I wonder why it’s generally the rich and famous who like to tell the public, ‘Money does not bring happiness’? It’s so condescending. Do the poor wander around informing whoever will listen, ‘Poverty does not make you happy’? Hardly. I was thinking about this as I finished reading Stephen Fry’s latest volume of highly readable autobiography, where the great man informs us:
I know that money, power, prestige and fame do not bring happiness. If history teaches us anything it teaches us that. You know it. Everybody agrees this to be a manifest truth so self-evident as to need no repetition. What is strange to me is that, despite the fact that the world knows this, it does not want to know it and it chooses almost always to behave as of it were not true. It does not suit the world to hear that people who are leading a high life an enviable life, a privileged life are as miserable most days as anybody else, despite the fact that it must be obvious they would be - given that we are all agreed that money and fame do not bring happiness. Instead the world would prefer to enjoy the idea, against what it knows to be true, that wealth and fame do in fact insulate and protect against misery and it would rather we shut up if we are planning to indicate otherwise.
It’s a clever piece of writing, and rather troubling. If money hasn’t made Mr Fry happy, perhaps that’s because he wasn’t happy before he had it? As someone who has spent a considerable part of his adult life in poverty, dirt and a miserable ease, I can assure the universally loved writer, actor, broadcaster and tweeter that money can and does bring happiness, for it allows independence. Moreover, if money’s not important, then why is so much of our politics based on the redistribution of wealth?
Of course, it’s not just money, Mr Fry is writing about, but fame, and his depression, and all that entails, which he recently discussed, along with his thoughts on suicide, in the talk-show In Confidence:
‘It is exhausting knowing that most of the time the phone rings, most of the time there’s an email, most of the time there’s a letter, someone wants something of you. They want to touch the hem of the fame, not the hem of the person.
‘You resort to not travelling on the Tube or walking round the street any more and going in a big car with a driver.
‘And people think, “Oh, he thinks he’s so grand, doesn’t he?” Well, no. I’d rather walk, but sometimes I just can’t.
‘I feel I would love to close down for a number of years in some way and just be in the country making pork pies and chutneys and never have to poke my head out of the parapet.’
In 1989, I had the pleasure of meeting Fry, when I was a researcher working on Open to Question, a “yoof” interview series where groups of inquizzitive teenagers grilled various invited guests: from politicians (Gary Hart, Tony Benn), through performers (Billy Connolly, Jim Kerr) to Royalty (Princess Anne). Fry’s show was recorded on the same day we filmed an episode with Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens), in which the seventies pop star discussed the fatwa on Salman Rushdie and his Islamic beliefs. In one corner of the green room was Fry with cigarettes and red wine, in the other Yusuf Islam with an entourage of veiled assistants.
Fry was affable, eminently likable, terribly polite and deflected the most intimate and probing questions. When asked if he had always wanted fame, Fry avoided a direct answer by explaining his definitions of fame. There was “real fame like Charlie Chaplin”; and another kind, like original James Bond (on radio) and British TV host, Bob Holness. Fry said when he was younger he wanted to be famous like Holness, and managed to slip this in without the interviewer, (future Channel 4 newsreader) Krishnan Guru-Murthy picking up on his youthful ambition.
In The Fry Chronicles, he explained this ambition more openly:
A part of me - I have to confess this, moronic, puerile and cheap as it may sound - really did ache to be a star. I wanted to be famous, admired, stared at, known, applauded and liked.
Now of course he’s bigger than Holness and as universally loved as Chaplin, which in light of his recent comments about hem-touching fans, does, sadly, seem to confirm what Saint Teresa of Avila once wrote:
“More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones”
It’s thirty years since the loveliness that is Stephen Fry first came to prominence alongside Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Tony Slattery, Paul Shearer and Penny Dwyer in the Cambridge Footlights’ comedy revue “The Cellar Tapes”. It’s the last really great Footlights show, as those following it may have highlighted some great individual talent (Sue Perkins, Robert Webb, David Mitchell, and Richard Ayoade) but never achieved the legendary status of “Beyond the Fringe”, “A Clump of Plinths” (aka “Cambridge Circus”) or “The Cellar Tapes”. Understandable, you may say, considering the unique and exquisite talents felicitously brought together for our entertainment.
The success of “The Cellar Tapes” led Fry and Laurie to be asked by the BBC to come up with a pilot for a possible series:
We conceived a series that was to be called The Crystal Cube, a mock serious magazine programme that for each edition would investigate some phenomenon or other: every week we would ‘go through the crystal cube’. Hugh, Emma, Paul Shearer and I were to be regulars and we would call upon a cast of semi-regular guests to play other parts.
This is that pilot, in all its VHS glory, and as someone comments on the youtube page was there a more brilliant threesome as Fry, Laurie and Thompson? Answers on a postcard, care of the usual address.