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Fry, Stephen (1957-)

Actor, Writer, Director, Presenter

Main image of Fry, Stephen (1957-)

Actor, comedian, director, writer, wit, raconteur - there are few things Stephen Fry doesn't do. From being half of the comedy duo Fry and Laurie to the definitive screen portrayal of Oscar Wilde, British comedy's Renaissance man has graced film, theatre, radio, television, novels and newspapers with his witticisms and love of the English language.

After a brief spell at Her Majesty's Pleasure for credit card fraud (where he was nicknamed 'The Professor'), Fry studied English at Queen's College, Cambridge. As well as appearing in numerous plays and writing one himself, he was asked to join the Cambridge Footlights by its president, Hugh Laurie, who hoped they would collaborate together. Their Footlights revue show of 1981 won the first Perrier award at the Edinburgh festival and after a three month tour of Australia, Fry and Laurie's partnership was cemented.

The success of the Footlights revue resulted in three episodes of There's Nothing to Worry About! (ITV, 1982). The following year they returned in the sketch based series Alfresco (ITV, 1983-84). During his time at Cambridge, Fry had made his television debut representing his college on the scholarly quiz University Challenge (ITV, 1962-87). In 1984 he sent-up his appearance in the 'Bambi' episode of The Young Ones (BBC, tx. 8/5/1984) as Lord Snot from 'Footlights College Oxbridge'.

Fry and Laurie's first solo writing collaboration, sci-fi mockumentary The Crystal Cube (BBC, 1983), never ventured beyond its pilot episode. Fry took solace by writing the book for the West End musical Me and My Girl, which earned him a Tony nomination and made him a millionaire in his twenties. Regular appearances with Laurie on the stand-up series Saturday Live (Channel 4, 1985-87) proved successful, leading to their popular sketch series A Bit of Fry and Laurie (BBC, 1986-95). Falling somewhere between the satirical comedy of the 1960s and the outspoken anti-Thatcherism of the 1980s, the duo set their sights on the tweedy and well-spoken world of Middle England. The sketches showcased Fry's penchant for playing with the speed and rhythm of words and his physical ungainliness (in particular his hilarious impression of a moonwalking Michael Jackson on a treadmill).

The Blackadder comedies proved fruitful: he was the back-stabbing Lord Melchett in Blackadder II (BBC, 1986), gave a pitch-perfect cameo as the Duke of Wellington in Blackadder the Third (BBC, 1987) and played the loudly deranged General Melchett ("Bah!") in Blackadder Goes Forth (BBC, 1989). A long-time admirer of P.G. Wodehouse - a signed photograph of the writer remains one of Fry's treasured possessions- he teamed with Hugh Laurie in four excellent series of Jeeves and Wooster (ITV, 1990-93), playing the faithful valet. Fry's own flair for writing has encompassed novels, essays, articles, newspaper columns and an autobiography.

His cerebral brand of comedy has proved a winner on radio, from his own series Saturday Night Fry to regular guest appearances on I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue. Two Radio 4 series have produced profitable crossovers: This is David Lander (Channel 4, 1988), a parody of investigative journalism which originated on Delve Special and Absolute Power (BBC, 2003-05), a slick satirical spin-doctoring series with Fry as Machiavellian PR consultant Charles Prentiss.

Suitable film roles have been hard to come by, with little scope offered for strong characterisations other than playing himself - the exception being the role nature intended for him, Oscar Wilde in Wilde (d. Brian Gilbert, 1997). The physical resemblance, the poise, the elegance and the delivery of Wilde's epigrams were perfectly pitched by Fry, earning him a Golden Globe nomination. He had previously portrayed the playwright in an episode of the Western series Ned Blessing (US, 1993). Other notable film roles include Mybug in Cold Comfort Farm (d. John Schlesinger, 1995), the detective/comic relief in Gosford Park (d. Robert Altman, 2001) and as Peter Sellers' personal medium Maurice Woodruff in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (d. Stephen Hopkins, 2004). Behind the camera, he made his directorial debut Bright Young Things (2003), based on his own adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies.

His career hasn't always been a bed of roses. "A boring old mid-life crisis" caused Fry to walk out after just a few performances of the West End run of Simon Gray's Cell Mates. Turning his back on the stage and also the "young man's game" of sketch comedy, he has increasingly set his sights on television drama; highlights include Gormenghast (BBC, 2000) and Tom Brown's Schooldays (ITV, 2005).

A prolific voice-over artist, he achieved cult status with his popular audio readings of the Harry Potter saga and as the voice of the guide in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (d. Garth Jennings, 2005), as well as rejuvenating the annual BAFTA awards with his caustic wit. Constantly reinventing himself, he excels as both a perennial guest of highbrow quiz programmes and the querulous schoolmaster host of QI (BBC, 2003-2005).

Graham Rinaldi

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Cock and Bull Story, A (2005)Cock and Bull Story, A (2005)

Surprisingly effective adaptation of a supposedly unfilmable novel

Thumbnail image of Alfresco (1983-84)Alfresco (1983-84)

Alternative sketch show with Fry, Laurie, Elton, Coltrane and Thompson

Thumbnail image of Bit of Fry and Laurie, A (1989-95)Bit of Fry and Laurie, A (1989-95)

Intelligent sketch-based show with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie

Thumbnail image of Blackadder (1983-89)Blackadder (1983-89)

Much-loved historical sitcom starring Rowan Atkinson

Thumbnail image of Jeeves and Wooster (1990-93)Jeeves and Wooster (1990-93)

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie as P.G.Wodehouse's immortal duo

Thumbnail image of Young Ones, The (1982-84)Young Ones, The (1982-84)

Anarchic sitcom which launched a generation of alternative comedians

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Alternative ComedyAlternative Comedy

The new broom of early '80s humour

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Laurie, Hugh (1959-)Laurie, Hugh (1959-)

Actor, Writer