CG: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican’s podcast. I’m Chris Gunness, this is the Art of Change, a series featuring artists who are passionate about changing the world. Today, the third in a four part series featuring Stephen Fry, writer, actor, comedian and campaigner. Last time Stephen talked with moving honesty about his own suicide attempts as he battled manic depression. Next, I explored his advocacy for such things as gay rights, prostate cancer and [sic] destigmatising mental health. I put it to him that far from choosing his issues, they had chosen him.
SF: Well I’ve got to be honest and say these are personal, it’s egotistical. I’d be far more admirable if I was advocating for causes to which I had much less connection if you like. I suppose though it’s a kind of example of charity begins at home attitude, I remember joking to my urologist when I had this prostate thing…
CG: I want to hear all about that too by the way
SF: … One of the things they do to stop, it’s rather bizarre, to stop these cancer cells from spreading – metastasising as they like to call it – is they give you an androgen suppressant that suppresses your testosterone and therefore apparently suppresses the cells from replicating and spreading. And obviously you make jokes. I said to her ‘I’ve noticed I’m sensitive, I’m so much less shallow, I’m able to also have three different conversations, I’m maybe turning into a woman’. And I said ‘but of course what happens now, you get this gynecomastia they call it, when you start to grow breasts’ I said ‘it means I’ll have to start talking about breast cancer charities as well’. And it was a sort of mocking myself for the fact that the only charities I seem to support are the ones were I have some connection and I suppose it’s partly because I’m deeply aware – and a lot of us are – of how it falls on the ear when a privileged actor starts lecturing people about what they should support and what’s right and what’s wrong. So if I can speak from experience rather than apparently just giving a lecture on this is the way the world should be but actually say I know what it’s like then it perhaps comes over better. So even… A charity I support is Reprieve, which is… extraordinary work it does. Clive Stafford Clark founded it, it saves people off death-row, people that have been in prison in Guantanamo and other places, in Turkey, in Iraq and Iran, all kinds of places, supporting them. I did go to prison as part of my troubled adolescence, so again at least you know that’s something where I can feel that that’s something I know whereof I speak a little. And obviously being born gay, growing up in a period when gay liberation was about to happen and was set back enormously by the terror of the AIDS epidemic and so on, I felt able to be in the lucky position, in a profession where coming out as gay is no news at all.
CG: But it could have been damaging, I mean, you chose to speak out on these issues.
SF: Yes, well there were very few others. I mean even Ian McKellan hadn’t come out when I came out.
SF: I mean not that I’m claiming that I’m braver than Ian because he’s done so much good in his field. But yes, I suppose.. But I kind of new I was never going to get offered the parts that Brad Pitt had turned down, so it’s not like ‘we can’t cast him because he’s gay’ cos there was always going to be….
CG: But you could have been discriminated against, could you not?
SF: I mean I could have been, yes. I just on occasion had faggot or queer shouted at me at football matches or wherever but it’s very rare…
SF: … and now it’s always dealt with very strongly, especially at football matches. If anyone was to do that, they’d be banned for life I’m glad to say, because that sort of stuff is just so harmful. It’s not harmful for me because I’m big enough and ugly enough to take it, but it’s the kids in the playground, they still have to face bullying and torment and mockery of the worst possible kind and it takes immense guts on the part of the kids, because – haven’t we heard this since we were young but – ‘they grow up so fast’ but because pornography and sexual information and sexual availability is of a different order now from what it was… I used to get thrilled at the idea that I could buy a copy of Health and Efficiency magazine, and Naturism Magazine for nudists because I would actually be able to see…
CG: A few naked men
SF: …or National Geographic. Exactly. This was the only opportunity, there was nothing like Pornhub… So it’s a very different world. And who knows, who knows what it’s doing. But it does put pressure on the young. And I think anything that can… I think one of the things is to – it’s an old quote of G K Chersterton’s that I come up with from time to time – but ‘angels can fly because they take themselves lightly’. If you can show for all the terrors and things that you ‘fess up to that have happened in your life, you know the agonies of adolescence and of love and the pain of your mental illness and so on, but the way you show or cope with anything fate throws at you is to try and take it lightly. To try not to turn inwards, because I do think self-pity is often – not just because it’s ugly, which it is, it’s not pleasant to witness it being exhibited – but because it’s so damaging to the person who feels sorry for themselves. I mean you know if you were to visit someone who you knew was terminally ill and they said ‘oh it’s alright, a bit of pain here’ you’d think ‘wow, god’ you know, but when you know someone who’s got a slight problem somewhere in an elbow who goes ‘ooo you’ve no idea what I suffer’ you think ‘oh, sod off’. It’s just human nature you know. It a) does you good with other people not to be sorry for yourself because people are more likely to help but also it does good to yourself to believe that you’re not at the end of things, even if you feel you are for that moment, things can improve.
CG: Stephen I want to ask you about the international aspects of your advocacy on, for example, LGBT issues. You chose to go and confront homophobes in Brazil, in Russia, in sub-Saharan Africa. Where did this international thing come from?
SF: Well it so happens that I have a lot of admirers in Russia and in Brazil. In fact, when I had my big breakdown in the mid-90s, a very wonderful, big popstar in Brazil called Zeca Baleiro wrote a song called Stephen Fry, in which he was sort of sending love and sympathy for me, which was very sweet.
CG: What were the words, out of interest?
SF: Oh… ‘Por onde andará Stephen Fry’ and it means ‘please come home Stephen Fry [because I’d gone missing], we miss you Stephen Fry’. It was terribly sweet and so touching, I think it’s on Spotify if you ever wanted to find it.
CG: Is that why you wanted to go to Brazil?
SF: Well that was an example of the fact that I did seem to have a fanbase there, through Jeeves and Wooster and other comedy things and so on. Similarly in Russia, my book sold extremely well in Russian, in Russian.
CG: Why is that?
SF: I don’t know, it’s very interesting. It started with Jeeves and Wooster I think, the Russians loved PJ Wodehouse, they loved this view of England, they find it funny. Maybe in the comedy steer, it was such an opposite to anything they had. And because it was comic and light and didn’t suggest that the life that Bertie and Jeeves and Lord Emsworth and others lived but was comical, it wasn’t suppressed by the regime and so they read it and just found it sunny, which it is, he’s the definition of good-natured, PJ Wodehouse. Anyway so that was part of it. So I knew from letters that I got from Russia and Brazil that things were turning towards this new kind of populism, that it was a bellwether of what was to come in populism. And there is something quite uniquely toxic when nationalism, almost fascistic nationalism, and religion come together. And this was happening in Russia, with the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox figures who were beginning to get power in Putin’s new Russia and with this new sense of nationalism within this regime as well, and the same... So I interviewed this senator Bolsonaro in Brazil
CG: Later to become…
SF: Who is of course now yes, the president. I had no idea, and he was a frightening example of this militarism and religion, sentimentalised religion, fantasy of militarism which we’ve all seen in fascism and of course it does no service to anyone to compare everyone endlessly to Hitler and Nazism but all forms of fascism – whether Franco or Mussolini – had this mixture of a kind of weird, sentimental, fantasy view of the military. And just a kind of masturbatory fantasy mixed with a religion... I mean the whole thing is a weird iconography thing of religion and jackboots. When that happens, bones are broken on the pavement. And the first you choose are the ‘other’, whether it’s Jews or gay people. So I thought you know, just at the time everything’s getting so good in Britain, we’re getting equality and it wasn’t quite the… I wasn’t married yet, it wasn’t quite the equal marriage, but things had really got better and better for gay people like me in Britain. I was getting all these letters saying, not saying, churlishly it’s all right for you, but I thought we’ve got this far, it just seemed the right thing to do. It couldn’t be complete but the sort of view around the world, so India and the United States – gay therapy in the United States – and Brazil and Uganda, where a lot of pentecostalists were financing some of the most homophobic legislation which they tried for death sentences for gay people in Uganda and I love Uganda, I’ve been there for comic relief and it was one of the countries I most instantly warmed to.
CG: There’s that wonderful confrontation with the minister who ends up saying ‘I’ll lock you up’. Stephen, this sort of touched on something which I find so impressive, particularly about your confronting homophobia, you will not be bought over in any way by any of these arguments. You have this profound conviction in your own values, and no-one can take that away from you. Where does all that stuff come from?
SF: I’m not sure and again it seems pretentious but I mentioned it before because of his description of Beethoven’s Fifth, but E M Forster was a huge influence on me, when I first read The Longest Journey and then Howard’s End, it was like an explosion in my head, amongst many other writers and things. In the torment of this adolescence I described, the Sturm und Drang as Germans like to say, the storm and stress of it, I got this idea that the secret to life could be found in books and art and growing up in a pretty remote part of the Norfolk countryside where you know, as Sydney Smith once said, simply miles from the nearest lemon, it was books and poetry and music that kind of made me feel alive. And the idea of Forster and his generation, much derided of the sacred nature of human relations, and I felt that that was the absolute truth, the touchstone and it was there in Bertrand Russell and in Forster and that generation of Bloomsbury and others. And so it set my heart on going to university at Cambridge, which is where he had lived of his life in the end – Forster – and where most of his friends and you know, fellow writers and thinkers were. And it did give me amongst other things, that rooted belief. And part of that belief is that lots else is up for grabs and that I’m not certain about all kinds of things. The uncertainty principle is not just for physics. You know, Bertram Russell repeated it and repeated it, and he was absolute in logic and what he did know, or at least what he could prove but he was absolutely certain that uncertainty was the right approach to things. Yes so you know, to be told that I’m evil is absolute nonsense, it’s assertion and I’m trained enough in the mind to know that one assertion is of no more value than another, you know, you have to show an example, to prove – I don’t mean mathematically exactly – but to demonstrate by the example of a life, or the example of a metaphor, of a poem it can be, that something you suggest is true is true, otherwise your experience one says ‘well no it isn’t true, you’re merely asserting that something is wrong and I’ve seen that it isn’t wrong’. But I can certainly not, not be comfortable with some of the almost bullying, hectoring, sanctimonious piety of our age, I don’t like it. Partly because I’ve never likes sanctimonious piety, but also because I don’t think it works.
CG: In what sense?
SF: Well I think those who are very anxious to find more equality in the world, in gender and to push for diversity and all the really important things that one can agree are natural human values and to do with a justice and equity that most people should be able to subscribe to, and they don’t understand how a hectoring term can just push people who can be persuaded by argument and reason and kindness and love and you know, brotherly, you know connection, who should be welcomed into this idea that equality is good for all of us instead of being just pushed into ‘oh so I’m just privileged am I? I grew up in the East End, why are you calling me white privilege?’. You know it’s just bad tactics. Don’t call it white privilege, call it white advantage and then people might understand it. Because privilege is a word that has connotations and it’s as if people are tone deaf to the meaning of language, so they alienate and they give power to the Trumps of this world to be able to laugh at political correctness and wokeness ho ho ho, because there’s so much self-righteous indignation where there should be warmth and humour about it and welcoming people into a world of equality and diversity and so on, and showing them the advantages of it.
CG: That was Stephen Fry, ending this episode of the Art of Change on Nothing Concrete with me, Chris Gunness. Next time, the last in our four part series with Stephen Fry, in which he’ll talk about how comedy can change the world. You can subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help get the word out. Until next time from me Chris Gunness, goodbye.