Stephen Fry’s Quintessential English Upbringing

The prep-school-educated actor grew up in a country house with gardeners and servants. While his mother was warm and loveable, his forbidding father was more like Sherlock Holmes.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: What was your childhood like?

Stephen Fry: I came from what on the surface would have looked like a very typical English family in as much as I say a typical one that an American might regard as typical. It was a country house with gardeners and nice staff and it looked rather grand and I was sent away at the age of seven to a prep school, which in England is from seven to thirteen is prep school, sent away to boarding school two hundred miles from home and that sort of again was very traditional English. What you might call an upper class, upper middle class sort of education and where I received a very classical education. My parents were marvelously educated people. They’re both university educated, both brilliant scholars in Irwin, my father a physicist, my mother historian, but not absolutely typical of the class because my mother’s family’s Jewish. She is European Jewish and she was… She was born in Britain, but her sister was born in the family area, which is now Slovakia, but which was Hungary and indeed for a short time, Czechoslovakia and so there was that sort of mixture, that rather exotic mixture, the mother’s family of people who talked about food, which was a very an un-English thing to do back in the sixties when I was growing up into. We had that kind of exotic accent and all those things, but they weren’t Judaic. They weren’t religiously Jewish. They were just proud to be Jewish Jews and there were plenty of them in Israel. Those who had survived the Holocaust were in Israel or most in America and so in that sense it was a… It was an idyllic childhood looking at the house and looking at how lucky we were it looks fantastic, but of course the childhood is what goes on inside your head, nothing to do with what goes on outside, so it was the usually sticky mess of adolescent Sturm und Drang.

 

Question: Who were you closest to growing up?

Stephen Fry: Always closest to my mother because my mother is an extraordinarily warm and unbelievably friendly and loveable person. People are genuinely astounded by her, her positivity. She is just the most smiling person people will have met. And so that you know obviously gave you know closest warmth. My father was rather remote. I thought of him… I wrote about this in my autobiography that I thought of him as Sherlock Holmes. He was similarly a deeply rational man and unbelievably brilliant you know because of his physics and his mathematics and also music. As a young boy he was a choral student at St. Paul’s Cathedral and played piano beautifully and his musical understanding was very fine and but very sort of great intellectual rigor. He seemed to us as children, to my brother and my sister and myself as quite cold and quite forbidding, quite frightening. He worked incredibly hard. He worked at home. The stable block of the family house, which was a very large stable block indeed was he converted to his laboratory is where he worked and so he… You know we never had the pleasure of him being out of the house. I mean he was inside the house in his study working you know working and we never quite knew where he was and if we made a noise we felt sort of thunder rumbling, so he was quite a scary man and now of course on very easy fine terms, but it was a difficult, difficult thing.

 

Question: What makes a good family?

Stephen Fry: What makes a good family? Well, I suppose obviously love. Love lubricated often I think by humor. I think a family that can laugh at each other and tease themselves and who are able to be jolly with each other I think is the key. Humor is you know like a dog’s tongue or dog’s nose rather, which should be cold and faintly wet and a vet will tell you that’s a sign of a healthy dog. I think our equivalent of a cold wet nose is humor. Families where there is not much laughter I think are signs of some sort of dysfunctionality or sickness. Maybe if there is too much laughter it’s dysfunctional too. Who knows? Families are so different. I’ve never met anyone who says they come from… they thought they lived in a normal family. As children everyone thinks their family is weird and they’re upset by the weirdness of their own family. It is a peculiar thing we’re asked to do, but I think GK Chesterton put it that it is an onerous responsibility that having been dropped by the stork down a random chimney and unwrapped we are invited to get on with a set of strangers who peer down at us. You know because although yes, we share the DNA. You know they are physically of our flesh and we are their flesh. Nonetheless they… We didn’t choose them. They are a set of strangers. There is this man here and we should call him Daddy and there is this woman here. We should call her Mummy. This girl here I should call my sister and this boy here I should call my brother and we are somehow bonded for life.

 

 

Record December 8, 2009