Stephen Fry enters the Radio Times Hall of Fame in conversation with Alan Yentob at the BFI Imax
Stephen Fry entered the stage of the BFI IMAX in Waterloo to a rapturous standing ovation, there to accept his induction into the Radio Times Hall of Fame and to engage in conversation with the BBC’s Alan Yentob, looking back on an extraordinary life and career thus far. As one of Britain’s best loved entertainers who, for 40 years, has brought laughter, accessible intellectualism and pathos into our homes, Fry’s retrospection was perhaps the perfect conclusion to this year’s BFI and Radio Times TV Festival.
The icon initiated the evening by thanking the audience for their attendance on a dramatic sporting day, when one may have been “better off watching…the golf” – the pockets of men encircling Waterloo shouting “Leeds are staying up!” allowing for no illusions that Fry was loosening up all in attendance with a trademark witticism.
He began the substance of the talk with his earliest memories of the BBC, specifying the “cosy” association he has with the long-running BBC Radio 4 drama The Archers, and recalling his mother’s enthusiasm for the programme. Growing up with the BBC and the “golden age” of television it ushered in, Fry also spoke of his childhood fascination with it, and his desire to “go through the glass”.
There was further discussion of the transformative impact of television in his formative years, the writer/actor referring to a televised production of what he later discovered to be Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest – in particular the famous line, “I hope, Cecily, I shall not offend you if I state quite frankly and openly that you seem to me to be in every way the visible personification of absolute perfection”, the beauty of which he said was like “being hit with a sandbag”. This sparked a fascination with Wilde and his linguistic flair, which led to Fry’s consumption of all the literature he could find by and surrounding the Irish playwright. This included The Trial of Oscar Wilde. “I knew that what he was imprisoned for was my nature too,” deduced Fry in something of a fearful realisation of the trials he may face as a result.
On his sexuality, Fry spoke of the uncharacteristic simplicity for him in coming out as a gay man, stating: “Being in a profession like acting, it’s not very hard to come out”. Prodded by Yentob to relay one of his jokes on the subject, Fry, in his wry, well-mannered approach to such humour, said, “Well I remember being born, and I looked back up and thought, ‘That’s the last time I’m going up one of those’”. Fry linked his ability to speak about his sexuality with his willingness to tackle the subject of his bipolar disorder, encapsulated in his 2006 Emmy award-winning documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, and his role as president of the mental health charity, Mind.
Fry’s acceptance into Cambridge’s Queen College (to which his initial reaction was “it’s got to be a hoax”), after an academic life mired in expulsion and an eventual arrest and imprisonment for credit card theft, led to his first meeting with Hugh Laurie, and membership of the legendary Cambridge Footlights, where collaboration with the likes of Laurie and Emma Thompson helped hone his craft. As he recalled, their first meeting involved Fry finishing the lyrics to a song Laurie was writing – “we had just met and we started writing” – insisting that the pair had a “working relationship first” before becoming lifelong friends.
Contemplating the future of his career, Fry stated, “I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m shown a red card soon”, despite numerous projects in the pipeline, including the ITV nature documentary A Year on Planet Earth, citing “new ways of expression in the arts which I’m not across.” He insists, however, that he feels no grievance with a changing world that may soon leave him behind, and doesn’t want to be the cantankerous industry veteran resenting the likes of the BBC for moving him on (perhaps an indirect swipe at a certain fellow Footlights alumnus).