Stephen Fry seems to polarize popular opinion, which is odd for a comic actor. Those who like him, like him an awful lot. Adore him even. After all, whether you matter at all in the world these days is solely quantifiable by the number of Twitter followers you have amassed, and Stephen has 5,966,945.
Those that don’t like Mr Fry are very keen to tell everyone, even sing it from the rooftops.
The charges most frequently laid at his door include the sin of smugness (in his public persona at least), a keenness to pontificate on anything and everything (although he does get paid to do this) and a ubiquity that has lasted my whole lifetime.
However, Stephen Fry possesses a quality that outshines mere likability or even fame. Even fame – that caught your attention, didn’t it?
Stephen Fry can be downright useful.
At least he has been to me. Just when I can’t take the smugness, he goes and proves his worth.
So I still can’t sit through QI, but when I was revising for my English Literature finals last year, I realised that I didn’t know poetry inside out (which after a decade of studying it is pretty piss poor, I know) so I plucked The Ode Less Travelled by Mr Fry off my book shelf (it had been on the secondary reading list, thank God). Over the course of the following two evenings, Stephen calmly explained metrical feet, the different types of sonnet, heroic couplets et al, helpfully providing little examples of his own and I got a First! So thanks for that, Stephen.
His constant curiosity about all manner of things is coupled with an utter need to tell everyone everything he knows, but this works out well for me.
Even now, in my grown-up life, I have found his ubiquity helps me, though I do not specifically seek it out. For instance, last week I was given a freelance article to write on HIV tests.
Before sitting down to read all the clinical research, I decided to immerse myself in the history of HIV/AIDS by watching every documentary and film I could. Now, you can watch Longtime Companion, Common Threads, Philadelphia and The Cure and they will make you cry with sadness and anger at the injustice of this cruel illness but Stephen Fry’s 2007 documentary HIV and Me combines human interest with fact after fact and in an informative and non-hysterical manner (which I’ve found isn’t true of every documentary on YouTube). It made me a lot calmer about approaching my article.
We think of the BBC as being traditionally PC and reluctant to tackle uncomfortable aspects of society but Mr Fry did not shy away from including the worrying trend of ‘bug-chasing’, HIV denialist theories in Africa and the complacency of our society now that Antiretroviral Therapy can slow HIV progress. It was so useful; it was almost Everything you ever wanted to know about HIV but were too afraid to ask.
I think we all have useful somebodies in our lives, who will never know the use they’ve been. It could be the bus driver who always smiles even when you’ve had a bad day, the teacher who constructively criticises, the people who remember to hold doors open instead of letting them slam shut in your face or the drivers who flash their lights to let you know about speed cameras. Polite people, smiley people, helpful people. The small details about who you are as a person, though seemingly insignificant, can be so darn useful in the lives of others. Stephen just has a larger platform than most of us.
When the late writer Iain Banks learned he was shortly to die, he wrote letters to everyone who had inspired him during his lifetime. When my time comes, even if I haven’t had the successes I’ve dreamed of, I think Mr Fry would make my list (surely he’ll still be there?) but just in case we miss each other:
Stephen, you may get out of bed hating yourself some days and thinking that a fair proportion of the world hates you too but they (whoever ‘they’ are) do say that if you’ve been of use to just one person then you’ve led a useful life. And you’ve definitely been of help to me. So thank you.