Despite his success, one sometimes feels a little sorry for Stephen Fry: for some, he is the celebrity everybody used to love, his popularity dimmed by Twitter spats and overexposure. Yet if you take his finest achievements: the first seasons of A Bit of Fry and Laurie (1987-1995), his early books The Liar (1991), The Hippopotamus (1994) and his memoir Moab is My Washpot (1997), his brave documentary The Secret Life of The Manic Depressive (2006), as well as his lead role in Wilde (1997), and even alongside his erstwhile colleague Hugh Laurie in TV’s Jeeves and Wooster, it is a body of work remarkable in its brio and its breadth.
It all serves to prove that few people work harder than Stephen Fry – and not just in the entertainment industry. In fact, his ubiquity amounts almost to absurdity. It sometimes seems that what we’re witnessing is the work ethic of Margaret Thatcher relocated to an apparently more leisurely sector.
It can seem as if every awards ceremony, supporting role and quiz show on earth seems to be dominated by Fry. His outspokenness on politics, religion and other things isn’t always matched by knowledge: Peter Hitchens famously referred to him as ‘the stupid person’s idea of an intelligent man’.
But these gaps are offset by the perception that it’s been fun along the way – and so Finito World feels no compunction about asking him about his views on how to relax and wind down. ‘Work is so much more fun than fun,’ as Noel Coward put it. It is a line which might have been Fry’s mantra.
When we caught up at the sweaty launch of Paul Feig’s Artingstall’s gin, we asked Fry about the need to offset work with relaxation. So, does he drink these days? “Not much, but I love a good cocktail,” came the kindly reply. And what is his favourite cocktail? “When I’m hot like I am now, I find a John Collins – gin, lemon juice, soda – really refreshing.” And are there any drinks he stays away from? “I’m not a great one for really sweet, sticky drinks. I like them to refresh you. But I do make a good negroni!”
It’s good to see him out and about. Fry, of course, hasn’t been well having been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2018; the disease is now thought to be in remission, and he has spoken out publicly at his good fortune at catching the disease early.
Nevertheless, there has to come a time when everyone slows down and thinks about resting on their laurels. So will we ever see Fry host the BAFTAs again: “Oh, I don’t know. I think twelve is probably enough – it’s a good number and I’m very happy.”
Our conversation soon turns back to drink and what role it should play in our lives. “Whisky provokes violence more than gin,” says Fry. “Gin provokes tears. If you’ve had a lot of gin you just start crying.” Here Fry, ever the actor, performed an immense howl. “I’ve had a few friends who had a lot of whisky and it’s really unpleasant.”
Fry is also illuminating on national differences. “I think we should learn from European Football. Whenever there was a match in Belgium there was violence afterwards, because in Belgium you drink beer and get pissed. Whenever they played in the Netherlands, there was no violence, because they were smoking, because cannabis is legal in the Netherlands, so that’s what we should learn really! We’d be better off, someone should be creating some exquisite hash brownies.”
Fry is a global citizen though when I ask him about it, I get an interesting response. “This is a very Mayfair event, isn’t it? I feel like an out-of-towner, somehow everybody looks as though they belong here.”
If even the famous feel perpetually out of place perhaps this give us permission to feel nervous for that first job interview.
Even so, Fry is an emblem of what can be achieved if you set yourself to work across disciplines and refuse to heed boundaries. You get the impression that Fry knew his gifts from the start but that he has been surprised how far they have taken him.
Does he have any anonymity in London? “If you walk fast enough and you look as if you’re in a hurry, people are very good, they leave you alone.”
And with that he’s gone – and probably gone back to work.