You ask the questions: Stephen Fry
(Such as: Stephen Fry, why is TV comedy dominated by over-paid ex-public schoolboys and their cronies?)
Wednesday 18 August 1999
I've just read Moab Is My Washpot and laughed out loud. What or who makes you laugh out loud?
Richard Rooke, Hereford
Well, the usual suspects, I'm afraid. Wodehouse, Waugh and, for entirely the wrong reasons, Roger Scruton.
In some of your comedy sketches with Hugh Laurie a few years ago the illusive and intriguing "Marjorie" would appear, but was never seen. Was she based on anyone you both knew or was she just an amusing name?
Tom Quinn, Canterbury, Kent
The elusive Marjorie was indeed mostly a Marjorie of the mind. A pleasing name, oddly different when contracted (as with Mrs Homer Simpson). In fact she did finally appear in an episode - wondrously played by Maria Aitken.
Do you have any advice for Tara Palmer-Tomkinson? And how about Jonathan Aitken?
Larry Greening, north London
Blimey. Am I being set up as an expert on rehabilitation, both narcotic and penal? It would be an impertinence to offer more than platitudes. I know the one a little and the other not at all. I do know that Tara P-T has marvellous parents and JA a marvellous sister. They can't go too far wrong. I expect they have good friends, too, so I hope all will be well. Schadenfreude, joy in the shame of others, is not a very British feeling - as the word implies.
Do you talk to Rik Mayall?
Heather Hayling by e-mail
When I can. There are few finer pleasures.
I hear you drive a London hackney carriage as a private vehicle. I also understand Prince Philip has recently invested in one. Fancy challenging him to a race?
Tom Quinn, Canterbury, Kent
Along the Mall from Admiralty Arch to the statue of Queen Victoria. If he loses he has to burn all his mackintoshes (why does he insist on wearing them?) - if I lose I have to burn all my Paul Smith socks (ditto).
When are you coming to Leamington Spa again ?
Jeremy Quentin Sleath,
When the flood waters recede, I shall return. Thank you for remembering.
You have produced some of the most memorable British comedy, you have acted in films and on stage, and you have written successfully. Where would you see yourself now if fate had forged a different path for you?
Tom Quinn, Canterbury, Kent
I think teaching. It was always what I imagined myself doing.
Having read, much admired and been moved to tears by your autobiography, I wondered how you handle making new acquaintances who, in all probability, know so much already about your life and innermost thoughts. Normally this degree of intimacy would be the result of months, if not years, of close friendship. I imagine that writing it was a cathartic experience for you but have you ever regretted being so honest - has it ever led to any embarrassing or difficult situations?
Louise Thomas, Abingdon
Nothing truly embarrassing so far. I am sometimes aware of furtive sideways glances: "Did he really do that?" they seem to be asking. "And surely not that?" Martin Amis says somewhere in, I think, The Information, that a character has just enough of the writer in him to believe that his experiences and thoughts are likely to be those of others too. I think I have just enough of that brand of confidence: confidence that there is little I have done, thought, or felt that others haven't done, thought, imagined or felt as well.
My personal favourite from your `Blackadder' personas was the barking (mad) military leader in Blackadder Goes Forth. Which was the most enjoyable to play and what is your favourite episode?
Tom Quinn, Canterbury, Kent
I must say it was great fun to be able to play a character that was loud and deranged. I enjoyed the episode where Captain Blackadder was court- martialled for murdering my favourite pigeon - a higher quotient of shouting than ever, that episode. But, like many people, I was very moved by the final image of the final episode with Blackadder leading his men out of the trenches - while my character, of course, was safely tucked up in his moustache.
Keith Gapp, Oxford
Oh dear, I don't think I have one. Like most people who have earned their supercolossal public-school salaries in comedy, I am hopeless at jokes.
Why is TV comedy dominated by an astronomically paid group of ex-public schoolboys and their cronies?
Ray O'Shaughnessy, Wellingborough
I am afraid my only experience of TV is in the British Isles. I really can't speak for other countries, or indeed planets. I reach for the Radio Times of the past year. Goodness Gracious Me. The Fast Show. League of Gentlemen. Gimme Gimme Gimme. One Foot in the Grave. Birds of A Feather. Goodnight Sweetheart. Lots of other sitcoms and shows. Damned if I can find a single public-school product among them. I personally went to a state primary school, a private prep school, a public school, a direct- grant grammar school, a state sixth-form college and then another state sixth-form college. The only other public-school products I've worked with much have been Hugh Laurie and Rowan Atkinson. Perhaps we should all be banned from television because we went to the wrong schools. Seems a little harsh. While you're at it, have you noticed how many highly paid Jews there are on television? I qualify there as well. And an increasing number of Asians these days? I'm sorry you don't like minorities. Perhaps this is something you can take up with a doctor. As for salaries... well: the big money seems to have gone in exclusive contracts to entirely state- school people: a female double act, a brace of Geordies, sports presenters, game-show hosts and so forth. But why are we playing this game? It seems silly, undignified, bitter and unpleasant. Let's play nicer games.
After playing Oscar Wilde in the film of the same name has your opinion of the influential writer and wit changed in any way?
Tom Quinn, Canterbury, Kent
Hum. Not quite sure. There was a time, during the filming, when I was crosser with him for what he did to his wife and children. The further we move from him - and it's now very nearly 100 years since his death - the more gigantic he appears. As we zoom away from the century and look out of the rear window, he seems to dwarf those who were once closer to us, as tall buildings will reassert themselves over a small shed that once blocked them when we were closer up. If you get me.
Which is your favourite Mahler symphony ?
Paul Mitchell by e-mail
I suppose The Resurrection. But to be frank I'm more of a Wagner baby than a Mahler baby. Not that I despise Gussie, but Dickie W just seems infinitely more the canine testicles to me.
Are you for or against boarding schools?
Barry Norton, east London
There was a New Yorker cartoon that featured a man saying something like this: "I guess I'm lucky really. Not having kids means I don't have to worry about the environment, the crime rate or the educational system." I wouldn't go quite that far, but in the same way that men feel they can avoid (with simply massive relief) having an opinion on the awfully tricky abortion issue by pleading that it's not their business to tell a woman what to do with their body, so I feel I can duck out the private-education debate.
If it's a wider social question of whether Britain would be morally and politically better off without private education, I'm bound to say: "Get real." If public schools were
banned tomorrow, Eton would move to a castle in Ireland, Harrow to a schloss in Switzerland and Winchester to a chateau in the Loire. We would be riven by greater elitism than ever before. "Oh, you were educated in Britain... how sad. Piers went to Charterhouse-sur-Seine and Camilla was at Cheltenham-am-See. It's often said, but none the less true, but we should make our state schools so fucking good that you'd be mad to send your children to some smelly old place miles and miles away when Alderman Satterthwaite High in Barnsley is 10 times as good. And I really don't believe in the argument that only by forcing the upper-middle classes to pay attention to state schools will anything be done about them. Are we really saying that 95 per cent of the nation is incapable of addressing its education problems without being helped out by the dismal 5 per cent in their Range Rovers and unacceptable accents? God help us all. There really is such a thing as will. You don't have to be Nietzsche to believe that.
What makes you happy?
Julie Frederick, Islington, London
I daren't say. I'm not superstitious, but I do dread tempting providence. There are things I couldn't live without: Apple Macintoshes for example (no, I am not paid by Apple and have never received so much as a free floppy from them, I just plain adore the kitteny darlings). Mostly, happiness comes round a dinner table with friends. Eating, drinking, playing poker, being silly. The usual nonsense. When I'm old, emphysemic, arthritic and incontinent I am not sure I know what I will most look back on and identify as happiness. That, I must suppose, means one really ought to get on with the merry-go-round ride, rather than stop and disassemble the mechanics. It'll stop all too soon.
What has life taught you?
Roger Yelland, Bristol
The major lesson of life seems to be that just when you think you've understood things, something happens to turn your understanding upside down and inside out. So I suppose life has taught me nothing. Which is as it should be.
What are your extravagances?
Oliver Pendleton by e-mail
The above-mentioned Apple Macintoshes and the endless stream of peripherals that adhere thereunto; wine; socks; DVDs, first-class air travel. Nothing worthy.
In real life, do you see yourself more as Jeeves or Wooster?
Mick Anderson, Cambridge
I'm certainly not adroit, efficient, neat, quiet on my feet and respectful like Jeeves. On the other hand, I do tend to remember quotations and regurgitate facts like him. I attempt the sunniness of disposition of Bertie Wooster, but can't achieve the same altruism and sweetness of nature. A mongrel hybrid of both, I suppose. A sort of Jooster. Why take two Wodehouse characters into the shower, when you can simply Jooster And Go?
Best and worst memory of Cambridge University? What sort of antics did you get up to with Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie?
Well, I'd hate you to think that we were like characters in some Edwardian schoolboy novel ("And so the three chums marched off to the tuck-shop for a pound of Mrs Godfrey's best bull's eyes and two bottles of frothing ginger pop...") but I did enjoy myself at university. Especially so since it was such a close squeak getting there, after expulsions, prison and probation and all. Part of the pleasure of being at a university is the feeling that the place belongs to you, and there is a corresponding irredentist melancholy in returning and seeing the place usurped by new waves of the young. The ancient universities are remarkable places, to be sure ... but even if Cambridge had been all brutalist concrete with horrible drip- marks and sour smelling catwalks, I would still have had a wonderful time because of friendship.
Why were you expelled from Uppingham? And what were your memories of the remand centre?
Corine Backs, Wetherby, N Yorks
I have covered it pretty extensively in a book and wouldn't want to sound as if I still can't wait to go on about it all the time. So perhaps you can steal a copy somehow, which would acquit me of sounding as if I'm touting for custom.
Is it true that you own a Tiger Moth stunt aircraft? Do you still fly it?
K Lockham, by e-mail
I sold it a couple of years ago. I could fly it. Flying is easy. Unfortunately I couldn't land it or take off in it with any degree of safety. Those bits are hard. I also get lost after thirty seconds in the air, no matter how well I know the terrain beneath. It just looks so different from up there. You need time to put in the hours. So I relied on an RAF jet pilot member of the family who would do the hard bits for me and let me do the fun, easy, flying, bit.
You've been called the most brilliant man in Britain. Who, in your opinion, actually is?
Denise Elgar, south London
It's probably someone we don't know, working away in the field of polynomials or genetic science or plastic extrusion or something. But of the prominently brilliant, you've got to travel far to meet someone more Brilliant with a majuscule and magisterial B than Tom Stoppard.
Why did you call your autobiography Moab Is My Washpot and when is the next volume coming out? I've found the quote in the Bible but I'm still none the wiser!
Robin Butterell, Chester
Reminds me of that story about FESmith who when still a young and very much up-and-coming lawyer, treated a judge to a lengthy peroration in court one afternoon.
"Thank you, Mr Smith," snapped the judge, who didn't like clever young men, "but I'm not sure I'm any the wiser for all that."
"Possibly not, but you're certainly better informed," Smith replied.
So even if if you weren't wiser about the title, you had the fun of trawling the Bible which, when out of the hands of mad evangelicals, is rather fine, don't you think? In fact the Moab title has something to do with the subsequent phrase which concerns vanquishing the Philistines. My adolescent self saw life as a war between the athlete and the aesthete, the inner life and the outer life. But then, I was something of a wanker.
Why did you walk out of Cellmates? And, more than that, why Belgium?
Catherine O'Connor, Wokingham, Berks
Oh poo. Well, the long and short of it is that I really don't know. The bleeding Belgium canard will waddle with me till I die. It just so happened that Belgium was en route... I had got the first ferry ticket I could lay my hands on, which by chance took me to Zeebrugge. I spent approximately six hours in Belgium and then went through Holland to Germany, heading relentlessly north towards Schleswig-Holstein. I think my intention was to go and live in some remote corner of Denmark. I saw myself in a huge white pullover, pushing logs into a wood burner, smoking an oddly shaped pipe and writing the odd bit of melancholy poetry. A kind of Max von Sydow, only plumper. It could still happen. You have been warned.
The TV chef and restaurateur Ed Baines, followed by the ex-jockey and novelist Dick Francis
Send your questions for Ed Baines and Dick Francis to: You Ask The Questions, Features, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, London E14 5DL (fax: 0171-293 2182, or e-mail yourquestions @independent.co.uk), by noon on Friday 20 August. The question we like best will win the sender a bottle of champagne
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