THOSE OF us who were addicted to the first ‘University Challenge’ way back in 1962 remember being delighted by Stephen Fry’s performance, representing his college, Queens, Cambridge in 1980.
Even then he stood out from the others as particularly brilliant, showing a grasp of general knowledge far beyond his years.
It would be difficult for anyone who is alive and kicking not to know who Stephen Fry is. Currently he is the presenter on QI (Quite Interesting) for BBC 2, another show where he is able to demonstrate his encyclopaedic general knowledge, while keeping the audience laughing at his antics.
People of all ages watch QI. It is not unusual to find a bunch of teenagers discussing the latest piece of demystification he has introduced.
His entirely irreverent approach to life, knowledge and showing off about it makes compelling television watching.
He is writer, comedian, actor: a thoroughly English gentleman. His early career was less than stunning, beginning as it did with his writing for Cambridge Footlights. He was a performer in the Footlights Club along with Tony Slattery, Martin Bergman and Hugh Laurie, with whom he later featured in the Bertie Wooster series for television. He played the wise and serious Jeeves to Hugh Laurie’s totally idiotic Bertie Wooster. This series alone made them household names.
Yet Fry is the grandson of Jewish refugees, and lost several members of his family in the Holocaust.
In the programme ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ in his compelling visit to the town in Austria where his family originated, he demonstrated the more serious side of himself, and, in a few short moments, brought home a deeper understanding of what the Holocaust must have been like.
For younger watchers of this programme this may have been the first time they became aware of this aspect of WWII and it was sensitively handled.
More recently Fry allowed himself to be featured in a programme for BBC2, as a sufferer of bipolar disorder.
Over the years this has cause him to leave the cast of the play, ’Cell Mates’ after only a few performances, going missing for several weeks during a bout of the illness. He admits to having suicidal feelings, and has helped those who also suffer from the disorder, famous and otherwise, to get better understanding from the general public.
In itself, this act, that of making public an illness that is seen as shaming to the sufferer, and of which many people are ignorant, he may have done more good than in any of his fund-raising efforts to date.
Until now mental illness has carried with it a kind of curse, separating the sufferer from society. Someone as well-loved as Fry coming forward and ‘coming out’ to admit his illness could do a great deal to further the case of those organisations who want the stigma of mental illness, and the false separation of it from physical illness, to be recognised and eliminated.
He is openly gay, and was a great success in the film Wilde (1997), in which he played the great gay writer Oscar Wilde. He has done much work to support the Terence Higgins Foundation, which exists to support those whose lives have been shattered by HIV/AIDS.
He is also a Special Ambassador to Equilibrium, the Bipolar Foundation and in 2010 his offer on Twitter to kiss the highest online bidder to raise money for the charity ‘Elephant Family’, that seeks to support the endangered Asian elephant caused a website to crash with one Tweet to his then 198,830 followers. He supports the ‘Bear Rescue Foundation’, and himself collects Teddy Bears.
He has played a large part in promoting the spoken word for all by presenting the ‘Listening Books Award’ for the spoken word at the Hay Book Festival, promoted by the Guardian Newspaper. They provide a wonderful selection of high-quality audiobooks for people who find it difficult to read, due to illness or disability.
His narration of the Harry Potter books has brought him to the attention of the very young and his promotion using Twitter to promote the campaign ‘Adopt a Word’, which supports the development of speech, language and communication skills in all children helped bring the campaign to the awareness of many.
His adoption of the word: ’Wordy’ helped reactivate the organisation that has raised several thousand pounds in its recent campaigning.
His use of Twitter has brought it to the attention of many who would not have otherwise known anything about it. He has many thousands of ‘followers’ who hang on his every word.
He is very excited by the digital revolution and claims to have owned the second Apple Macintosh sold in the UK (Douglas Adams reputedly owned the first) and to have never encountered a smartphone that he has not bought.
He also claims to know why his friend, Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) chose the number ‘42’ as the answer to the question asked of the computer in this story, (‘What is the answer to life, the universe and everything?’) but is not telling.
His opposition to the running of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, which has adopted vicious anti-gay policies of late, and who will host the Games, is the most recent in his activities.
A letter he sent to the Prime minister (‘An Open Letter to David Cameron and the IOC’) in which he draws a parallel between the upcoming Games and those held in Berlin in 1936, reveals his deep unease at the situation, and has brought the problem to the attention of many thousands who might not have been aware of the potential persecution that gay athletes and supporters might suffer.
Fry is whimsical, very intelligent, well read, funny, empathetic: a true New Renaissance Man, who was ranked 44th in the Daily Telegraph’s list of the 100 most powerful people in British culture.
He is deeply loved and respected by people of all ages and from all walks of life. All this for a lanky, awkward, bipolar, somewhat ‘posh’, gay man who has far too much to say for himself, and could be described as a real show-off!
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