What is a Fry? Nobody would ask in Britain, where Stephen Fry has long been a comedic omnipresence in films, television, talk shows, and pretty much anything else you might name, including voice-overs on commercials. In the United States his plump, towering figure and blandly amiable face is mainly known in British imports such as the “Blackadder’’ and “Jeeves and Wooster” series, though he is also featured on Fox’s “Bones.”
THE FRY CHRONICLES: An Autobiography
He, on the other hand, gnaws at the question continually in his blithely apologetic autobiographical venture, “The Fry Chronicles.” “[A] sort of actor,” he hazards, “who is also a sort of writer who is also a sort of comedian who is also a sort of broadcaster who is also a sort of all sorts of all sorts sort. Sort of.” The verbal juggle is typical; Fry uses language as much to play with as to communicate.
The point of an autobiography is to reveal along with a certain amount of concealing. Fry’s could be thought of as hiding in plain sight. He writes of the successes in a career that has brought him wealth and celebrity, but every instance is all but flooded out in a torrent of self- putdowns. It isn’t that they don’t ring true, but in a sense they are the kind of putting-down you do with a jack-in-the-box so that it will spring up. The amiable ink clouds he emits, squid-like, serve as much to evade as to denounce. And though there are extended passages where the self-sermonizing grows tedious, for the most part he is engagingly buoyant as he affixes a downside to each upside.
Fry was brought up in a middle-class family, comfortably enough but marred by insecurities and addictions, mainly to sweets. Expelled from several boarding schools for stealing, he ended up running away and briefly surviving on purloined credit cards, which won him a three-month jail sentence. The dark times suddenly ended; studying hard, he won a scholarship to Cambridge, and there began auditioning for its many theater and comedy groups, with such success that he played in eight productions in a single term.
Cambridge and Oxford have long been seedbeds for Britain’s lustrous theater and comedy traditions. The skits written and performed by Fry and his lifelong collaborator, Hugh Laurie, came to the attention of a powerful agent, Richard Armitage; before long both the BBC and Granada offered them shows. From then on, Fry worked continually; among much else, revising the book of a musical, “Me and My Girl,” which ran for years and earned him a small fortune. (So did the commercials. Only 20, Armitage lamented when he passed along the first offer. It did seem rather little until Fry realized that this was short for 20,000 pounds. )
And along with the triumphs, the lamenting. He judges his dexterity lacks depth; as an actor he is unable to find the commitment of the first-rate performers. He is witty, he tells us, but not really funny. His awkwardness with his body — he hated sports and can’t dance — precludes the mastery of the true comic performer. He is “in dread of double-takes, slow burns, pratfalls and those other apparently essential comic techniques that seemed to me as terrifying, impenetrable and alienating as dance steps or tennis strokes.”
This physical incompetence also meant that he was unable to put on any vigorous sexual performance; as a gay man, he is, he writes, “a minority within a minority.” And reviewing books, he admits he is more concerned with authors’ feelings than with literary judgment. In short, he is a creature of surfaces.
The perpetual caviling can become tedious, especially when it slogs into page after page of self-analysis. On the other hand, it is an oddly winning way to avoid the triumphalism of the typical success story. And from time to time a vivid phrase or observation flashes through.
Addicted to cigarettes, he recalls a fellow smoker’s retort to someone who told him he’d live longer if he stopped: “It just seems longer.” And when he finally quits he recalls the odd sense of diminishment. “Have I betrayed a way of looking at the world? Have I turned my back on freedom, perversity and outsiderism?” Thus a snake in his new clean skin might lament the adventurous wriggles made in the scruffed-up old one.
Citing the distinction between the puritan Cambridge tradition and the warmer indulgences of Oxford, he jauntily attempts a sorting of the comedians from each: Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, and himself from Cambridge; Oxford’s Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore, and Michael Palin. “It is more than possible that you find the cuddly Dudley and the even cuddlier Alan Bennett and Michael Palin much more likable than their tall, aloof and rather forbidding Cambridge counterparts.”
All in all, it is something of a jumble of a book, with more detail about production after production than most readers are likely to want. Little if any editing seems to have been done. A mention of suddenly walking out on his role in a play by Simon Gray, thus infuriating the writer, comes without explanation. (Fry had suffered a serious bipolar breakdown and was hospitalized.) Finally, and without warning, the memoir breaks off abruptly in 1986. Another volume is hinted at but the sudden stop is disconcerting.