Stephen Fry: "Have a go."

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By Sean Axmaker

"There is something about words which excites and delights."

Stephen Fry is amiable, cheery, funny, charming and damnably imposing. To reverse a cliché, he looks much bigger in real life. But it's not just his size - the stocky six-foot, four-and-a-half-inch man carries himself with a physical ease that is actually quite calming, and his boyish smile gives him an impish quality, suggesting that, at heart, he's far younger than 47. It's his combination of vast knowledge, searing insight, and verbal articulation, not to mention his astounding career as an actor of stage and screen, television and film writer, novelist, and now, director, that impresses. The man is so erudite you are nervous to open your own mouth, for fear of a grammatical mishap or, even worse, a banality slipping into your side of the conversation.

Stephen Fry was at the Seattle International Film Festival as a special guest, the star attraction of "An Evening With Stephen Fry," an on-stage Q&A at the famous Cinerama Theater, and the proud writer/director of Bright Young Things, his directorial debut which was to see its local premiere. The morning of both events, he made time for interviews and, despite the jet lag, greeted me, the first interview of the day, with a hearty welcome. I walked into the rather imperious conference room set aside for the interviews with a cup of tea in a Starbucks cup. "Oh, Starbucks, they have that here, now?" he kidded. When I confessed that it was actually English breakfast tea behind the logo, he smiled again and said, "Which is appropriate, since you're having breakfast with an Englishman."

The conversation ranged wide and far, from the story behind his Bright Young Things to his insights on the tradition of British comedy, the British fascination with period dramas and the unique qualities of the class system. In between, allergies struck him and he struck back with a cigarette, pausing briefly to find an ashtray before rolling back into answers so thorough they could be the launching point of an entire book.

 

Bright Young Things

You and a number of your contemporaries, like Hugh Laurie, come out of a particular British comedy tradition that doesn't really exist in the US. There is a sense of whimsy and absurdity, and at the same time, you're grounded in social satire with political references, and there is a particularly erudite way of saying things that is almost unknown in American comedy.

Yes, it is interesting. It's definitely a tradition, there's no question. In fact, the tradition has a name and a place and a date, if you like, which is the Footlights Club at Cambridge University. I don't know that there are any real American equivalents. There is the Hasty Puddings [at Harvard], but it's not the same, from all I can tell of the Hasty Puddings, it isn't the same as that at all. And it's an institution that goes back, oh, 150 years now, however old the Footlights is. Particularly, post-war comedy included Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett, and then John Cleese and Eric Idle and all the Pythons, and right up to all kinds of disparate figures like Douglas Adams, who wrote Hitchhiker's Guide. Hugh [Laurie] and myself and Emma Thompson were all in the same year, in the same group. It's an extracurricular thing. You don't go off to Cambridge to study in the Footlights. It's a club that you join. It's tradition to write material - scenes, blackouts and little things - for yourselves to perform. And Hugh and I started writing together. It was only in our last year, really, that we started doing that. I starting writing with Emma, and we wrote a few monologues for Emma and myself together. And then the BBC asked if they could show it on television, and it just sort of grew from there.

But it is hard to explain quite why that tradition arose and why it exists, really, primarily at Cambridge. At Oxford, they don't really have it so much at all. I mean, there have been some great things to come out of Oxford, obviously - Michael Palin, Rowan Atkinson - but it is a particularly Cambridge tradition, and I suppose by nature of these things, once it's established it is de facto a tradition and therefore it nourishes itself, but you can't quite understand why it started. It's a bit like going to Salzburg, which is after all, just one ordinary, very pretty city - but there are lots of pretty cities in Europe - and you think, "Why should this be the place that Haydn and Schubert and Mozart all sprang from?" It's a tiny place, a population of 250,000, if that. Or for that matter, you go to Jerusalem, and you think, "Why should the three biggest religions on Earth all [have] sprung from this totally unprepossessing place in the middle of the desert?" It is most odd. It's as if there's a sort of spring, you know, and - if one believes in such things, which I certainly do not - lay lines or other such nonsense. Whatever, the given is that there is this tradition.

As for the language side of, well, I suppose - I would not want you to think that... I'm sure if you've been to England you'll know that not every English bus conductor and shop assistant speaks Miltonic and Shakespearean English with perfect cadences and excellent sort of vocabulary choices and marvelous constructions, because, of course, that's not the case. However, I do think there is a tradition in Britain to use language with more precision and actually with more joy, with more pleasure in what language can offer, to use it as a kind of verbal music. Probably because it is our inheritance, you know. The empire is gone, we don't lay claim to India or Boston or anywhere else, but this language that surrounds the Earth is something that came from this island. So it's a kind of inheritance of which one could be proud. I think it's kind of built in - English people, when they open their mouths, usually find some interesting way of putting words together that may not have gone together before. We resist the clichés as much as possible, the stock phrases, the tired expressions, and search for some new way of saying things, and allow language to sort of go for a walk, as it were. Of course, there are all kinds of utterly dumb and yammering creatures in Britain who couldn't string one word after another, but that's true in any culture. But I think on average, there is something about words which excites and delights. That's not to say there isn't [a similar tradition] in America; there are some fantastic uses of language, but it isn't as culturally important, I don't think, to an American, the way language is used.

American language largely springs up from the youth and popular culture and filters in to the mainstream.

Yes, yes indeed. Of course, a great deal of that which comes from South Central, from Compton and Watts and ghettos, and the white kids pick it up and think it's great and say "yo" and "homeboy." And by the time the white kids have got it, it's embarrassing, and the ghettos are coming up with something new, and so on. It is a peculiar tradition. And yes, of course, and it comes over to England. There are little ten-year-old English girls going, [in a petulant voice] "Whatever!" and you just want to go [mimes slapping a face] like that. There aren't enough slaps in the world to punish a child for saying things like that.

There is a tremendous amount of British cinema and television that is based in the period between 1900 and 1940. A whole lot, a significant amount more than there is the US.

Oh, absolutely right, yes. I suppose you could argue that, in the 40s and 50s, there was a staggering amount of American cinema that was being set in the 1870s and 80s, what are now called Westerns. Which are period films. That's about the same gap between that past of the Westerns and the high water mark, the golden age of Western-making in Hollywood, both for Hollywood and on television, the Western series, the High Chaparrals and Rawhides and such, Wagon Train. And for some reason, this seems to be our territory of the Western. A great deal of ink has been spilled on the subject of what the Western means to the American imagination, what the primary sort of analog is, what the symbols are in a Western in terms of the making of the American mind and character and culture and the way America founded itself and the guilt that goes with the destruction of the American Indians and the pride that goes with the technical achievements, and the settling of the lawlessness and the taming of the spirit, as it were, the ego conquering the id, and everything. Every film student has written reams on that very subject, on the works of Mann and Hawks and Ford alone, let alone all the countless others. But much less ink has been spilled on that as far as the Gosford Parks and the Bright Young Things, as to why...

I suppose the fact is that it's a kind of reverse, which is very typically British. It's the exact opposite of the making of a Western. You were talking about the founding of your civilization, the very brink of the great rise of America as a mighty industrial military and naval power, as a cultural force on the globe that has not been equaled since. And we are talking about the decline of Britain, from having run the largest empire the world has ever seen. In the 1920s and 30s, the empire was at its absolute height in terms of the number of citizens under its control. By the end of the Second World War, by 1945, it was all falling apart. We had spent everything on the destruction of Nazism and the Lend Lease had come through, the Marshall Aid and so on. Roosevelt, God bless him, came through and helped bail us out. So we're looking in the same way that Suetonius [author of The Twelve Caesars] and Robert Graves [author of I, Claudius and Claudius the God] looked at the decadent end of the Roman Empire. So, I suppose there is something in us, something in us British that is fascinated by this period from which we go from the arrogant, causal grace of the high summer afternoon of our imperial might to the shabby dreadfulness of post-war Britain, with its rationing and its utter lack of style and grace, until eventually, in the 60s, it picks up again, chiefly with the Beatles and Carnaby Street and the Cool Britannia sort of thing, and then eventually, we, finally, kind of pick ourselves up as a modern post-imperial country. But I would guess. That's a theory; it's no more valid than anybody else's, but that would seem to me to be our equivalent. It's our Western, but it's a reverse Western.

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