Stephen Fry has helped shaped my outlook on life and my love of words for more than 30 years. This post celebrates what Stephen Fry means to me, and considers whether “the secret of life is in art”.
The proudest moment of my time on Twitter happened on Good Friday six years back. That day (Friday 18 April 2014), I received a tweet from Stephen Fry. I have loved Stephen Fry’s work, his words and his attitude to life for a great many years. I even got to meet him once, very briefly (and enabled by Twitter). I remain to this day overwhelmed to have received a tweet from Mr Fry. On reflection, though, I wonder if Sir might have been toying with me through his tweet. But in the most delightful of ways. And perhaps the most artful…
A Bit of Fry and Laurie (Deceased)*
Stephen Fry is a true hero to me. In particular, the marvellous second series of A Bit of Fry and Laurie was a major influence on my outlook on life and my love of words.
I was delighted last weekend to unearth Stephen Fry’s appearance on Channel 4’s long-forgotten Star Test. This was broadcast within a few months of A Bit of Fry and Laurie Series Two. If the title of the YouTube video is correct, this programme turns 30 years old this week, having apparently first been shown on Friday 10 August 1990. Watching it again after all these years, I was amazed by both how clearly I could recall Fry’s words and how troubled and brittle he seems – especially when contrasted with modern-day Fry. In August 1990, Fry’s status as National Treasure was still many years into the future. I must have recorded this programme when it first went out as I recognised him as one half of Fry and Laurie (and, of course, as Lord Melchett from Blackadder). I must then have watched that VHS tape over and over again during my final school summer holiday. A truly formative influence.
Fry then and Fry now
The same day that I unearthed Fry’s Star Test, I also got to enjoy the words of Sir as he is now. In conversation with Anindita Ghose for the Jaipur Literary Festival on Friday 31 July 2020, Fry discusses his current absence from Twitter,** then talks about his earliest days in comedy. Looking back four decades, he recalls how his collaboration and his friendship with Hugh Laurie were “centred around comedy, a sense of humour.”
Fry talks about the role that humour played in his development:
“Especially at a late adolescent/early manhood age, [humour] involves something very deep about one’s apprehension about the world, a kind of in-or-out… you either see the world the way I do, or you don’t. If you don’t, you’re not the enemy. It’s just we’re not keyed into each other. We don’t map onto each other. But adolescents are like that. They share the same sense of humour, they find the same things pretentious. It’s a very strong streak in the young, to be outraged by things they regard as pretentious.”
Looking back three decades, Fry could almost be describing what humour meant to me in my adolescent years, and how the humour of A Bit of Fry and Laurie chimed with me and helped me understand my own apprehension about the world.
My meeting with Sir
Via the wonders of Twitter, I had the opportunity briefly to meet Stephen Fry in person in 2009 (my first year on Twitter).
I managed to get tickets to a talk on Oscar Wilde that Fry had advertised via Twitter, and which he delivered at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London on Friday 16 October 2009 (the 155th anniversary of Wilde’s birth).
Mr Fry spoke wonderfully and at length about Mr Wilde. He also read us Wilde’s story The Happy Prince (and brushed aside a tear afterwards).
This event is not entirely lost to memory. A kindly YouTube user has pieced together much of the evening’s talk, via snippets of video filmed by audience members.*** Regard:
A signing session followed. Being terribly starstruck, I went to pieces when I was in The Presence, and only managed weakly to say:
“It’s an honour to meet you.”
To which Sir very politely replied:
“And it is an honour to meet you, too.”
The picture of Oscar Wilde
Mercifully, my wife does not get starstruck. She had a short conversation with Mr Fry, and got him to autograph a postcard of one of the greatest photographs of Oscar Wilde (which we’d picked up from the National Portrait Gallery on the way to the Bloomsbury Theatre).
Seeing this postcard prompted Mr Fry to tell us of one of his most prized possessions – a photographic portrait of Oscar Wilde, inscribed by Wilde himself. He recounted the inscription to us.
That Stephen Fry would so generously share these words with us was one of the most prized moments of my life. But this moment was lost to the vagaries of memory. Somehow, neither of us can now remember the inscription. This in some ways makes the memory of that moment with Stephen Fry all the more special. The memory didn’t fully survive the moment.
I have often pondered that long-forgotten inscription, trying to prise from my memory what it might have been. On the morning of Good Friday 2014, I got my chance to ask him about it. Fry was tweeting a delightful run of photographs of a deserted Bank Holiday Regent Street (click here for an example).
I thought I’d chance my arm and ask him what that inscription might have been. Amazingly, he replied.**** Here’s what he said:
“The secret of life is in art”…
A secret preserved?
I was delighted to hear back from Sir. And delighted to have the mystery solved. Or so I thought, for a short while. On reflection, however, I suspect Sir may have been playing a little game with me here. And this is almost more delightful than getting a straight answer.
“The secret of life is in art” is a wonderful Oscar Wilde quotation. But it is by no means an obscure one.
In a moment I am going to write the most embarrassing sentence of my blogging life. I am going to attempt to approximate the gist of what I think Mr Fry told us back then that the Oscar Wilde inscribed picture said. I am going to fail miserably. Through the fog of forgetfulness and inarticulacy on my part, I think Mr Fry said that Wilde’s inscription was along the following lines:
“I adore this picture. It shows my favourite subject.”
I ruined that one. But from what I think I recall of Fry’s words, what Wilde had inscribed on his portrait was succinct, of narcissistic allusion, and uniquely Wildean.
I am delighted to have received a tweet from Sir. I am almost as delighted in my suspicion that, in the most artful of ways, Mr Fry was here preserving the secret of the actual Wilde quotation. The moment in 2009 that he was so kind as to share it with me and my other half remains as magical as before.
Thank you, Sir.
* At the time of writing, and to the best of my knowledge, neither Mr Fry nor Mr Laurie is actually deceased – I’m just referring to a fantastic sketch entitled Where is the lid? from Series 2 of A Bit Of Fry and Laurie (one of the pinnacles of human achievement, in the view of your humble correspondent).
** Fry explains that he is currently taking a break from Twitter, due to the current controversy surrounding his friend, Harry Potter author JK Rowling. He quotes some dialogue from the 1980s film War Games: “Strange game. The only winning move is not to play.” He explains why these words resonate for him in 2020: “That is my feeling about the cancel culture and social media wars. There’s only one way to win this game, and that’s not to play.”
*** It seems that Fry also delivered a version of his Oscar Wilde lecture in 2016, on the occasion of his first appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival.
**** This is how the tweet from Sir looked in its original 2014 format.