FOREVER ENGLISH : ARTS

Actor, comic, and bestselling author, Stephen Fry is on the way to becoming a national institution. Robert Butler dropped into his dressing room and found him going on-line, sounding off about critics, and citing St Peter kjjjdjtikjkjkjkjkjkjkjkjkjkjk

SIX PM: the lull between the matinee and the evening performance. Stephen Fry sits in a cramped Dressing Room Number Two at the Richmond Theatre, tapping away at his computer. The fogey is also a boffin. He is not sure that he'll be able to get through but he is going to try. "It's a bit dodgy because the phoneline here, unfortunately, is a pulse dial." The line goes tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. "I'm trying to link up to America Online. I don't think it caught the dial tone." The phone crackles: the line is OK. "It's checking the password." A voice from the computer says: "Welcome".

Fry is between performances of Cell Mates, a new play by Simon Gray, also starring Rik May-all, who gets Dressing Room Number One. Fry plays the spy George Blake, Mayall plays the prisoner who organises Blake's escape from Wormwood Scrubs and joins him in Moscow. Or Mayall is meant to play that part: he has suffered a perforated eardrum and has taken three days off. The understudy, Michael Larkin, has stepped in. Valiantly, of course.

Fry gazes at his laptop . He wants to get hold of a publicity still from his new film IQ. Or, more accurately, he wants to show me how a little laptop in Richmond can get hold of a picture from America. "If we go to Entertain-ment we will probably find it in Pictures and Sounds . . ." He whistles through his teeth and double-clicks on the windows. "Here we go . . . Pictures and Sounds, let's try that . . ." He taps, he whistles and the computer beeps. He waits for the connection. "Come on."

He displays none of his chat-show traits: he's not wiping his hair off his forehead, blinking disarmingly, shifting in his seat or talking about bottoms. He's unguarded, funny, and courteous. His face is fuller, riper than you imagine. There's more room there for slow-moving perplexity, hesitancy and regret, the hidden feelings which he exploited so well as the anguished don in Simon Gray's The Common Pursuit (West End, 1988) and which he mines again in Cell Mates. He's 37 now. Middle age could offer him yet another career: as an unfunnyman.

What's your character in this film?

"James Morland," says Fry, distractedly, staring at his screen. "He's - professor - of - experimental - psychology. Ah! Pictures. Might find one of me here. Ah, there we are. IQ. Stephen Fry." He runs the cursor down and clicks on his name. "Let's bung that in, shall we?" The computer tells him to wait. Fry falls into the role of schoolmaster. "Somewhere in America, in a large computer, someone has got a photograph of me. They've scanned it in. And they've uploaded it to America Online's database, and I'm downloading it; that's to say, I'm receiving it on this phoneline." Very good, got that.

It's not expensive, Fry explains. "You only have to make a local call and it's connected up to America. This is what they call a commercial on-line service as opposed to the Internet where you sign on." The downloading is over. "That's done. So we can quit and have a look at it." He quits. "Goodbye," says the computer.

"Bye," says Fry. He hums. "We were on there for four minutes and 34 seconds, which is not too expensive. In case people think I'm wasting money. There we are!" He laughs. "You see. That's from the film."

A shot of Fry in a black jacket and bow-tie appears on the screen. He looks more English than Oxford marmalade: the amiable, eccentric toff, with the lopsided nose, squidgy cheeks, protruding chin and thick-lidded eyes. In IQ, a romantic comedy set at Princeton in 1955, Fry plays the stiff-upper-lip fiance, engaged to Meg Ryan. Walter Matthau plays Ryan's uncle, Albert Einstein. Yes, the Albert Einstein. Tim Robbins plays the ordinary Joe, a garage mechanic, who tries to win Ryan from Fry.

Unlike Hugh Grant, Fry doesn't get the girl. There's only so much an American audience can take. But in another way Fry gives them exactly what Grant gave them in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda. The same thing that was on offer in Peter's Friends. It's our biggest film export. It's . . . er . . . um . . . sort of . . . embarrassment, really.

Fry is the latest English actor to show the world's most powerful democracy what it means to be English - or at any rate Oxbridge, overdressed and emotionally constipated. What we do best, apparently, is blush.

There's something puzzling about Fry: he manages to pop up on TV the whole time while also appearing self-effacing. What's he embarrassed about? Is it that he's 6 ft 41/2? Is it that people say he has a brain the size of Kent, or of California, depending on whether it's a British or American publication? (On the recent anni-versary edition of University Challenge, he scored more than the other contestants put together.) Is it the number of series he does? A Bit of Fry and Laur-ie (four series), Jeeves and Wooster (four series) and Black-adder (three series). Is it the wealth he's accrued from co-writing the musical Me and My Girl, aged 27? Or the strain of being polite in a world full of morons?

He's famously polite. He can't bear arguments. If a couple start arg- uing, he begs them, he says, please, please, please, stop. He's so polite in this interview that if it went on much longer he would have had to apologise for leaving the dressing room but otherwise he would have missed his cue. His technique for avoiding rows in the theatre and television is to go up to people and ask what it is they are cross about: honesty, he tells me, is unbeatable.

"Woof-woof," goes the computer, suddenly.

"That's rather sweet," says Fry, turning back to it, "this little dog who runs along the screen."

"Woof-woof," goes the little dog.

"He's called Bad Dog and he does awful things."

"Woof-woof," goes Bad Dog.

"It's what's called Screen Saver." A computer graphic that fills the screen when it's not being used. Bad Dog is scratching his ear. "He's got fleas," explains Fry. Bad Dog claws a black hole in the white screen and climbs inside. "He's fiddling with the wires inside the computer. Very sweet. Very badly behaved."

"Woof-woof. Woof-woof," goes Bad Dog, climbing back out on to the screen.

"He's done a poo," says Fry, chuckling. Bad Dog disappears. "It's really sweet. He blushed."

Even Bad Dog is in on the act.

STICK a pin on the wall calendar and it will probably be a good day for Stephen Fry to promote something. In journalistic terms, the man is one big peg. Tonight is episode one in the new seven-part series of A Bit of Fry and Laurie. It's the first on BBC1 (this is promotion of another kind: the three earlier series were on BBC2). On Tuesday Cell Mates opens for a 16-week season in London. In two weeks, Fry's second novel, The Hippopotamus, which topped the hardback bestseller list, comes out in paperback. Walk into a bookshop and there will be a large photo of Stephen Fry flirting in a bath with a hippopotamus. (The hippopotamus is the one with the red face.) The novels are big business: The Liar, his first, sold 500,000 copies in paperback. Then there's IQ, which opens on 17 March in 100 cinemas in Britain.

There is hardly a moment in Stephen Fry's working life when he isn't succumbing to the soft entreaties of a press officer. "She's usually called Caroline and she's very sweet and she's got big round eyes and she says `Please do Danny Baker'." Of course he could say no, he won't. "But the way these things work now you might as well say `I'm not going to learn my lines properly'. It's as much a part of what acting/writing is, the selling of it." Sometimes he isn't selling things because he's acting in them, he's acting in things because he is selling them: he has starred in major advertising campaigns for Heineken and Alliance & Leicester. He has no problem with ads. They're fun, they're silly. What he does have a problem with is journalists.

Fry was one himself once. He has written columns for the Listener, the Literary Review and the Daily Telegraph. But he found it "bad for the soul". His articles, often witty and humane, were couched in a twee prose style that teetered between Bernard Levin and our own Wallace Arnold. "I have long felt . . . I can well remember . . . dread era . . . when the dust has settled." Collected in Paperweight (470 pages of it), Fry's journalism shows him to have been on the side of games, jokes, grammar, masturbation, smoking, the decency of the average citizen and the need to say words that some people think are rude.

Fry's most famous article was for Tatler in 1985, as one of a series about Things That People Didn't Do. In a master-stroke of self-promotion, Fry wrote about sex. Here was a public-school comedian, who had been to prison when he was 17 for stealing a credit card, coming out of the closet and saying that he was celibate. Short of eating someone's hamster, he couldn't have attracted more attention.

In the last year Fry has found a new abstinence - a new horror to shrink from - which has also "transformed my life". He has given up reading newspapers.

"It's like opening a piece of used lavatory paper, reading newspapers, just so unpleasant, the smell. The truth is there just isn't the number of events in the world to support the number of journalists, so the trade is entirely in opinion."

He is at pains to say that this is not special pleading, it is not a personal thing. "I'm sure all kinds of unpleasant things have been said about me in the past year. But the great thing is that I don't know about them. Well, I know about one because everyone kept going on to me about it. The Geoffrey Wheatcroft thing." Wheatcroft had written in the Daily Mail that he found Fry the most irritating man in Britain and would like to punch him. The Mail offered its readers "your chance to win a blow- up Stephen Fry punch-bag". Fry didn't read the piece. He won't read this one either. "I hope you're not offended by the thought I won't read it, it's only . . . " - courteous as ever, he searches for a way out - "if Julian Barnes interviewed me, I wouldn't read it."

The pleasure of not reading newspapers is that he avoids reading unpleasant things about anybody. "It's a stone rolling off one's mind to be free of it. If anything has reduced the quality of living in Britain in the last 20 years it's newspapers. The bile. The spleen. They actually have bylines called Bile and Spleen. It's just so yucky."

I put it to Fry that with so much hype around, there's a role for discrimination and comment.

"But I wouldn't want to be the one doing it, would you?" He offers his St Peter scenario. "Imagine getting to the gates of heaven and St Peter says `What did you do with your life?' `Well, I spent my life looking at things that other people did and saying "oh, I think we've seen that all before, haven't we?" And "that's not very good". And "oh, dear, oh dear, oh dear." ' "

Yes, but walk round the West End and the quotes say "Brilliant", "Amazing", "You must see it". Critics don't just say "Oh dear, oh dear".

"Well, they're not going to put that up on the walls! But plenty of it is said."

But his generation are hardly shrinking violets. What's striking about Peter's Friends - a film about a bunch of successful friends, performed by a bunch of successful friends - is that they had the nerve to make it at all. You could argue that, say, Adam Mars-Jones's review in the Independent was more worthwhile than the film itself: better-written, more insightful, with fewer cliches. It's not an observation that would appeal to Fry, who compares critics to traffic wardens or hangmen. One of those jobs that someone has to do. "I can't think of a worse thing for a human being to be. Professionally, to pick up a pen and make someone cry - however necessary you deem it to be - and people do cry - they cry - and you may say boo-hoo, poor little wimp, well, yes, you can say that if you want, but I wouldn't want to say that about someone who's crying. About someone who can do things better than I can ever do in a million years."

But critics express their own opinion, they don't endorse a product for money? Fry be-comes quite exact at this point. "I don't think I have ever endorsed a product for money." He is happy to endorse lots of things. He never misses a chance to plug Apple Macs, because he thinks they're wonderful (unlike wretched IBMs) but he has never received a kilobyte of software in return. Nor would he take it. But acting in a TV commercial is different.

"You may say that this is very casuistical, but playing a fictional part in a little film seems to be quite fun. It's a splendid game. If I came on and said `I, Stephen Fry, think that you should use this aftershave,' I would just giggle, I would not be able to do it. Anybody who knew me would know I didn't wear aftershave. But being a silly arse in a commercial, pretending to be a barman, doesn't seem to me to be actually saying, `I, Stephen Fry, think you should drink this.' It's just that I've been cast by these people to do this silly little film."

Do you think St Peter would get the distinction?

"I think so."

ALMOST every week a beautiful laser-printed proposal arrives for Stephen Fry from some television producer suggesting that he present a documentary series. One wants him to go up a mountain. Another wants him to take a quirky look at cricket, a quirky look at the Church of England, a quirky look at, well, anything English. "They do associate me with English-ness in a very strong way," says Fry.

He is only half English. His mother's family are Austrian Jews. Fry grew up in Norfolk, where he now has a house. He was thrown out of a series of private schools, then thrown into prison. When he got out he did a year's course at Norwich College of Arts and Technology and won a scholarship to Cambridge. There he met Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie.

When I saw these three in the Footlights revue in Edinburgh in 1981, the highlight was the Fry-Laurie sketch about a Shakespearean director taking a masterclass, but there were rougher edges. Laurie, for instance, did a satirical song about Americans sending money to the IRA.

There hasn't been much more politics from Fry and Laurie. "Suddenly there was an explosion of what is called alternative comedy from other sources, who were very political, and we suddenly felt, I suppose, a sort of guilt, as middle-class Cambridge public-schoolboys, that the ground had been taken away. That for us to start moaning about how terrible the world is would look ridiculous. Our function was to do sketches in which characters were looked at instead of political thought." When Alexei Sayle first appeared on TV, Fry and Laurie were "scared shitless".

Unlike Harry Enfield they have never come up with a character that is a household name. Except their own. But steering away from politics has led them to old-fashioned sketches and, with Jeeves and Wooster, period comedy. Here lies Fry's appeal. The thing to be is representative not of England but of Englishness. One way or another John Betjeman, Alan Bennett and Fry manage this. If he's not careful Fry might become a favourite uncle to the British middle class.

"You could argue that Paul Merton is far more English than I am. There are more English people who look and behave like Paul Merton than look and behave like me."

But we don't associate Merton with Radio 4, cricket, PG Wodehouse, the Times crossword, cardigans, slippers, gossip, camp humour and Oxbridge dons. Fry is the mildly iconoclastic enthusiast who, beneath the satire, is ready to give us a gentle lecture on good behaviour, GK Chesterton or downloading from America.

Fry thinks this is rubbish: he's too worldly, he drinks too much and goes out roaring with chums. But listening to him, as he is photo-graphed peering into the fridge, telling gossipy showbiz stories, imitating Donald Pleasance saying "you only live twice" or Alan Howard doing the old electricity ad, or explaining why it is that opening a fridge door doesn't make the room colder, you realise that England is his classroom and we are his pupils.

He puts it down to snobbery, which he says, quoting Alan Bennett, is an amiable vice. "In this country people do accept things from a sort of tweedy person that they wouldn't from others. Ben Elton's always suffering from this. He's only got to go on television and say `flipping heck' and people are screeching at the BBC switchboard: `I don't have to take this filthy language. This yapping Jack Russell on my screen. I'm sending back my licence.' But I can go on and say `oh, it's a fucking disgrace' and they go `oh, he's a toff, isn't he? He's a charmer.' "

At one point our photographer had asked him to change position but to "keep the Stephen Fry in". Fry replied that he didn't know what he was talking about. "He obviously assumed that I would," Fry said. "There was a face or something that I should keep in, that was me. He assumed I would know what it was, but I didn't."

! `Fry & Laurie': BBC1, tonight 10pm. `Cell Mates': Albery (071-369 1730), previews Tues, opens 16 Feb.

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