Whenever I find myself dreaming about how awful things would be under a red/green dictatorship — increasingly often, these days — the one person who gives me a glimmer of hope that I might get out of the hell alive is Stephen Fry.
He’s a leftie, of course — but, like Frank Field and Kate Hoey, he’s the right kind of leftie. Even when appointed Minister for Culture in the new regime, as he inevitably would be, you just know that he wouldn’t indulge in either the gloating triumphalism or bullying sadism of his fellow Nomenklatura. It would be more a case of: ‘Yes, my dear, dear chap. How perfectly awful for you to be caught on the wrong side of history. Let’s get your little bot bot out of this frightful smelly punishment cell and on to the next flight to America. I don’t doubt President Palin is much more your cup of tea…’
It’s quite a fun game, actually — a variant on one I sometimes play with my dear friend Susanna Gross: which of her gentile friends would have said to the Nazi stormtroopers, ‘Oh, by the way, she’s in the cellar,’ and which ones would have risked all. In this new version I’ve dreamt up, because I’m morbid that way, you have to decide which people would give their unutterably evil inner bastard free rein under the coming dictatorship, and which ones would remain fundamentally decent.
You can easily imagine the Flashmanesque relish with which David Cameron would go to work on you with a bullwhip; or the Rosa Klebb mask of concentration on the face of Caroline Lucas as she carefully applied the electrodes for the 23rd time. Richard Branson: I bet he’d be an unutterable swine too behind that deceptively genial beardiness — and the same goes for comedian Bill Bailey; and as for that creepy Thom Yorke out of Radiohead…
Trying to make a list of who’d be nice is much harder. The Dimbleby brothers probably (but not David Attenborough, who I think would be unexpectedly evil: it’s that Optimum Population Trust connection that is the problem); I’ve already mentioned Frank Field; and then there’s Stephen Fry, who’s on another TV programme this week so it’s OK, we’re safe, in no wise can this preamble be accused of irrelevance to the task in hand.
The programme was Fry’s Planet Word (BBC2, Sunday), the second of a five-part series in which Stephen Fry gets to travel from agreeable location to agreeable location being Stephen Fry, just like in all his previous series: Fry’s Goldenest Beaches, Fry’s Swankiest Hotels, Fry’s Most Incredibly Spectacular Views from a Helicopter, Fry’s Rarest and Most Remote Animals with Big Eyes and Soft Fur which Not Even Douglas Adams Got to See, Fry’s Most Delightfully Civilised Galaxies, and so on.
You could, if so inclined, easily resent him for this jamminess. But I don’t because, for me, Fry never fails to pass the only really important test where TV presenters are concerned: does he make me want to keep on watching, regardless of where he is, what he’s talking about or how really quite dull the subject?
In Fry’s case, the answer is always a resounding yes — though I’m not sure that the new series, on language, is quite up there with his American travelogue. Language is a hard thing to illustrate visually (if that’s not tautological, which it probably is) and the strain did show in one or two of the scenes.
For example, there was one where Fry went to an agreeably fusty old club in New York to shoot pool with two Jewish comics, one older, one younger, in order to rap about the wonders of Yiddishness. Yep, Yiddish humour: great — I agree. But it all felt a bit strained, ‘in’, complacent. The banter wasn’t quite funny or sharp enough. (It reminded me a bit of Liverpudlian humour: ‘God, we’re great, aren’t we, eh, eh? We’re so funny. Funniest people in the world. We’ll never let you forget it.’ But then I’m biased. I think the drier, more sardonic, less obtrusive humour of Brummies and Black Countrymen has the edge.) And you ended up being distracted by things you weren’t meant to notice, like the tension between the older and the younger comic as they vied — unsuccessfully — to deliver a killer line.
For all that, though, Fry being Stephen Fry is unfailingly delightful in the way, say, Fiona Bruce being Fiona Bruce just isn’t. When he sits in a pub with some Irishmen drinking Guinness, you’re genuinely delighted by his genuine pleasure when they award him life membership of Connemara golf club, where you’ve previously seen him playing really craply.
And when he goes into a classroom of children being taught Gaelic, you don’t think (as I’m sorely tempted to do, on occasion, when I see all those ‘Heddlu’ and ‘Gwaesanaethau’ and ‘Araf’ signs in Wales), ‘Bloody hell, what a total waste of space and taxpayers’ money.’ You think, just like nice Stephen does: ‘How thoroughly delightful that this precious linguistic treasure is being nurtured and caressed, as is only right and proper.’ He’s like that, Stephen Fry: resistance is useless. Well, it is for me, anyway.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 8, 2011