Review: Richard Herring's Leicester Square Podcast with Stephen Fry
Michael Parkinson eat your heart out. Roll over Graham Norton and tell Alan Carr the news. Richard Herring's "Stephen Fry in suicide attempt" scoop has shown that the biggest stories are not always stage managed and released to the media as part of a strategy worked out with military precision.
The Fry story is really good timing for Herring and payback for all the good karma of giving away his Leicester Square podcasts until this recent series. This series is being released on video for a measly £3.50 a pop although cheapskates can still snaffle the audio version for free. And it is well-worth the price.
As it happens I've been thinking a lot recently about how impromptu chats with comedians are often just as entertaining as meticulously written stand-up shows. Put witty people together like Fry and Herring (that has a nice ring to it, don't tell Hugh Laurie) and the comedy sparks are bound to fly. I had the same thought at the Cat Laughs Festival last week when some of the funniest lines came out of Dom Irrera's fireside chats with other comedians. And for real comedy geeks Stuart Goldsmith's Comedian's Comedian podcasts are also good value at zero pence a time.
So what about the Fry podcast? The production values of the video version are pretty lo-fi, but when the artist formerly known as Lord Melchett is in full flow one hardly needs zippy editing or wacky camera angles. And as well as the suicide story, which comes about ten minutes before the end of the 90-minute chat, there are plenty more juicy original anecdotes alongside a few stories about the early days that we have heard before.
Full marks firstly to Herring for asking Fry his mandatory question about auto-fellatio. And, typically Fry, every inch his generation's Peter Ustinov, has an original answer, suggesting two methods, "the forward curl and the backwards roll". He has tried but couldn't manage it "so near, yet so far" but does tell a deliciously gossipy story about Nijinsky being able to do it I presume he means the ballet dancer and not the racehorse.
There is plenty here about his early career* for comedy obsessives. Fry has a remarkable memory and some remarkable memories. Thirty years on from Al Fresco with Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson et al he can remember lines that went out and lines that were cut. And of course there are the glittery showbiz yarns, working with Dustin Hoffman, Walter Matthau, John Travolta and others.
Another part of the conversation that I'm surprised has yet to make the newspapers, alongside his suicide attempt and his revelation that he has not read The Hobbit (surely the only book he hasn't read) is Fry's suggestion that maybe we were better off having Hitler. Maybe the media has shown an unusual degree of sensitivity in not running "Fry in pro-Hitler" headlines though that sensitivity hasn't stopped them doorstepping him at home this week for a quote about his suicide attempt.
Fry's theory is that in post-WW1 Germany there were all sorts of anti-Semitic political groups and in a roundabout, perverse way it was fortunate that Hitler came to power and banned Jews from holding academic posts. Fry points out that maybe another anti-Semitic group might have come to power, harnessed the intellectual might of Jewish scientists and developed the atom bomb in the 1930s. Then they could have conquered the world and then decided to eradicate the Jews too. Instead Hitler's restrictions prompted Jewish scientists to leave Germany and go to America where they ended up helping to develop the atom bomb there, thus, ironically, ending the war and bringing Hitler down. It's a new theory to me, but, if Fry posits it it must have some weight.
And then, of course, after chatting happily about his work, fame and why Ann Widdecombe should remain a virgin ("a bit of a shock for those suicide bombers") he drops his own bombshell. It is moving and powerful but even here he cannot resist bringing in some levity, saying that it is impossible to talk to your best friend about mental illness much in the same way you wouldn't show them a hideous genital wart, though you might reveal the latter to the nation on C4's Embarrassing Bodies.
What I've written about, however, is still just the tip of the conversational iceberg. Fry and Herring are wonderful company. Eloquent and entertaining on a wide range of subjects. I have not given that much away here, so go out and spend your £3.50 by clicking on this link. Or listen to the audio version for nothing and make a donation to MIND here Fry is the President of the mental health charity.
Just one final note. If TV producers are thinking that Richard Herring must be a great interviewer for getting Stephen Fry to open up like this maybe they should take a look at the full clip. The question which prompted the revelation was "What is it like being Stephen Fry?" which was actually submitted by Ben Evans, the son of the programme's producer Chris Evans not that one who is 12 years old. So if anyone is going to land their own TV chat show out of this maybe it should be Ben Evans
*One factual thing that did bother me though Richard Herring says that there were always arguments in his house when he was growing up in the pre-VHS days because he wanted to watch Fry's early series Al Fresco while his mum wanted to watch Brideshead Revisited which went out at the same time. It's a common error to think that Brideshead was a BBC production, but both programmes were actually made by Granada and went out on ITV, so I'm not absolutely sure if they did clash. I'll get my crack team of researchers on the case about this.