Is it fun? Or, as student journalists always ask, what’s it like? ‘What’s it like working with Natalie Portman, what’s it like doing QI, what’s it like being famous?’ I don’t know what it is like. What is being English like? What is wearing a hat like? What’s eating Thai red curry like? I don’t believe that I can answer any question formulated that way. So, student journalists, tyro profilers and rooky reporters out there, seriously, quite seriously never ask a ‘what’s it like’ question, it instantly reveals your crapness. I used to try getting surreal when asked the question and say things like ‘being famous is like wearing blue pyjamas at the opera. It’s like kissing Neil Young, but only on Wednesdays. It’s like a silver disc gummed to the ear of a wolverine. It’s like licking crumbs from the belly of a waitress called Eileen. It’s like lemon polenta cake but slightly wider. It’s like moonrise on the planet Posker.’ I mean honestly. What’s it like?? Stop it at once.
No, but really Stephen, what is it like, being famous? Go on.
Oh, very well then. I can only tell you what being famous as Stephen Fry is ‘like’, of course. I suppose there must be some elements to the experience that I have in common with other famous people, but in the end being famous as Stephen Fry is not the same as being famous as Carl Sagan or David Furnish or Vernon Kaye.
I’ll start with a story that illustrates exactly one aspect of that point. 15 or so years ago I was filming a TV drama called Stalag Luft in Harrogate with Nicholas Lyndhurst. After a couple of nights sampling the hotel’s room service menu we decided to totter into town and try our luck in an Indian restaurant. We were spotted by a group of young Harro … young Harrogaters? Harrovians won’t do it. Whatever, a sample of Harrogate youth button-holed us. They hailed Nicholas in a strange blend of North Yorkshire and attempted South London, punching him playfully but quite forcefully on the arm and saying ‘Come on Rodney, you fucking plonker, give us your autograph, you daft cunt.’ They roughhoused him like this as he patiently signed, and then they turned to me, all but doffing their caps, and asked in a very polite tone, ‘Excuse me, Mr Fry, but can we have your autograph too?’ Walking away from this encounter Lyndhurst said in an aggrieved tone as he rubbed his bruised upper arm: ‘What the hell was that about? I get called a cunt and violently punched and you get “excuse me Mr Fry”???’. ‘Ah,’ I said, ‘thing is, you play everyone’s favourite younger brother and so they treat you like a younger brother, while I play generals and lawyers and bishops and they treat me accordingly.’ ‘Right, that’s it,’ said Nick, ‘from now on it’s bishops and generals only.’
So, being famous-as-me has its advantages. I am perceived (and whether this might be right or wrong, accurate or inaccurate, is for the purposes of our discussion neither here not there) as being authoritative, patrician, benign, knowledgeable etc etc, whatever, whatever. Therefore I am treated rather differently to those who are adjudged to have other qualities. On the one hand I am not slapped on the back or punched in the arm much, on the other I am not an object of sexual thrill or a youthful role-model in the way a footballer, musician or soap star might be.
One advantage I have over some is that my fame came pretty slowly. I left university in 1981 and over the next three or four years did a bit of this and a bit of that – a TV series called Alfresco for Granada that was not exactly a major hit, a stage production of an Alan Bennett play and the second series of Blackadder followed without setting the world on fire. By about 1986 I was starting to get used to being stopped in the street or supermarket a little. Say once or twice a week. The girl who thought she had seen me somewhere before, was it at a History lecture? The old lady who told me that my language was a disgrace, the man who thought I was a local newsreader, that kind of thing. Over the next few years as more television was done, Blackadders, Fry and Lauries and Jeeves and Woosters, the being-recognised-thing became something I had adjusted to. And over those same years it became more likely that they would know my name as well as my face. In other words I drip-fed into the public consciousness by a sort of osmotic absorption. My pheme was a slow attritional one. I was not like a soap star, teen idol or reality TV participant who, in the (famous) words of Lord Byron, wake up to find themselves famous. Their phemes rage and they are the people who usually find fame hardest to handle. They are typically very young and, by definition, they have not had four or five years to habituate themselves to the experience of being recognised. Rudeness, sulky gracelessness, drugs, drink, temper tantrums and so on are often the result. If they don’t have the imagination to know how much courage it takes for a member of the public to approach a famous person, then they let themselves down badly with their curt off-hand manner or their whining self-pity. Of course, it cuts both ways, plenty of members of the public don’t seem to have the imagination to understand what it’s like to be approached. As with all such social interactions therefore, a little from each is what’s required.