The writer and comedian helps to revolutionise book publishing by launching his autobiography live from the Royal Festival Hall, writes Andrew Johnston
Is it a film? Is it a live show? Is it a book reading? Stephen Fry, famed for his embrace of new technology – there can be few more ardent Twitterers – has chosen to launch his latest volume of autobiography, The Fry Chronicles, with a first-of-its-kind event. Appearing live at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s Southbank Centre, the evening is being streamed simultaneously to around 60 cinemas across the UK and Ireland.
Fry’s sweaty brow, greying mane and creased blue suit probably aren’t what satellite link-ups were invented for, but that hasn’t stopped the Belfast followers of the 53-year-old actor, writer and comedian snapping up all 220 tickets for this screening at Queen’s Film Theatre – at £10 a pop, on a Monday. There are Hollywood blockbusters that couldn’t pull off such a feat (in many cases, quite rightly).
Upon entering QFT1, the cameras in the Royal Festival Hall are already broadcasting proceedings. Surreally, we take our seats to a visual of people 500 miles away taking their seats. After a couple of scenes of Fry in his dressing room, mock-agonising over what to say, he takes the stage, thanking the audience profusely for their applause (‘Stop it… Stop it… Oh, you have’) and acknowledging the ‘literally several’ watching in cinemas.
He’s being disingenuous, of course. Fry knows as well as we do that he is one of Britain’s most beloved public figures. ‘We are all brothers and sisters,’ he concludes, after a dexterous verbal workout concerning genealogy, inspired by an appearance on Who Do You Think You Are?.
Throughout the strict 90-minute show (Fry sets the alarm on his white iPhone 4 to make sure he doesn’t overrun), the star’s oratory skills are in fine working order. He reads excerpts from The Fry Chronicles, peppered with audience banter and engaging asides, ranging from a rant against the narrow-mindedness of the BBC to an outrageously funny story concerning a visit to Dublin, which keeps CultureNorthernIreland chuckling well into the account of Fry’s second term at boarding school.
He speaks about his love of sugar, reeling off seemingly every sweet, chocolate bar and breakfast cereal manufactured in Britain between 1957 and 1974, and reminisces fondly about working with his old Cambridge Footlights cronies. Impressions of Hugh Laurie and Rowan Atkinson are particularly well received. Fry is also a dab hand at accents, judging by the entertaining stabs at the Belfast, Manchester and Newcastle brogues.
At intervals, Fry pauses to recite the names of tonight’s participating towns and cities – Brixton (‘You’re not there – why are you cheering?’), Clapham (‘London’s backstage’), Notting Hill (‘Never heard of it’), Uckfield (‘Fun playing around with that word’). When he arrives at Gorey, a village in the Channel Islands, our well-travelled host surprises everyone by announcing that he’s never been to Jersey. For all his tweets, tomes and titbits on QI, there is still something to learn about Fry.
At the end of this peculiar live event-cum-TV show, we’re not exactly sure what we’ve just seen, but it has been a pleasure to spend a virtual hour and a half in the company of this erudite and eccentric man, with his strange mix of smugness and self-loathing. 220 ‘disciples’ (his word) dutifully file out of QFT, adding The Fry Chronicles to our Amazon Wish Lists on our iPhone apps.