As an aspiring author I try to write as often as possible but always remember to have a book on the bedside table. I read for many reasons, mostly the sheer joy of the pastime, but I am constantly trying to improve myself as a writer, finding worthwhile lessons in my successful peers, whether they’re currently enjoying life in the bestsellers list or they have long since written their final words. As I continue my own writing journey (hopefully towards publication!) I’ll be sharing my thoughts on all my latest reads and maybe reveal who I find the most inspiring along the way.
Stephen Fry – The Fry Chronicles (2010)
If you live in the UK it is highly likely that at some point you will have come across one our most treasured sons – Stephen Fry. Where do you start with him? Comedian, writer of fiction and non-fiction, quiz show host, blogger, radio, television, films, audio books, you’re probably starting to get the message that he does a lot. With such notable credits as Blackadder, Kingdom (2007-9), A Bit of Fry and Laurie (1987-95) on television and Wilde (1997), Gosford Park (2001) and V For Vendetta (2006) on the big screen, and his own Twitter account, you’ll have done well not to hear anything about him, but with The Fry Chronicles, a sequel of sorts to Moab is my Washpot (1997), we are given further insight into the life of one of the UK’s greatest ever entertainers.
While Moab is my Washpot focussed on the first 20 years of Stephen’s life, The Fry Chronicles looks at his time at Cambridge University which led to his first appearances on stage and later a career in comedy while dabbling in plenty of other pursuits including adverts and writing plays. The book ends in 1987 when Stephen has filmed the second series of Blackadder and he and best friend, Hugh Laurie, are beginning work on their sketch show, A Bit of Fry and Laurie. It might seem like a small period of time initially but at 400+ pages there is so much information here about Fry’s life, interposed with many memories that fall outside the book’s main timeframe.
I’d previously only read The Star’s Tennis Balls from Stephen’s collection of books so was eager to see how an autobiography would read. Unsurprisingly, it is witty, with a delightful use of the English language throwing in many words I’ve never come across, but the main strength is to be found in Fry’s honesty. I often smiled at his frequent apologies for speaking of his career, particularly when revealing he has had little if any problems when it comes to money, yet felt the need to keep saying sorry to those of us that may have felt he was showing off. I wasn’t the least offended, Stephen, you’re worth every penny. The book is divided into four sections, the first dealing with Fry’s childhood addiction to sugar in whatever form it was manifest. His love of all things sugary impacted years later with his weight ballooning to over 20 stone, though a change of lifestyle has now seen him shed much of this. The second section focuses on another addiction and this one is even more serious – tobacco. In both cases Fry talks about the moments he decided it was time to give up on both addictions. How did he fare? It’s not for me to tell.
The autobiography soon moves onto Fry’s time at Cambridge University. Having previously spent some time in prison, this was a fresh start and I found it amusing that such an undoubtedly intelligent man lived in fear of being found out he wasn’t clever and subsequently booted out of the university. Fry’s attendance at lectures was not good to say the least but his ingenuity in facing coursework and exams was simply amazing. Fry had a basic argument in mind that he could chop and change to suit just about any question under that particular subject. For example he may have had a general argument about a play by Shakespeare but when faced with a tough exam question Fry could just use the same material each time, rephrasing it in such a way that it answered the question perfectly. His high marks and cunning in applying himself to the many essays and exams meant he could ignore lectures and focus on the theatre which became his primary interest. A play, Latin! (1980), was a great success for Fry and highlighted his writing credentials. This part of the book also deals with Fry’s early sexual relationships and his friendships with some familiar names such as Emma Thompson and, of course, Hugh Laurie, who was a brilliant athlete and part of the rowing team. Hearing mention of familiar names on the comedy circuit in their early days was really interesting. Fry’s reservations about seeing a young comedian named Rowan Atkinson live one day and emerging from the show in agony from laughing made me smile. His appraisals of Emma Thompson and, in particular, Hugh Laurie, were also moving to read. The third section ends with Fry’s work on The Cellar Tapes, a series of sketches that included Hugh and Emma, winning a Perrier Award in 1981 and setting the trio on the road to stardom.
The final section is all about Stephen’s early career and even then his versatility was incredible. As well as working on The Crystal Cube (1983), Alfresco (1983-4), Saturday Live (1985-7), Fry also worked on a revised script for 1930s musical, Me and My Girl, which not only reached the West End but Broadway as well. Fry’s early career saw him encounter the likes of Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, Robbie Coltrane, Douglas Adams, Harry Enfield, Paul Whitehouse (very interesting background story as well), Alan Bennett, Rowan Atkinson, Richard Curtis and many more. I won’t deny that with Blackadder being my favourite comedy series of all time I was fascinated to hear Stephen’s account of work on that second series, in my opinion the best of the lot. For such a great performance as Lord Melchett, Fry plays down his contribution instead citing the honour and privilege he had of working with the likes of Tim McInnery, Tony Robinson, Miranda Richardson, Hugh Laurie and Rik Mayall. His greatest appraisal which I thoroughly approved of was for Rowan Atkinson who was simply outstanding as Edmund Blackadder (that’s mine and Stephen’s opinion by the way.) The book ended on something of a cliffhanger with Blackadder II not yet aired and Stephen and Hugh working on A Bit of Fry and Laurie.
The Fry Chronicles has a series of quality photos to accompany Fry’s writing. It’s always frightening looking back on pictures of ourselves when we were younger and even more so seeing a young Stephen Fry particularly one snap where his hair is very long indeed. Unsurprisingly, this photo is accompanied by a less than flattering caption. Other photos include many of the actors and actresses Stephen has worked with over the years, as well as family photos as well, which are always interesting to see celebrities in their home environment. I can’t really think of any complaints with The Fry Chronicles other than I hope Stephen releases the next instalment of his autobiography sooner than he did with this one. There is a hint that a new book will appear one day but how long we’ll have to wait is difficult to say especially given how busy Stephen Fry is.
For fans of Stephen Fry this is an absolute must. Accounts of his time at Cambridge are great reading while his early forays into comedy and his reservations given the undoubted talents of his comedic contemporaries make Fry all the more likable. There is no arrogance in his writing or about his achievements. Everything is just complete honesty which makes for a refreshing read. Those who know little of Fry or his work will find an interesting autobiography here. In short: this is not to be missed.