Stephen Fry’s Idea of Greatness
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); Moab is My Washpot (1997) - an autobiography; 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'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. His latest book is Stephen Fry in America (Harper Collins 2008).
Question: Who are your main influences?
Stephen Fry: Probably in terms of writing and linguistic awareness there were a combination, firstly of W’s, P.G. Wodehouse, Oscar Wilde and Evelyn Waugh, the British novelist. That’s a male Evelyn, by the way. And I would add to that Arthur Chonan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes. When I was between the ages of about seven and twelve I was obsessed with Sherlock Holmes and I would read and reread and re, re, reread all those, so the rhythms and tones of the English language as exemplified by that kind of grand perfect Victorian manner and then Dickens, but it was really Oscar Wilde who awoke language in my head in a way like nobody else and I think also discovering the kind of man Oscar Wilde was, was an enormous influence as well. The fact that you could be such a towering intellect, such a lord of language and be charming and graceful, kind, good natured, but also unhappy and unlucky was a great discovery for an adolescent because one of the traps of adolescence is the sort of paranoid resentment that somehow you’re never going to match up and that everybody else’s life is going to be better and finer and fuller. That everyone else attended some secret lesson in which how to live was taught and you had a dental appointment that day or you were somehow not invited and the point of great writers like Wilde is that they make that invitation to you. They welcome it. Perhaps the greatest definition I think of character and quality is people who when they’re truly great rather than making you feel that tall they make you feel that tall, that they’re greatness as it were improves you. They used to say of Oscar Wilde that when you got done from a dinner table you felt funnier and wittier and cleverer. Now a lot of Brilliant people make you feel less funny, less clever, less witty because they’re so clever, witty and funny, but he had the opposite effect. A bit like what Shakespeare said about Falstaff, not just a wit, but a cause of wit in others.
Recorded December 8, 2009
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