Stephen Fry does not do print interviews. “Journalists are fucking scum,” he says, before adding amicably that we are not “quite scum yet”. “At least if you do a TV or radio interview, someone can look at you and say ‘I think he’s a bastard and I really don’t like him’, but it’s you they don’t like, not you filtered through the selective memory of a journalist.” We meet just before Fry is about to speak at the Union, and he is clearly looking forward to the chance to talk about himself without mediation.
While he seems at home in the plush surroundings of the Union, Fry has a tumultuous relationship with prestigious institutions. In the latest volume of his autobiography, More Fool Me, he revealed that he has taken cocaine in a variety of prominent locations, from Buckingham Palace to Fortnum & Mason. Today he is more cautious with his vices: “I don’t like taking sleeping pills, because I think I might get addicted to them; I have such an addictive personality.”
After a 15-year addiction to the drug, Fry is now clean, but he still feels acutely the pressures of fame and its impact on his mental health. Fry is famously candid about his experiences with bipolar disorder, and today he admits, “at the moment I’m slightly hypermanic.” The pressure on his time is palpable; his two phones ping alternately throughout the interview and a member of his entourage hovers anxiously at the door.
While he is keen to assure me that “it sounds awful to complain about fame”, Fry is open about the pitfalls of being well known. In a characteristic rhetorical flourish, he compares the drawbacks of fame to eating al fresco: “I always say; it’s a bit like a picnic. Everyone says, ‘Ah it’s a picnic, it’s a really good thing: jam, sandwiches, chicken, bottle of claret – but you get wasps. Sometimes the wasps are journalists, or being stopped for one selfie that turns into a hundred.”
There are the minor irritants of “selfie scrums” – and print interviews – but Fry’s difficult relationship with fame has made him unable to leave the house in fear of being recognised.
“There’s no question that the pressures of fame – which sounds like a pathetic thing to say, because all life is full of pressures – but the particular pressures of fame can occasionally, in the case of bipolar disorder, make it more extreme.
“You’re incredibly reluctant to go out if you’re depressed – incredibly reluctant to see the world, to look it in the eye. If you’re well known it’s much, much harder to go out of the house and not be stopped. There is this awful need to stick a smile on your face because otherwise people will think, “He’s a misery, isn’t he?”
Manic episodes are no easier to manage: “If you’re exuberant, you are all the more vulnerable to doing something or saying something really stupid.”
An intense awareness of his public image characterises Fry’s meditations on mental health and his interactions with journalists. Countless panel shows and Radio 4 programmes have cemented his reputation as a national treasure, and his persona is one of avuncular amiability. Fry is well liked among children as well as adults; hearing the word “fuck” in the voice known for narrating the Harry Potter audiobooks remains jarring.
Despite this pre-teen popularity, Fry is no stranger to controversy. In the weeks before we meet, he has landed himself in hot water due to a Newsnight interview in which he discussed the historic sexual activities of ex-BBC presenters. Claiming that 14-year-old girls who had sex with rockstars were proud of their sexual pasts, Fry disputed the use of the term ‘victim’. Speaking about Operation Yewtree, he criticises the investigation into his friend Paul Gambaccini:
“I was talking to [Paul Gambaccini] who was a victim of Yewtree – and I use that word because the police treated him absolutely abominably – and they eventually told his lawyer that they thought there was a three to five per cent chance of actually getting enough evidence to charge him – not a three to five per cent chance of conviction.”
While his comments on Operation Yewtree and Twitter trolls are certain to keep Fry in the public eye for the foreseeable future, he is less sure about his upcoming projects. He suggests the possibility of a BBC series called Sh, in which he would explore what he considers a “unique form of mental distress”: self-harm.
“I’d be really interested to find out why children could do something as awful as to cut a knife into their precious bodies.” He recalls a line of Wilfred Owen’s; those “limbs so dear-achieved”.
It was an encounter during a speaking engagement at Bedales, a liberal independent school in Hampshire, which sparked Fry’s fascination with the issue. After discussing Sh, a pupil approached him to say that there was “a fucking epidemic” of self-harm at the school. He admits to knowing little about the problem, but the meeting forced him to question what he thought lay behind the desire to self-harm: “Is it a terrible social thing about poverty?” Or, he asks, bringing the problem closer to his own realm of experience – “is it wanting to be noticed?”