Fry, Laurie, Friendship, and Me

A few things I had lying around ...

A few things I had lying around …

(I’m talking about things that matter a lot to me here. This is long and bound to be soppy. I apologise for the boredom in advance if you carry on. Like most men, though, I make no apologies for the excessive length.)

I think that Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie are about as close as two English comedians can be to being Indian. I know that this is a bald assertion. I’m now going to try to pour it a stiff whisky and help it to grow some hair, maybe even in some of the right places.

This is not an attempt at a Sanjeev Bhaskar sketch.  (Surely, though, I’m not the first person of Indian origin to empathise, almost reflexively, with the sad and oft-repeated tale of two bright people with mothers who had high expectations and fathers who awed them slightly?) I don’t think that they express strong preferences as to whether Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi should be India’s next Prime Minister (although given their erudition, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they held cogent and reasonable views on the subject). Nor, as far as I know, has either spent very much time in Bombay, Delhi, sipping filter coffee on an early train from Bangalore to Chennai, or soaping himself off with sewage while bathing in the ghats at Varanasi. Their main connections to India of which I’m aware are that Mr Fry has cheekily referred to the place as “the old colonial district” when driving past Sachin Tendulkar’s house (in Bombay, not in Scotland). He writes in his autobiography that he apparently almost asked a lady of Indian descent out once, but she married Rowan Atkinson instead.

No, their Indianness is based on at least three other things. First is their attitude to the world, and particularly to England. In general, my travels in India (where I’m among my family and friends, who are far more privileged than most in the country) haven’t revealed much lingering rancour towards Britain or the Raj. Instead, the view I’ve observed is a bit like the one ultimately expressed in the scene in the Life of Brian asking what the Romans had ever done for their imperial subjects. Educated Indians acknowledge that the British gave the country a railway, a civil service, the rule of law, a penal code, and even the idea of India itself. (This is one of the reasons why I get annoyed when Bombay, which was nothing like the conurbation that it is today before the British, is subject to militant and ahistorical renaming. It will always be Bombay to me.)  None of the British innovations have been without problems, but they have endured and been a vital part of the modern Indian state. Maybe there’s not very much nostalgia, but nor is there much hate. (That’s reserved for Pakistan.)

There remains a reverence for English institutions and what they offer the world, too. India still sends many of its best and brightest to Oxbridge for undergraduate or post-graduate work, despite the attractions of American universities. Salman Rushdie’s autobiography is filled with references to members of this British-educated Indian elite, of which he and Vikram Seth are very much a part. Fry and Laurie themselves went to the same university as Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter, his grandson, and his great-grandson, and Srinivas Ramanujan. When reading Indira Gandhi’s letters to her father during one of his prison sentences during the independence struggle, I was struck by her apology for sprinkling her missives with “Americanisms”; he told her off. There was a sense that not all that was there was bad, but that Indians ought to run things for themselves.

Fry and Laurie appear to express a similar view of the world. Watching sketches from the latter two series of A Bit of Fry and Laurie, one gets a sense that not all that was happening in the late Thatcher and Major administrations was to their taste. (A reference to stale urine from Norman Fowler’s arse-pit lingers like the stench of the public amenities on an Indian intercity train. The glorious rant that ended the show was also pretty good.) Even now, they do not appear to be unthinking adherents to a cult of a new Gloriana. Mr Fry wisely saves himself much heartache by avoiding the British press. Mr Laurie waxes far more lyrically about Los Angeles these days than I’ve ever read him do about London. (He does talk about how much he loves it at the start of his Desert Island Discs. The show is lovely and must be devoured late of a weekday evening with a flagon of red wine).

There’s affection for Britain though, both in the show and in their other work. Blackadder skewered much about British history while harking back to some of its greatest moments. No-one who’s seen the beautiful country estate scenes in their Jeeves and Wooster or the glorious shots of Norfolk in Fry’s Kingdom could really doubt that people who took part in them loved England’s scenery and people. At one point, Fry’s dream job was to be a continuity announcer for the BBC. His (H’?) colleague’s was to be a member of the Hong Kong police force. There’s something Python-esque about the potential to pillory others doing both of those jobs. There is also perhaps a respect and affection for hopefully incorruptible institutions of state and empire – the state broadcaster, the imperial police force – that comes through in those choices, too?

The second reason is their work, both in material and method. Shashi Tharoor has written convincingly about P.G. Wodehouse’s appeal in India. Fry and Laurie both cite Wodehouse as a major influence on their work. Their TV series is probably the definitive Jeeves and Wooster adaptation for the small screen. (This may be because any film adaptation will, sadly, fall slightly short at doing the words justice. With no disrespect intended, it’s difficult to convey the simple majesty of a phrase like “he clutched at a passing table” on a TV show.) That show was my first introduction to Stephen and Hugh (if I might refer to them by their first names, and I might). The TV series was being shown late at night on Channel One in New Zealand in the early 1990s. I was allowed to stay up late. “It’s Wodehouse,” Mum said, and that was enough. (It still is.)

But the Fry-Laurie-Wodehouse connection – and the Indianness that infuses their method of doing things – goes deeper than just their liking for and portrayal of Wodehouse. Tharoor concludes his article by noting Wodehouse’s “insidious but good-humoured subversion of the language, conducted with straight-faced aplomb.” This description could just as easily apply to Laurie and Fry. What stays with me, after watching segments again and again, is the command over the unexpected. The use of language, the subtle suggestion of the vulgar without always going all the way, and the sheer timeless genius of it all still beguile me. This use of language isn’t necessarily an Indian trait. I do think that it’s something that likely appeals to a lot of Indians, in a way that it perhaps does not to other former colonial possessions. (Not many people who I met in Auckland talked about ABOFAL as much as my friend and I do. This may be why it took me so long to start seeing girls. It might also have been my debilitating astigmatism, of course.) And then there’s the singing, which added a certain Bollywood feel to the sketch show – I wish Shah Rukh Khan would belt out something as good as Mystery – and the violence. While you don’t need to be of Indian descent to hit your friends, taking a beating well is something at which all fans of Indian Cricket in the 1990s excel. So does Mr Laurie.

Finally, there’s the friendship. A close friendship and fruitful collaboration between two men isn’t necessarily an Indian construct, I know. (Given the belligerently burgeoning birth rate in the country and some of the terrible crimes being perpetrated against women over there, I think a little more homosociality might be nice.) In watching their reunion documentary, I’m touched most by their affection for one another and the complete lack of mutual envy. I’m sure it’s no accident that Stephen’s friend showed up for the first episode of QI , nor that Stephen was a guest star in the second episode of Fortysomething. I’m not sure what else he might have been doing on the evening when he so eloquently presented Hugh with an award for being GQ’s Music Man of the Year 2011. I’m fairly sure that it did not matter, and that he shouldn’t have missed the occasion for the world.

I know this because I, too, have a close male friend. Many years after we first started hanging out, we realised that there were a number of parallels between the Fry-Laurie relationship and ours. (This is a pompous and self-regarding thing to say. This is not new for me.) My friend and I both acknowledge these parallels, although their existence is slightly puzzling. The similarities are not exact, of course: they’re comedians and brilliant actors, we’re lawyers (after a fashion); they met at Cambridge, we in Auckland; Fry is gay, we’re both boringly heterosexual. There’s also a perception in some quarters that Stephen is the “clever one” while Hugh is the “talented one”. Unfairly, my friend is both more talented and more clever than I am. I’m trying to cope. (As an aside, this characterisation of Fry and Laurie is vastly unfair to both men I think. I’ve seen interviews from the time of the House season finale where Hugh was presciently talking about wanting the Assad regime to end. In their reunion show, clearly he’s making Stephen laugh more than the other way around. Mr Fry is a multi-talented man, but we tend only to see him being clever rather than dancing jigs or singing Verdi. I’m sure he’d be brilliant at both.)

There are other similarities that ring a little bit truer. There’s the physical: my friend is reasonably slim; unreasonably, I am not. There are the interests: a little like Hugh, he tends to be focused on what he’s doing at that point in time, while I’m focused on everything possible, but not as well as Stephen. We contrast, too, as to sociability – Fry say that numerous people ask him why Laurie isn’t in contact, and I swear that the number of people who’ve used me to contact my friend is countless, or at least 10 – and as to approaches to social media. Laurie is apparently no good with email, while Fry is one of the most-followed people on Twitter. About the time my friend gave up Facebook, I kept it and decided to start tweeting. There are also our romantic lives. A little like Hugh probably was at one point before he married, my friend is engaged.  Stephen has written famously about abstinence. I’ve had several imaginary girlfriends; each glorious fulfilling relationship with many children and a beach-house has lasted, in my mind, for at most three hours.

The most prominent thing that we have in common with the artists formerly known as Gordon and Stuart, though, is career-wise – if we might imagine that lawyers are a little like actors just briefly. In the reunion documentary, Stephen calls himself a whore while noting that Hugh is something of a purist. While my friend and I are both lawyers, our paths have diverged significantly since we finished university. Like Hugh, he is very much the purist. At one point, he and I talked about maybe trying to get to the English bar and wandering thence to do things to make the world a better place. He has stuck to this, winning a Rhodes and writing his doctorate (which I am reading in final draft form now; it is amazing). He has just started work at a top set of barristers’ chambers in London. It’s about the best place he can be in the world, if he’s going to do what he wants to do. When he started this job a few days ago, it felt a little as though he had just been cast as an irascible doctor in a New Jersey hospital. When he does go on to make the world a better place by doing the things we’ve always discussed, I’ll see it as the rough equivalent of his packing in acting for a bit to go play jazz all over the world. (My, we do flatter ourselves.)

In contrast, I’ve let the tide take me places, with very little real agency or massive forethought. It’s worked out fine, but I haven’t really had the brilliance to stay on course for what we’d once decided. The plans have changed, to the point where I’m not entirely sure what they are now. I’m reasonably happy practicing in New York, but slightly frightened by how different this is from anything I – we – had willfully envisaged. (This is almost certainly a less adequate parallel. I’m fairly sure Mr Fry had everything planned much better than I have.)

When you have a true friend, though, I don’t think how either of you does professionally affects the fabric of your connection all that much. When we see each other, it’s as though nothing has changed from 10 years ago. There are still the banter and mock-belittling of one another as much as possible. There are also regular Trans-Atlantic text messages interspersing definitions of new dirty words with hurling insults (albeit more from me than him). I know that he’s cut people off on account of their perceived ill-treatment of me. I’ve done the same where he’s concerned. And then there are the gifts. The PG Wodehouse Letters collection arrived at my office one day out of the blue, as did a pair of red suspenders and a VS Naipaul biography. (He’s a much harder person for whom to shop, but I try.) The greatest gift he has given me, though, was cheering me about New York when I was not sure that I wanted to move here despite having a place at Columbia. It was a long process, but, one column in the New York Times Vows section at a time, he convinced me that this place wouldn’t be quite so bad. As in most things, he was right.

In a way, too, it’s a little as though Hugh and Stephen are a tangible part of our lives. When I was living in Dubai and he was in Delhi, we spent a lot of time when he came to visit watching (and re-watching) “A Bit of Fry and Laurie”. When we’ve communed in Auckland these last few years, there’s invariably been Blackadder, and a little bit of Jeeves and Wooster, too. A new YouTube find of a sketch of theirs from the 1980s is emailed to him as soon as I see it (although, of course, he seldom responds). Perhaps the most fun I’ve had in a long time was the day we went to a waterpark in Dubai to spend the day, and then went home and laughed and laughed over season 3 of ABOFAL – and particularly the sketch where Hugh says that the only thing needed for tyranny to succeed is for ordinary men to allow clichés to go upunished. (I can’t find the exact sketch, so am paraphrasing.)

These are not new thoughts. Many people of our acquaintance will know exactly about whom I’m talking. One common friend has asked who of us was Fry and who was Laurie some time ago. (We had no answer. We said that we were clearly closer to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.) So why this obscene use of finite cyberspace when the US government may deem the internet non-essential at any time and shut the web down? First, because it cheers me at a time when there’s a lot of other awful behaviour in the world. I have this (probably naïve) idea that the relationship between two good mates is beyond reproach and one of the few things in this world that is good and pure. In this, Fry and Laurie are a high-profile example, but so were Hitchens and Amis, and so are Vaughn and Wilson. I could have written about friendship more generally. I have more important reasons to spew at such gratuitous length about these two friends in particular.

I’m also writing this because my friend has told me to write more. He does this because he seems to think that I can write, and that I should. I generally plead work as an excuse not to write. The real trouble is that I’m not sure that there’s much appetite for the musings of a verbose, self-absorbed, 30 year old twat. But I’m trying – to write more, to be less verbose, to be more interesting. Since he’s keeping his end of the bargain, I’ve decided that I should do a little more to try to keep mine. So there’ll be more writing here. Again, I apologise in advance.

And finally, one half of a dream that started twenty years ago, and which has solidified over the past decade, came true late last year. Mr Laurie performed with the Copper Bottom Band one Saturday night in Westchester last Fall. It was a fantastic show and ridiculously enjoyable. I was even more amazed by Mr Laurie’s many talents than I had then thought possible. My friend wasn’t in New York, so I went with some Australians instead. (As a New Zealander it was slightly galling to do so. Happily, the Australians were pleasant enough and didn’t steal my unborn children.)

We took a very late train back to the city so that we could wait at the back entrance to the theatre when Hugh exited. It was 11 or 11.30 when he walked out, exhausted, but very pleasant. I was within touching distance, but didn’t touch him. (He seemed too tired for a mock punching, and it was probably illegal.) I did hear him being patient with and utterly charming to an older woman who told him how excited he made her and how long she’s been following and reading his stuff. (This is a recurring theme for older British film stars in these parts. Someone in the audience propositioned Bill Nighy after the About Time screening yesterday. Some people have all the luck.)

The second half of this dream – to see Fry, as well as Laurie, live – will hopefully come true in the next month or two, when I attend Twelfth Night on Broadway. Mr Fry is to play Malvolio. I may loiter around the theatre afterwards as I did in Westchester. I can’t imagine that I’ll have a chance to meet or speak with him, wonderful (or utterly embarrassing, or worst, dull for him) though that would be. Seeing him on stage will be enough. I may go more than once.

They might not be Indian (even in spirit), and they may resent this portrayal (although I hope they don’t). On balance, this self-indulgent effluence is a long-winded way of saying that both Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie – in separate parts, and together – are about as important a part of my life as two extremely funny strangers could be. I will be ecstatic when I’ve seen them both live, in the flesh.

There’s likely to be a tinge of melancholy in this ecstasy, though. I’d never before believed that a happiness shared was a happiness doubled. I know it clearly now. The only thing that could make watching Twelfth Night better would be having my friend here to watch it with me.  For now, sadly, he has slightly bigger fish – sorry, tofu; he is vegetarian – to Fry.

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