He’s one of the most popular figures in British entertainment – but, in an extraordinary, confessional new interview, Stephen Fry has spoken of his deeply uneasy relationship with fame, and how it has grown beyond his control.
Talking to psychologist Professor Laurie Taylor for the Sky Arts series In Confidence, Fry says: “I certainly don’t do anything in order to increase the level of fame. You’re talking to me now when I’ve been doing publicity for the book [The Fry Chronicles] and a couple of TV series have come out. I feel very over-exposed. I would love to close down for a number of years and just be in the country making pork pies and chutneys.
“It is exhausting knowing that most of the time, someone wants something of you,” Fry goes on. “It’s not of you personally – they just want an appearance, a quote, a tweet. They want to touch the hem of the fame.”
Fry, who talks openly during the hour-long programme about his heavy cocaine use in the 1980s and 1990s (“I’d use the word addiction, yes. I found it extremely easy to stop, but it took me a very long time to get to a position where I was ready to”), admits that his inability to turn down interviews has affected his acting career.
“People say I play myself. I think the trouble is I have no gift of being mysterious – I wish I could be like my friend Hugh [Laurie], who just says no to interview requests. Hugh can do it, Clint Eastwood can do it, so when they are on screen you don’t know whether they are being themselves, because you don’t know who they are.
“Why can’t I do that? I can’t do it. I don’t have it in me. I do this w**ky stuff day after day after day, being interviewed by you or, God help us, Pamela Stephenson or some other person, so when I play a character they go: oh, it’s just Stephen Fry in a beard. I’ve done that to myself, I think you could say.”
So why does Fry persist with advertising tea, car insurance and other products? “I enjoy doing voiceovers for commercials. I don’t really think of them as [money for] old rope. I don’t make those distinctions. I don’t have that vanity about my image.
“The last thing I want is to be this figure of probity, some sort of oracle. I will quite happily go and do something just so people don’t say that about me.”
Despite his complaints, Fry is keen to concede how fortunate he is: “I’m merely saying how slightly annoying the wasps at the picnic are, but [being famous] is a picnic.”
Fry also observes that another positive aspect of fame is the ability to speak out about his mental health – he pinpoints his own condition as cyclothymic disorder, a relatively mild form of bipolar disorder/manic depression. “Always you have dead bodies. Any doctor will tell you it is one of the most serious morbid conditions present in Britain,” says Fry. “The fact that I am lucky enough not to have it so seriously doesn’t mean I won’t one day kill myself. I may well.
“I know how easy it is to think that it must be a celebrity, designer problem, in the same way as homosexuality is seen to be, because only people like me talk about it. But someone who works in an office doesn’t talk about their mental instability because they’ll get teased, bullied or fired. If there is one thing that fame gives you, it’s that you are essentially immune from that.
“Stupid people like Janet Street-Porter – who is a friend of mine, but she can be stupid about these things, or at least deliberately provocative – say: ‘Oh, why do celebrities bang on about it?’ Well, there’s a good reason. [There are] millions out there whose lives are utterly blighted.”
On the starkly presented In Confidence, Prof Taylor questions celebrities with the aim of revealing more of their inner selves than other interviews have managed – something he succeeds in doing as Fry discusses how he is seen by the public.
“I do not want to be thought of as more serious than I am,” says Fry. “I want to be thought of, if I want to be thought of at all, with honesty. He is Stephen Fry. He’s not Alan Bennett, he’s not Tom Stoppard, he’s not Oscar Wilde. He will never be those people, try as he might. We may dislike it, think it’s overdone – self-conscious, definitely – but he manages most of the time to be himself.”
In Confidence airs this Thursday, 2 June, on Sky Arts 1 and Sky Arts HD – watch a clip: