The press as toilet paper
Shortly before his brief appearance on - and sudden disappearance from - the West End stage, Stephen Fry was interviewed by Robert Butler of the Independent on Sunday. Fry spent some time attacking the British press for its bile and spleen and said he no
Sunday 26 February 1995
The article was published in the Sunday Review. The next week Fry was attacked by several columnists in the dailies for his hostile views on the press. Fry's remarks have been widely quoted. The tenor of the attacks continued in some of the reviews - the Observer's critic, for instance, turning Fry's words against him. On Monday Fry left the show and the country, prompting concern for his safety. On Friday he faxed a statement to his agent, Lorraine Hamilton, saying he had suffered "a dreadful attack of what golfers call the yips and actors call stagefright".
Three weeks before, he had told me, on the way to his dressing room, that he only got newspapers for the TV listings. This is how the interview began:
Butler: So you don't read newspapers at all.
Fry: No, and it's transformed my life. Since about almost exactly a year ago now I haven't read a newspaper. I get the TV supplements, as I say, so I know what's on the telly. Look at the videoplus codes or whatever. Er. And they usually come out on Saturdays. So I get the Telegraph and the Times . . . and it's just fabulous. It's just unbelievable how wonderful one's life is. It's when I went to America to do a film there and I suddenly realised after about a week and a half, I couldn't understand why I was so happy every day. It was not because I loved being in America particularly or that I was enjoying the filming or whatever. Both very good fun. I realised it was the fact that I wasn't reading any newspapers. It was just fabulous.
Butler: On Sundays, especially?
Fry: Bliss. Bliss. Not to wade through that. It's like opening a piece of used lavatory paper reading newspapers. just so unpleasant, the smell. The fact is there is just not enough events in the world to support the number of journalists, so the trade is entirely in opinion. And I used to be part of it, so I know. I used to write for two years. I used to do a column on the Telegraph. So glad I don't anymore. I just think it's so bad for the soul. (Laughs.) I know it sounds terribly pompous, but for me, it just turns one into an arrogant figure whose opinion is apparently worth printing. Why should my opinion be worth printing? It's absurd. And if one becomes a professional at it, you start to turn into this laughable sort of Peregrine Worsthorne sort of figure, who starts getting angry about supermarket queues or something else banal and, you know, completely absurd, because they have to be professionally liverish, because there's nothing else to do. Or they start to turn on people. "Don't you just hate dot dot dot." When I was a journalist, I used to get rung up by editors saying: "Eeer, yeaaah, we need a hate piece on Christmas", or on telephones, or something. I mean, what!?! This man has got to go to bed at night. As he reviews his day . . . he's actually asked someone to produce a hate piece. Incredible way to lead a life. Ugh. And it makes Britain a really unpleasant place to live in. That's the awful thing. If anything has reduced the quality of life in the past 20 years it seems to me it's newspapers. The bile. The spleen. They actually have bylines called Bile and Spleen. It's just so yukky. It's such a shame. As I say, profiles . . . and of course one has to participate in it. That's the awful thing. It's not an attack on you. I mean, as I say, interviews and things are jolly. But . . . er . . . you probably don't write those sort of . . . comments.
Butler: But we do live in an age with a lot of hype and a lot of publicity, and there is a role for discrimination and comment.
Fry: Mmm. Mmm. But I wouldn't want to be the one doing it, would you? I mean, imagine getting to the gates of heaven, and St Peter says: "What did you do in your life?" - I've said this before - "Well, I spent my life looking at things that other people did and saying: `That's rather . . . oh, I think we've seen it all before, haven't we? And that's not very good. And oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear. That's very -' "
Butler: But walk around the West End and it says "Brilliant", "Amazing", "You must go and see it". It's not just "oh dear, oh dear".
Fry: No, they're not going to put that up, are they? But plenty of it is said.
Butler: But there's a mixture of comment.
Fry: Mmm. Mmm. Oh yeah. In terms of reviews, it's a sort of separate issue really. I've said before, it's not that I dislike reviewers. It's just that I can't think of a worse thing for a human being to be. I just think it's such a tragic waste of a life. (Laughs.) To spend your life looking at things that other people have done and made and saying what's wrong with them. Or what's right with them. Either way it just seems to me an awfully sad thing to do.
Butler: So if you say what's right about something, you're setting yourself up as judge -
Fry: It's not even that. I don't argue that it has a role and that it's necessary. I just would hate to do it myself. And I hate reading other people doing it. But I absolutely agree one hundred per cent that it needs to be done. But I can't bear it. The sight of it. I just find it so demeaning. I mean, professionally, to pick up a pen and make someone cry - seems to me - however necessary you may deem it to be - and people do cry - they cry - the people I'm talking about - 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 somebody who's crying. About someone who can do things better than I can ever do in a million years. I just think it's feeble. I just think it's sad. To be in that job. However necessary that job is, I wouldn't want to be - like - like a traffic warden. Yes, we need to control our parking but I wouldn't want to be the one who slaps tickets on old ladies' cars or clamped doctors' vehicles, however much it's my job, and someone's got to do it, and keep the streets clean and all those - I would not want to do it. It's -. That's really the point. I hate seeing it done really. If we had capital punishment, we'd have to have hangmen, but would you want to be one? No more would I want to be a PR officer. Endlessly boosting things. Writing letters to people like you and begging you to come and interview people like me. It must be miserable. It's just the whole trade is so -
Butler: But you're quite tied up in the whole thing -
Fry: I can't help it. There is nothing you can do. There's almost nothing I do that doesn't have a PR attached, and she's usually called Caroline and she's very sweet and she's got big round eyes and she says Please do Danny Baker, or please do this, or please do that. One could, every time one wrote a book or was in a play or film or television series, you could say I'm not going to do any publicity whatsoever to that person. But you would be undermining the way these things work now. You might just as well say I'm not going to learn my lines properly. It's seems to me as much a part of what acting and writing is, the selling of it. I'm sorry, I don't mean this to sound - it's certainly not an attack on you - or on this - or a resentment of this.
Butler: No, having read your journalism, I wanted to ask you about this -.
Fry: Oh good.
Butler: We live in a world where there's a tremendous amount of publicity. So when something like your book comes out, you go on a publicity tour.
Butler: The option would be to say, I've written my book. It will find a life. If people enjoy it, they will recommend it to friends.
Fry: Yup. Which I would love to do. If it weren't for the fact - it sounds like boasting or whatever - but when I wrote my last book, I was going to do these author tours and kinds of things round bookshops. TV shows and interviews were all booked up. Then I was asked to do this film in America. So I rang the publisher and said I'm not going to do anything. You're going to have to cancel this because I'm going to be in America. And she said: "Oh God, I've got to break it to so-and-so who's doing publicity." And I rang back about half an hour later and she said, "Well, they're all in tears in the office". They were literally crying. I had made them cry by saying I wouldn't do these things. I was undermining their entire job. Everything they earn their salary for was to get me on this publicity tour and I'd taken it away from them. I felt like a beast. I thought I'd done the meanest, most vicious thing in the world. I said: "But you can understand, this is a Hollywood film, which I really want to do. I'm working with Walter Matthau. I'm really excited about it. Surely you don't expect me to turn it down just so I can turn up at Waterstone's in Manchester." And they did! (Laughs.) Eventually they said, no, it's OK. But it meant that I was doing a television series at the time and I had to go off every bloody night, virtually, while doing this recording of the series, and rehearsing it, and fit in as many of the interviews then, before I went off, to satisfy them. And it is ridiculous.
But people naturally say that if you live by the sword you must perish by the sword and if you live by publicity and have success and make money because of publicity and hype that surrounds things you do, then you must not moan about things that are said nasty about you, and that's really not the point at all. It's nothing to do with things being said about me. I really don't mind. And I expect that.
I've always said that if you appear as much as I do in different things you're bound to have thousands, millions of people who absolutely detest the sight of you. You're bound to. It's just obvious. It doesn't amaze me or surprise me at all. And it's not that. And that's why I don't want, I wouldn't want, to give the impression that it's special pleading. It's just . . . 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 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.] But I never actually read it. So the great thing is, what the heart doesn't see the eye doesn't . . . um, I mean . . . what the eye doesn't see the heart doesn't . . . the stomach doesn't heave over. What ever it is! Because you just don't worry about them if you don't see them. But it's not really that.
The joy of not reading newspapers is not that I don't read unpleasant things about myself but that I don't read unpleasant things about anybody. Or anything. I don't have to know what's apparently cool and what isn't. Or what Julie Burchill has decided to say about Jonathan Ross this week or something. Mindless piece of drivel, that's supposed to be second-guessing what's fashionable and what's in and what's out, and what's hot and what's not, and what's wired and what's tired, and what's a hero and what's a zero. Or whatever other flash way of putting it they want. All that sort of stuff. It's not that I'm being snobbish about it, but it's just like a stone rolling off one's mind to be free of it. Sounds pompous.
Butler: I should have said, I'm very happy to read the quotes back to you, before they go in the piece.
Fry: Don't worry. No, don't worry about it. No.
Butler: You sure?
Butler: I find it's a good thing to do, but if you can't be bothered -
Fry: No, well, as I say. I won't read it anyway. (Laughs.) No offence to you. I hope you're not offended by that thought. It's only because - um, um - [even] if Julian Barnes interviewed me I wouldn't read it.
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