In an office in the bowels of Oxford’s Waterstones, I am attempting to present
myself as knowledgeable and witty, a feat made rather difficult by the fact that the man sitting across the table from me is Stephen Fry, knowledge and wit personified.
The stack of books that shrinks ever smaller as Fry signs each one is made up of his new travel book, Stephen Fry in America, documenting his long drive across every state in America.
His idea for the book stems from a childhood memory of when he would muse upon the life of Steve, the American boy who would have existed instead of Stephen, if only his father had accepted a job at Princeton. This boy wore jeans and T shirts instead of grey shorts and plimsolls, and listened to music instead of reading poetry. Essentially then, Steve was all-American cool, and Stephen was just a little bit scared of his imaginary counterpart.
I wonder, then, if Fry was equally scared of this proposed mission, this journey into the good old U S of A. He instantly accepts this suggestion; “there was an element of trepidation. One is concerned with the possibility of disappointment; the disappointment in the scenery, in the people, in the rudeness of people.”
For Fry, this mission was about dispelling the myths that the British believe about American people and he freely admits that ‘there was a fear that there would be a confirmation of the prejudices that we have. Plus, there was the personal fear, those which effect us all; “Am I doing my job properly?” or “Am I taking good enough notes”. So yes, there was an element of fear.”
It is easy to forget that Stephen Fry, renowned for his intelligence, is of course a very funny man. As we converse, his publicist silently answers the phone over his shoulder. For a moment Fry looks confused as to where a muffled voice is coming from, and on seeing the phone looks relieved. “Oh good,” he says, “I thought it was God telling me to kill again.”
Trying to experience all fifty states, Fry took part in a vast range of activities, which caused a conundrum of conscience on several occasions. When hunting in New York state, whaling in Alaska, practising witchcraft in Massachusetts and voodoo in Louisiana, did he struggle to observe ways of life that he found morally dubious? “You’ve hit the nail on the head there,”
Fry begins, “because I feel slightly hypocritical. I’m a bit less kind in the book, whereas on the show I have to sort of play along.”
A stark example of this difficulty of holding his tongue was found in Oregon, where a gun-toting doctor of psychology presented his case for the existence of Bigfoot.
Fry exclaims, “I thought he was preposterous! I was a bit unkind to him though! I mean, frankly they’re all silly, but at least witches don’t have homophobic beliefs and are obviously nicer to women! So really I have more respect for witchcraft than for Christianity. But it was difficult! I’m a rationalist, or an empiricist perhaps.”
Despite his lack of religion, Fry was welcomed into almost every strain of Christianity, and was perhaps most charmed by a group of young Mormon men being photographed for a topless calendar in Nevada. I found this concept seriuosly bizarre, and Fry is in agreement; “well, you’ve got the scoop there; I found out that the guy who organised it has been practically excommunicated from the church. They decided that he was bringing the faith into disrepute. He asked me to intercede on his behalf, but…” He pauses. Who knows what the head of the Mormon Church would say if Stephen Fry called to give his thoughts on the matter.
Shortly before our interview began, Fry and I were stopped by an elderly Indian woman who insisted she was a huge fan of his movies. In Colorado, some children knew him instantly from his supporting role in V for Vendetta. As a man who has written books, starred in films, presented quiz shows (the list goes on), I ask if he is surprised when others recognise him because of the film.
“Yes it does,” he says, “you never know what it’s going to be. Some people will say “I just love Peter’s Friends, or that Bright Young Things (Fry’s sole foray into directing) is their favourite film. And then there’ll be people who’ve never seen the films but have read my books, and so obviously that’s very nice.”
Now that the American quest is over, what’s next for Stephen Fry? Currently working on the screenplay for a Dambusters remake, he’s well in to the writing process; “I’ve done three drafts, and Peter Jackson is working on the action draft. He can write it out like a verbal storyboard as quickly as I can do the dialogue.” Fry is clearly excited to be working with Jackson, and I ask how such a collaboration came about. “It’s actually his project. David Frost bought the rights and got Jackson on board, and he gave me a call. Naturally I was very excited.”
After breaking his arm filming in Brazil for another new travel-based series, he is off to Africa to continue where he left off. “Then,” Fry says, gladly, “December off”. “Completely off?” I question. “Well, I have some writing to do…” Clearly there is no rest for the wicked.
We are interrupted briefly as the manager of Waterstones, whose office we are using, pops in to offer us a coffee. Stephen appreciates the offer, but would prefer some red wine. A bottle of Bordeaux emerges from nowhere, and the wine is poured. After a quick pause for refreshments, I ask if he enjoys events like this; book signings, publicity drives and interviews with precocious student journalists; “I do, very much.”
“I could live in the strange bubble of publicists, writers, journalists and other
such people”, he continues, “Not to meet them would be a pity. It’s interesting to see how things have changed. Students used to have posters of Che Guevara and Jimi Hendrix on their walls. Now they have Albert Einstein and Oscar Wilde. It used to be about politics, the message. Now it’s about the mind.”
Clearly Fry is all about mind over message. As the interview comes to a close, it is clear that the most intelligent man on television is also the most pleasant that this precocious student journalist has ever come across. If he’s faking it, then he’s a better actor than most give him credit for.