Stephen Fry works his socks off

Towards the end of October or possibly at the beginning of November 2014 Stephen Fry spoke at the Oxford Union. We immediately know the rough date because he is wearing a poppy, and we also later hear him commenting that Oscar Wilde’s birthday (16 October) was very recent. The video was nevertheless posted on YouTube only at the beginning of April 2015.

Fry has been featured three times previously on this blog. Twice I gave him a kicking for something stupid he had said; once I praised him effusively for a fine speech. My interest in this gig, therefore, may seem obvious, though in fact my curiosity was alerted professionally for a very particular and less obvious reason. What he was being asked to do is intensely difficult. You need only glance at the blurb beneath the video on YouTube to find a potted biography of Stephen Fry. They expected him to speak about himself. I have, more often than is good for my health, seen fine communicators die miserably attempting this and I really feared for him.

Almost everyone in the public eye has an image that is polished, flattering and wrong. It is well-known in such circles that to believe your own publicity is a fatal mistake; but while disbelieving it you have to stand in front of a high-profile audience, with cameras rolling, and promote it. You want to be sincere and speak from the heart, but to do so could be ruinous. It is a ghastly predicament.

I advise my trainees to write their own introductions for speaking gigs: the advantages for everyone are manifold. Mayank Banerjee may have composed this introduction, but I suspect otherwise. At any rate, he delivers it pretty well and gets the laugh he wanted.

Various mass audience actions, most notably applause and laughter, work like a wave. We have seen waves approaching a beach, the swell building up till the crown tips over and the wave breaks in a flurry of chaos. The expert audience-smith, in whatever guise, learns how to use that wave motion to the best advantage to time a laugh, stoke applause or whatever it might be. Bear that in mind as you watch Fry make his entrance. He avoids any sense of self-aggrandizement by playing his twee persona, and then starts calling to the applauding audience, “stop it: stop it: oh you have”. The way he times that to the wave motion of the applause is immaculate.

After a little more introductory tweeness he addresses the theme of his talk. Whatever his audience was told to expect, he does not speak about himself. Instead he sidesteps that dreaded trap by speaking about one with whom he has become closely associated – Oscar Wilde. We are told about Wilde, his early life, education, accomplishments, loves, plays, publications, and the slow-motion car crash of his fall from grace to imprisonment and bankruptcy. It is a well conceived, well structured, well delivered talk that is wholly shot from the hip. Given that Fry has played Wilde in a film, given that Wilde is clearly a hero of Fry’s, given that both of them can lay claim to being what Quentin Crisp, speaking of himself, called A Stately Homo of England, you could be forgiven for thinking that Fry had chosen a task that was for him a piece of cake that he could breeze through.

You would be wrong.

Stephen Fry is a pro and wise to a range of pitfalls. Hark back to my second paragraph and consider the baggage that he carries with respect to his public image. Some have even attached to him the imbecilic epithet ‘National Treasure’. What a burden when faced with an intelligent, well-read, cynical audience!  Most of this lot will actually not entirely meet that description but there will be enough to make life dangerous. Consider the penalty for putting a foot wrong. By ducking away from the main Pooh-trap and speaking about Wilde instead of himself he is by no means out of the woods and he knows it. So we proceed to see clever, evasive and audience-wooing devices competing against serious symptoms of stress. He works his socks off, and does it very well.

The tweeness is an evasive device, and even after his twee opening he deploys it again in the way he says, “bless you!” to an audience member who sneezes. He had that ready. With a few hundred in an audience at the turn of November you are bound to have sneezers and/or coughers, and he wheeled out a prepared twee routine to have fun with it. There are many more such devices, but as he is entitled to keep his secrets I shall mention only a couple and not be too specific. There was the joke that bombed, so he immediately threw into the cavern of aching silence a very coarse side-comment that drew a roar of embarrassed laughter and eclipsed the turkey. There was the period when the audience coughing was getting out of control and signalling encroaching boredom. He neatly turned off into a digression that got them back.

All right: one more. At 34:20 he emits a shameless paralipsis.

He really is very good, but he is also vulnerable. I am not referring to the highly-publicized bi-polarity that assails him: I mean plain speakers’ funk. Many assume that expertise banishes fear. It doesn’t: it makes you better at hiding it, but also gives you greater awareness of what can easily go wrong. Fry’s most glaring symptom is how hot he is. Early winter 2014 in England was unseasonably mild, but it was still winter. The audience is full of woolly jumpers, whereas Fry in a lightweight suit and open-necked shirt is sweating profusely. Again I will keep his secrets (and mine) but without being specific I can’t resist one obviously nerve-related moment. Stress is a devil for robbing you of much of your natural ability to think on your feet. At one point Fry is seeking the right adjective to describe someone. At any other time he would have made an excellent choice from an obvious array of candidates, but here – probably trying to avoid a cliche – he pauses, vainly gropes through his mind, and then in desperation comes out with a ridiculous word that causes me to sit bold upright and cry aloud, “What?“.

I have written a sheaf of notes on the content of this speech, but I will restrict myself to two challenges.

To claim that The Importance of Being Earnest is the only Victorian play still seriously performed is absurd. When I first was taken to it as barely a teenager, I came away declaring with adolescent arrogance that if the author similarly spoke in wall-to-wall epigrams he must have been a crashing bore. I have recently directed a production of it and was conscious that this facet makes it very difficult to play – not least because the audience’s lips are moving as they silently say those famous lines along with the cast. It’s fun, but a great play it ain’t! Of its style, Arms and the Man is better – and look what I’ve done: I’ve introduced G.B.Shaw into the argument! For Fry to overlook all those great Shavian plays was – how shall I put it? – careless.

Towards the end of this speech Fry mentions De Profundis, Wilde’s legendary letter written in prison. Fry declares it a hugely important piece of writing, and so it is. I am at a loss, though, to understand how anyone could read that, love it, understand it – as Fry obviously has and does – and still say the things he spouted in that interview with Gay Byrne, It is possible to revere something while disagreeing with it, but still. Could Fry and I, through Confirmation Bias, be reading opposing messages from the same words? It is a conundrum.

This speech is forty minutes of hagiography – studiously jocular at times, out of necessity – but hagiography nonetheless. It finishes with an unusually quiet, rather reverential, peroration. He has worked his socks off: I think he is relieved to be finished.

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