Sunday 18 March 2018

Why Stephen Fry can't put a foot wrong right now

Comedian is on a roll as he is held up as hero of right-minded modernity, whether you like him or not

Stephen Fry has married his partner Elliott Spencer, after announcing their engagement just ten days previously.
Stephen Fry has married his partner Elliott Spencer, after announcing their engagement just ten days previously.

Sarah Caden

If it had been anyone but Stephen Fry who did an impersonation of Stephen Hawking at last week's Baftas, they would have been booed out of the room and roundly denounced, more widely, as being of bad judgment and bad taste.

Most people would not get away with mocking a man with a disability, but they're not Stephen Fry, who has always been looked up to as a professorial figure in the UK, thanks to his pompous TV show QI but is now, internationally, some kind of hero of the right-minded world.

The attitude and outbursts of Stephen Fry as host of last week's Baftas speak of someone who believes that they can do no wrong. And, right now, despite hundreds of complaints to the BBC about his language and his impersonation of Stephen Hawking, Fry might not be mistaken.

Right now, the consensus is that Stephen Fry represents everything that is right with the world, and any suggestion that he's less than loveable and laudable is taken as a Bible-bashing vote against equality.

These days, saying you're anti-abortion or anti gay marriage is not the most provocative thing you could say at a dinner party. To say, instead, that you can't stand Stephen Fry is the ultimate shocker conversation stopper.

Fry has been on a roll since the first week of this year, when he announced his engagement to Elliott Spencer, whom he married a fortnight later.

He seemed very happy, they both did, and no one, given Fry's history of bipolar disorder and bouts of serious unhappiness would begrudge him that. But the fact that you couldn't say a word about the 30-year age gap - which you would if it was a 57-year-old man and a 27-year-old woman, or a 57-year-old woman and a 27-year-old man, and don't pretend you wouldn't - kind of rankled.

And Fry rose to his sudden elevation to modern-day hero. "I'm bathing in a bath of bliss," Fry said on his wedding day in January. You'd laugh any other 57-year-old man out of the room if he shared that with you, but not Fry. No, when this comes from Stephen Fry it's a gem to be treasured and admired. And to feel oneself cringing in response to it is to be against equality, rather than just slightly embarrassed by Fry personally.

But this is what happens when a person comes to represent a position. When that happens, you can't say, "Jesus, I can't stick that Stephen Fry, he makes my skin crawl," because it leads to a suspicion that you are made uneasy not by him and his pompous posturing, but by his sexuality or, in recent weeks, by his doubts about God.

When Stephen Fry put it to Gay Byrne on The Meaning of Life two weeks ago that he considered God to be "capricious, mean-minded, stupid" and undeserving of his respect, Gay, for his part, gave good TV with his cut-away shots of surprise and near horror, but really, a man of Gay's age and experience has heard all of this before.

He has heard it from non-believers down the years, and believers too, who are not the stupid and unquestioning sheep that our modern right-thinker would have. Go to any church funeral, particularly in the case of a tragic or young death, and you will hear how believers struggle to make sense of how a good God could allow bad things to happen.

And yet, Fry, whose rant earned him 5 million hits on YouTube was held up as some sort of tell-it-like-it-is hero, even if he was only saying what small children say when confronted with the idea of an all-powerful being.

For whatever reason, there is this belief that Stephen Fry is out there, slaying dragons and saying the unsayable, which makes him an untouchable hero who can do no wrong. In fact, though, he's very much fitting in with what is the modern consensus.

These days, anyone who says boo about same-sex marriage is anti-equality, and anyone who admits to believing in God is out of their mind.

And, happily, a hero like Fry wraps up that consensus in a very liberal-acceptable package. And he's educated and eloquent and posh, too, which really helps.

It's a dangerous thing, however, to start believing that you are the number-one spokesperson for opinions that, sometimes incorrectly, are perceived as unmentionable. What happens then is that you believe that everything you have to say is worthwhile and worthy of praise.

You start making headlines for expressing a desire to meet Mattress Mick, for example, to an Irish audience with a history of falling for anyone who'll come and visit us and tell us we're great. For anyone who missed it, Fry has gone public with this desire.

More so, however, Fry's behaviour at the Baftas shows us where he's at. As the host of the event, he was, of course, expected to keep it jolly and fun and a bit controversial, but there was a sense that he took it too far. A sense, perhaps, that he forgot that it wasn't all about him.

There were complaints, obviously, that Fry brought Tom Cruise to the stage with the comment: "Tom f***ing Cruise". There remain people, just imagine, who don't really enjoy language like that on the telly, though they're probably prudes, right?

Then, there was the Hawking moment. Hawking was in attendance due to the nominations of The Theory of Everything, of which he is the subject, and was on stage to present an award.

Admittedly he had a bit of banter with Fry about which of them was smarter and better-looking, but still. As Hawking left the stage, Fry said: "That was really super," in a metallic, computer-generated-type voice like Hawking's. Reports said that the audience cringed, but Fry soldiered on. It summed up something, though.

It summed up, perhaps, the fact that Fry sees himself as on a mission to slaughter some sacred cows. Maybe, just maybe, Fry believed that he could poke fun at Hawking's disability because he's a breaker of taboos, he's the number-one champion of the underdog, he's the man who says the unsayable. As opposed to a man making a joke about another man's inability to speak without the aid of a machine.

The problem with being the hero of the underdog is, of course, that you stop being the underdog. Right now, there's nothing niche about loving Stephen Fry and every opinion he has on the world. Right now, Stephen Fry is merely backing up the mostly liberal consensus and he is an underdog no more. In fact, right now, he's a sacred cow himself.

Sunday Independent

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