I come to you today with a confession, though not one unfamiliar to anyone who’s peeked at my Twitter biography. I am an Anglophile. Although perhaps it’s more precise to say I have Anglophile leanings, or, curiosities, as it were. I haven’t taken the full plunge yet into declaring an allegiance to a U.K. football franchise, or learned what the hell is going on in a cricket match. Downton Abbey remains unviewed to this day and I’ve never been able to glom onto Doctor Who (those cheaply made space monsters with the creepy accents scared the piss out of me when I was little.) I do, however, have an enormous infatuation with certain cornerstones of British popular culture – James Bond, the Beatles, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Dickens, Eddie Izzard, the original Whose Line is it Anyway, David Attenborough nature documentaries, The King’s Speech. My taste in music is almost exclusively British bands and performers. My conversations are peppered with British idioms, and when required, British profanity (nobody swears better in English than the ones who invented the language, you bollocks-arsed wankers). My sense of humor has always leaned British in its dryness and self-deprecation. And in this spirit of confession I am forced to admit a massive man-crush on that pillar of all that is magnificent about being British, Stephen Fry. In fact, one of my little goals for my Twitter experience is to somehow convince Stephen Fry to find reason to follow me – without going the usual route of “hey plz follow meeee back!!!!” (He follows about 50,000 people while over 5 million follow him – so I figure I’ve got a 1 in 100 chance, hardly impossible odds.) I would be lying if I didn’t admit that this post is part of that strategy, but what the hell, Stephen Fry rocks, so even if he never sees this, it’s still worth writing.
The name might not be immediately familiar, but the face and voice are – the tall, imposing if sad-eyed figure with the bent nose, the deep, plummy voice you’ve heard narrating the Harry Potter audiobooks. Stephen Fry has led a remarkably rich if not always charmed life, which you can read about in copious detail on his Wikipedia page. From humble beginnings (naturally) he has become something of a world-renowned adventurer, not of the climb-the-mountain-while-battling-wild-zebras type, but of the mind, pursuing ventures literary, theatrical, televised, cinematic and everything in between, fueled by a love of language and a curiosity about everything. As he says on his website, he finds it uncomfortable recounting his achievements, but he has nothing left to prove with a CV so varied. One of the most interesting facets of Fry, particularly in his film roles, is that his screen time is usually limited, giving you a mere taste – as a result, he is this inscrutable larger-than-life character who never lingers long enough for you to figure him out and thus lose your interest. You’re always left curious for more. Indeed, there never seems to be enough Stephen Fry, and he seems to like it that way. (Twitter in particular is tailored perfectly for people like that – I’m sure I come across as far more interesting in periodic bursts of 140 characters than I do in real life.)
The first time I saw Stephen Fry was in catching up on reruns of Whose Line. In one episode he took part in a sketch where Josie Lawrence read every other line of a play while Fry was a flustered customer trying to purchase an airline ticket from her. You can watch it for yourselves here.
His command of language is obvious; clearly a brilliant mind at work, confronting and embracing the absurdity of the premise and diving in with the bone-dry, semi-flustered and entirely elegant phrasing that marks the best of the British sense of humor. Later, as I discovered and devoured his genius sketch comedy collaboration with Hugh Laurie, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, I could see the man at the height of his creative endeavors. One of the biggest reasons why English humor often doesn’t translate is that much of it is built on the class system, one social stratum poking fun at the foibles of another. Fry has the education of an upper class “to the manor born” man but he resents that caste’s appropriation of high culture, and slays mercilessly, on their own terms, those who attempt to use their Etonian upbringing to peer down snootfully past upturned noses. Check out this brilliant sketch where Fry displays his unbridled love of the English language while mocking the personae of highbrow elocution-happy would-be intellectuals.
So much of popular comedy, particularly on this side of the pond, is based in being crude, breaking taboos for the sake of “oh no he didn’t” shock value, mocking those who can’t punch back, spewing endless profanity at high volume. What I’ve always appreciated most about Stephen Fry is that he proves by example that you can be smart about being funny. That in English, we have an enormous, infinitely quirky tool at our disposal that can be bent, twisted, turned inside out, dropped on its head, sent through the post, dusted off, sprinkled with garlic and spread about liberally to uncover some wonderful and unique ways of expressing ourselves in a manner that will always evoke a smile. Fry loves puns; he loves surprising us with linguistic connections we’ve failed to realize. Behold, my favorite Fry and Laurie, in which this trick was never more hilariously illustrated.
When I’m working on my novel and I write the phrase “He was crestfallen; in fact, his crest had completely fallen off,” that’s me doing my best Stephen Fry impression. For me, English words have come more alive since discovering the collected works of Mr. Fry – I’m looking for those connections now and holding them up proudly while jumping about like something of a crazed jackrabbit when I find them. Stephen Fry has also shown us, in his very public struggles with his manic depression, that a flawed man can still achieve great things – in fact, his greatness is emphasized by his ability to manage his weaknesses. Not defeat them, necessarily, but acknowledge them as an inexorable part of the whole. In The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, Fry talked about wanting to keep his mania phases, even if it meant having to suffer the extreme craters of the other side – a bold choice, to be certain, even if some might justifiably disagree. Contradictions and all, Stephen Fry remains someone to admire, a man who has been described as one of Britain’s national treasures – one can imagine the bemused smirk on his face at hearing that. But as an Anglophile, or Anglophile-curious, I can think of few Brits who deserve it more. So thank you, Stephen Fry, for being you, for the influence you’ve had on this one Canadian whom you might humbly consider lending a Twitter follow to at some point, some day. Soupy twist!