Comedian, actor and writer Stephen Fry was born in 1957 in London and brought up in Norfolk.
He attended Queen’s College Cambridge from 1979, joining the Cambridge Footlights Dramatic Club where he met Hugh Laurie, with whom he forged a highly successful writing partnership. His first play, Latin! or Tobacco and Boys, written for Footlights, won a Fringe First at Edinburgh Festival in 1980. He wrote again for theatre in 1984 when he rewrote Noel Gay’s musical Me and My Girl (1990). This was nominated for a Tony Award in 1987. He has written for television and screen, and as a newspaper columnist – for the Literary Review, Daily Telegraph and The Listener.
Stephen Fry's four novels are The Liar (1991), The Hippopotamus (1994), Making History (1996) and The Stars' Tennis Balls (2000). He has also published a collection of work entitled Paperweight (1992); and Rescuing the Spectacled Bear: A Peruvian Journey (2002) – his diary of the making of a documentary on the plight of the spectacled bears of Peru. His book Stephen Fry in America was published in 2008.
Stephen Fry's Incomplete History of Classical Music (2004), written with Tim Lihoreau, is based on his award-winning series on Classic FM and is an irreverent romp through the history of classical music. The Ode Less Travelled - a book about poetry - was published in 2005.
He is also the author of two books of autobiography - Moab Is My Washpot (1997) and The Fry Chronicles (2010).
Stephen Fry is a phenomenon: writer, actor, comedian, director, librettist, quiz show host and award ceremony compare, there seems to be no end to his ability to excel at whatever he chooses to do.
Indeed, so adept is he at so many things that Clive Anderson has even suggested that Fry would be able to turn his hand to football management. One can have no doubt that he would succeed. Stephen Fry is the epitome of the Renaissance Man and is fast becoming what we in Britain like to describe as a ‘national treasure.’ Possessed with a brilliant mind, a natural wit and an extraordinary verbal facility, Fry can never be ignored; he demands to be listened to, read and admired.
As a writer Fry has produced a work of collected journalism, an autobiography, and four novels. In all he displays his unquenchable desire to entertain, combined with an erudition and a use of language which reveals his masterly control over it. Fry cares deeply for words. In The Hippopotamus (1994), Fry has his ever-sarcastic narrator railing against the problem of words. ‘Oh yes, the poor poet: pity the poor bloody poet. The poet has no reserved materials, no unique modes. He has nothing but words, the same tools that the whole cursed world uses to ask the way to the nearest lavatory, or with which they patter out the excuses for the clumsy betrayals and shiftless evasions of their ordinary lives.’ In Moab is My Washpot (1997), his frank, poignant and painfully honest autobiography, Fry describes how in his teens he became obsessed with language, to the extent that he would devour dictionaries in order to expand his vocabulary and infuriate his teachers. In The Liar (1991), Fry’s debut novel, Donald Trefusis, Regius Professor of Philology at Cambridge and extraordinarily gifted polyglot, is highly dismissive of books but has a reverence for words. ‘When are we told that words should be treated with respect? From our earliest years we are taught to revere only the outward and visible.’ For Fry the word is King. The Liar, a juicily irreverent book which draws from the author’s own life, was, unsurprisingly, an immediate success. Many who have distinguished themselves in the world of comedy have gone on to write novels; indeed so inundated have bookshops been in recent years with the output of what the literary-minded like to dismiss as celebrity novelists, that it is perhaps not difficult to see why critics often disregard their work, stating baldly that it is the celebrity rather than the talent which has got them published. This may be true in one or two cases; however, Stephen Fry more than deserves to be taken seriously. The Liar is a masterpiece of comic writing. The narrator, the wonderfully flamboyant and decidedly camp Adrian Healey, is a wit and a wilful dissembler, unable to see the world as anything other than his own personal theatre. Healey reserves the right to play any number of parts in order to mask his essential hollowness of spirit. We follow his duplicitous trail from the days of schoolboy infatuation, adolescent rebellion and constant solipsism through to Cambridge and the arrival in his life of Professor Trefusis, a man who sees right through Adrian’s duplicity and takes great delight in it.
The Hippopotamus, Fry’s second novel, is memorable for the sustained misanthropic rages of its protagonist, out-of-fashion poet Ted Wallace. Wallace is a washed up whiskey-sodden theatre reviewer who, having been sacked by his newspaper, accidentally finds himself involved in the mysterious healings taking place at the stately home of an old friend. There we find him embittered and contemptuous, pouring scorn on a world which has not only rejected him but also pities his failings as an artist and a man. Less a character study and more a portrait of a literary man’s view of contemporary life, The Hippopotamus is more savage than The Liar. There is a bubbling anger below the ironic veneer, an irritable disenchantment with our gullibility, our modern need for Californian style healing techniques and new age beliefs. The humour is wicked and the cynicism marked. Ted Wallace is obsessed with the real and one finds this affecting. Unlike Healey in The Liar, who finds it difficult to accept that anyone possesses his own form of quiddity, Wallace is less interested in himself and instead seeks raw experience; he does not wish to see life draped in gilded sheets and finds all around him the false, the fake and the fantastically glib.
Given Fry’s fame in Britain as a comic actor, the serious thought that underlies his novelistic output is often overlooked. The Liar is a subtle and sensitive examination of the agonies of adolescence and the difficulty of ‘joining in’; a theme that Fry deals with at length in Moab is My Washpot. It is also an investigation of the nature of truth. In his last two novels, Making History (1996) and The Stars’ Tennis Balls (2000) Fry has extended his range by producing a work of alternative history and a revenge thriller, both of which raise serious concerns. Making History asks what would have happened if Hitler had never been born; it takes the reader whizzing through time and space, from modern-day Cambridge to an alternative Princeton following the somewhat empty-headed protagonist, Ph.D. History student Michael Young. Young discovers that radical change does not necessarily bring what is expected or wanted. The novel is only partly successful; the chapters written in screenplay format interrupt the flow of the narrative and seem unnecessary. It has to be said that Making History lacks the zesty bite of Fry’s first two novels. Yet its examination of an alternative world in which Hitler never existed is memorable enough, if perhaps not sufficiently expansive.
The Stars’ Tennis Balls, an ingenious reworking of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, in which the character names are anagrams of the originals, is a revenge tragedy for the dot com era, a dark thriller that deals with the twisted logic of Fate and the murky nature of human motivation. With its sharp and pacy feel, The Stars’ Tennis Balls is compelling page-turning fiction, particularly in its first two thirds which deal with the setting up of Ned Maddstone and his subsequent imprisonment. It reminds us that Fry is a skilled and meticulous plotter, capable of creating the kind of narrative tension more commonly associated with thriller writers.
There is an unmistakeable Wodehousian tone to Fry’s work. His novels are peopled with over-privileged public schoolboys and impossibly gifted characters which he subjects to gentle mockery. It is a testament to Fry’s ability to create memorable comic set pieces and laugh out load one-liners, that one does not become irked by a world that reeks of arrogance and self-congratulation. This is largely due to the fact that Fry’s writing is hugely enjoyable. His work sparkles with Wildean wit. One savours his delicious puns and extravagant referential language, revels in his impressive erudition, and luxuriates in the remarkable intelligence which is demonstrated on each and every page.
Garan Holcombe, 2004