Even if you’ve never seen him or don’t know what he’s done, I believe everyone has at least heard of Stephen Fry. I have often seen him lauded as a “national treasure” of England, so you must at least know his name. If you have, however, somehow avoided hearing about the comedic partner of Hugh Laurie and want to know more, this is the book for you. The Fry Chronicles, written by Stephen Fry, is an autobiography that tells how Stephen Fry first started out in show business. Indeed, this is a compendium of his time at Cambridge and where his comedic dabbling on campus took him afterwards. If you ever wondered how Fry met Laurie or how Stephen Fry came to be interested in comedy at all, the answers lie in this tome.
If you are looking for a book about Fry’s childhood and somewhat troubled teen years, direct your glance toward Moab is My Washpot, which I read several months ago. There is no need, however, to read Moab if you just want what’s in Chronicles. Fry helps out his readers by repeating the CliffsNotes version of some important occurrences he wrote about in Moab, so you’ll be all caught up. One of those important occurrences is how he came to be at Cambridge, which is where our story begins in Chronicles.
For the first couple of chapters, Fry initiates his readers into the Cambridge lifestyle, describing how classes are mostly suggestions of what to do with your time there. Most of Fry’s time on campus was taken up by committees and clubs, one of them being the Footlights comedy group, well-known for its illustrious members such as Eric Idle and John Cleese.
Almost accidentally, it seems, Stephen Fry began landing roles in plays on campus. As his success grew, he was even approached to write a dramatic work and to be an extra in a film being shot at Cambridge. Fry’s early dabbling was mainly of the dramatic persuasion right up until he was introduced to Hugh Laurie by Emma Thompson. At the time, Hugh was president of the Footlights and Emma thought that he and Stephen might get on well and work together. Though Stephen had no comedic ambitions, he found himself agreeing to write some material with Hugh and the two hit it off instantly.
A quick word about Stephen Fry’s famous friends must be said here. In his ever-self-aware writing, he mentions to his readers that it’s unavoidable to name names as he writes about his young life. He talks about Rowan Atkinson, Rik Mayall, Ben Elton, and other comic legends of his time. But the two names most readers are likely to recognize are Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson. Fry acknowledges that it may seem he’s playing favorites when he describes them, but that they really are that lovely. His passages about Hugh Laurie and their friendship are particularly touching.
As always, Fry writes well and with candor about his own shortcomings. He has no problem telling us about his struggles with weight, drugs, and cigarettes. I think it’s a testament to how likeable he is and to what he’s done with his life that we all forgive him these personal transgressions. In amongst the candor and comedy life, Fry also talks about his love life, his school life, and tells us his coming out story.
At times, Fry finds himself blown off course from what he was originally telling us readers about and he has to work his way back. That can become slightly irritating, but the excellent writing and enthralling stories outweighs that minor annoyance. Plus, Fry is always very funny about his own diversions, calling attention to them and even apologizing for them right in the text. It’s a highly unusual way of writing, but it fits with who Fry is and it makes readers feel that they’re being spoken with, not talked at.
The Fry Chronicles is packed to the brim with enthralling stories told in Stephen Fry’s customary tactile fashion. The words Fry chooses just seem to lift off the page and ensconce you in his world. Personally, I love stories about the early days of performers we all know and love now. It’s heartening to hear how they stumbled in the beginning, how they had to work their way to the top along with their soon-to-be-famous friends. In addition, it’s just interesting to read about the start of a career and the heady world of comedy in nineteen eighties Britain.