows and annoy the cameraman. No, perhaps the best definition of a gentleman might be the kind of man who can wear a hat without looking pretentious, snobbish, self-satisfied or vain. Easier to find a virgin over sixteen, I would submit.