Stephen Fry – National Treasure.
We’re having a bit of a Fry Fest here in the UK at present to celebrate his 50th Birthday. I have had to revise my – less than charitable - view of Stephen formed mainly as a Pavlovian reaction to his stint in prison and his deserting a new play which then failed. I last wrote about him to give an account of his brilliant and intensely personal TV programme ‘Secret Life of a Manic Depressive’, for friends who were unable to watch it. After such a searingly honest account one couldn’t fail to be more compassionate and understanding.
The programme itself was a ray of light shining on the hidden murky depths that mental illness is regularly consigned to and gave comfort to thousands of sufferers who previously felt shunned and stigmatised.
Now he is doing the same for HIV sufferers – honest as ever about his gay status and turning a critical but compassionate eye on them. Stephen’s first love at Cambridge, Kim Harris is now almost blind and is HIV positive through his partner who has now died.
‘Of all the ways to leave a party – it’s one of the most agonising.’ said Kim
One of the saddest cases was a teen-age girl who contracted HIV in the womb and is now dying of Aids
Stephen himself had to have a blood test 23 years ago before he could buy a property.
There are now three times more cases of HIV positive than there were ten years ago. I couldn’t help reflecting that it is ten year since Diana died – another shiner of light on murky depths. New infections in heterosexuals outnumber those in homosexuals and there is almost a Russian roulette attitude adopted by members of both gay and straight members of society. There are 70,000 cases of people infected with HIV in the UK. Some of the attitudes were frightening: safe sex was the exception rather than the rule, two out of five didn’t use condoms when drunk and no-one asked if each other had been tested.
Stephen travelled to the townships of South Africa where 346,000 died of Aids last year. 90% could be saved with access to drugs but the government don’t believe that HIV leads to Aids and there is an absence of a strong public message. There is to be a second programme of ‘HIV and me’ and one can only hope it has the same salutary effect as his documentary on mental illness.
Stephen has also taken part recently in ‘Who do you think you are?’ where celebrities discover their forebears and roots. Typically, instead of the usual back up of experts, Stephen appeared to do it all himself with the help of his lap-top. This involved him travelling to Vienna, where he discovered a woman who had installed a plaque commemorating his Austrian family, in the building where they had lived before being murdered during the holocaust and when he saw it he wept. It was very moving to see this great bear of a man showing his tiny mother the garden in Norfolk where she had played as a child. As usual Stephen was frank and open about his Jewishness.
‘Fifty – not out’ was the programme that finally demolished any remaining prejudice. Friends as diverse as Prince Charles and Jonathan Ross and including luminaries of stage and screen such as Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thomson, Imelda Staunton – too many to name - and many who had known him since Cambridge speak of him with awe and affection. When Hugh Laurie (playing the lead in ‘House’ in the US) spoke of his old partner in the Bertie Wooster series it was plain to see his love for his old friend.
Stephen Fry – actor, writer, comic, wit, raconteur and brilliant interviewer you are a national treasure. Imagine what it must be like to have him as a friend; one would never have to Google again. Below is a small taste of his comic talent.