Stephen Fry was a tricky teenager. “I was a rat, really,” he told Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs in 1988, constantly causing trouble and getting expelled. His bad behaviour reached its peak in 1974, when, aged 17, he stole a wallet – or in his words “appropriated a wallet” – and travelled the country, “spending wildly on hotels and suits and pointless things like that”. He was eventually caught by a “lynxed-eyed receptionist at a hotel in Swindon, who noticed that my shoes were extremely shabby and also thought that I was very young to have this suite of credit cards”. Fry spent three months in prison, which actually wasn’t so bad. “As someone who’d been at a boarding school from the age of seven, prison was perfectly easy to adjust to.”
A stint in the slammer is not what you’d expect from a man who has forged a career on being bookish and bespectacled – but Fry, now 64, has always been unpredictable. “I do occasionally get restless,” he tells Lawley. “I need to change myself somehow. This year I suddenly bought a motorcycle and, for the first time in my life, used aftershave.” It sounds insignificant, but Fry couldn’t stand the idea of always being considered a “tweedy person in brogues and green corduroys”.
As for life on a desert island, it would be awful, Fry reckons. So much so that the luxury item he would take with him is a “suicide pill”. “I know that sounds terrible, but I would urge anyone listening to believe that in fact it’s a very optimistic thing.” That he couldn’t stand being on his own shows just how much he likes having company. “I think it’s a great compliment to society that I enjoy it so much that to be banned from it would be a kind of death for me.”
🎵 Fin ch’han dal vino (from Don Giovanni), Mozart
🎵 Shirt, the Bonzo Dog Band
🎵 Non più andrai (from The Marriage of Figaro), Mozart
🎵 I’ve Got You Under My Skin, Frank Sinatra and Count Basie
🎵 Bat Out of Hell, Meat Loaf
🎵 Magic Fire Music (from Die Walküre), Wagner
🎵 Bella figlia dell’amore (from Rigoletto), Verdi
🎵 Liebestod (from Tristan und Isolde), Wagner
🎁 A suicide pill
📕 The Jeeves Omnibus, PG Wodehouse
Listen to the full episode here. Fry’s Ties is out now (Penguin £14.99).