What an utterly extraordinary night. There have been some fantastic RHLSTPs before, but nothing to compare with episode 18 with Stephen Fry. I don't even know how to begin writing about it. All I can tell you is that you HAVE to listen to it (and preferably watch it). It was funny, moving, heart-breaking and revelatory and left some of the audience in tears by the end. They say never meet your heroes. The people who say that are dickwads. Fry is everything you could hope for and more, with a vulnerability and honesty that makes him even more loveable and intriguing. Tonight was one of my most extraordinary experiences on stage and you know I don't bandy that kind of shit around. I love to write about my failures more than my successes and tonight was much more about Stephen than me. I was honoured enough that he turned up at all. But he stayed and talked for 90 minutes and shared things that he hasn't shared anywhere else. I did a good job of shutting up at the right times and it didn't go anything like it did in my nightmares, though in the first half I have to confess I was wondering if I'd fallen asleep in the dressing room.
We had had instructions to meet Stephen at a members' club so we could whisk him down to the theatre without too much fuss. Ben the producer went to meet him at the appointed time, but texted to say that Fry was not there. Fifteen minutes later still no sign of my guest. After another 5 minutes Ben had to return to the theatre so he could set up the taping of the first half. I wasn't too concerned yet. The podcast itself wouldn't be starting for at least an hour and it's not like Stephen has ever just not turned up for a performance..... shit.
I went on 7.30, a bizarre mixture of nerves. I was mainly now worried that the 400+ people in the theatre would rebel if the guest they'd paid to see did not show up, but I was also nervous that he would turn up and I would have to interview him. Some tiny part of me almost hoped that he'd got cold feet so I'd be spared the embarrassment of fucking up this much anticipated interview.
I didn't have much material on hand for the warm up (it's always difficult trying to decide what bits are good enough to do in front of the audience without being appropriate for the podcast) and I was fairly upfront about the danger that I might have to interview one of the crowd. Or my wife. They took the news well. Maybe they thought this was showmanship. It wasn't. Though I did think that barring accident that Mr Fry would not let us down.
And the warm up itself was quite extraordinary. The two butlers from last week were back in the front row and I was able to ascertain who (if anyone) was butling their family this week and as I started to chat to some other people on the front row there was a little commotion in the second row and everyone moved along a bit and two men loomed into sight, already looking shifty, not looking much like podcast fans or Stephen Fry fans. One with a hat saying "I (heart symbol) London". I had to pick on this guy as his hat was a gift (maybe literally), but he became even more shifty and odd and I knew that something was up immediately. He pulled his hat further over his face and deflected my questions a little. He had all the air of someone who had snuck into the theatre for whatever reason, though my immediate gut instinct was to compare him to Lee Harvey Oswald escaping into a cinema after the assassination of Kennedy. He was so keen to avoid attention from me that it was like I'd chanced across some crime in action and yet he was still wearing a hat which seemed to say, "pick on me". I couldn't leave him alone though. The mystery was too much. And then the next guy I spoke to said he was a nuclear physicist. Butlers, assassins and fissioniers? Surely I was asleep. And still no Stephen Fry. "Are you Stephen Fry fans?" I asked. "Not really," said the second man who didn't seem to have all that much English. What was going on? We will never know. They left in the interval. But I think most people were here to see my impro skills and not that bothered about who I might be talking to.
Luckily towards the end of the set a ripple went through the crowd and I saw a tall man heading towards the dressing rooms and I knew it was going to be OK. It was one of the better stand up sets for sure and was almost entirely ad-libbed. You can hear it here
Fry was immediately open and friendly when I met him for the first time. He hugged me, dwarfing me of course. I told him how much I had loved Moab (which I'd finished that afternoon) and explained a little bit about what was to come (mainly that it was just a conversation but not to worry too much about the dumbass questions I might ask). I correctly ascertained that he would be able to deal with them.
And before I had too much time to think about it the podcast proper had begun and I was quizzing my guest and he was pouring forth stories and jokes and talking eloquently about the pain and pleasure of adolescence. My nerves were gone and given how recently we had met we had a very open conversation, one that I correctly let him dominate, but what a joy to make him laugh as well.
Chris Evans (not that one) had given me a list of questions that his son Ben (who filmed the Pappys podcast) had given him. And both the ones I put to Stephen (I tried to see if I could get away with calling him Steve a couple of times) led to such extraordinary answers that I wonder if I should just give this up and hand the interviewing duties over to a 12 year old Welsh boy. The last question and the last twenty minutes is what transforms this podcast from a puerile self-fellatio enquiring, ham-handed load of idiocy into something beautiful, profound and sad. I really hope you will at least listen to it, but I hope you might pay to watch this one at least. it will be available by Wednesday lunchtime, I hope
. But if you can't pay or won't pay then the audio will be there (though we're going to slightly delay it as a reward to those of you who can pay or will pay).
After the perfectly decent Chris Addison podcast I had left the theatre feeling mortified and unable to sleep - tonight I feared that I wouldn't be able to sleep because it had gone so well. Stephen carried on talking in the dressing room afterwards and then got a call from director William Friedkin (whose film the Exorcist had been partly responsible for one of Fry's many expulsions from school). What a bizarre, wonderful and yet mildly cursed life he leads. What is it like being Stephen Fry? That's the question that found the gold. It would take a 12 year old to find something like that.
What's it like meeting Stephen Fry? A rare and wonderful privilege. I know some of you will feel I am going over the top. But the evening was extraordinary from start to finish. I am not the kind of person to go overboard. I don't treat my triumphs and disasters in the same way as I will usually ignore the former and over-egg the latter. But I don't think there was a person in the theatre who didn't have some kind of visceral reaction to this show. It wouldn't have been what any of them expected when they arrived.
I like the fact that this silly and weird ridiculous podcast got to Fry as much as he got to us. It's 90 minutes of your life that you won't get back. I don't think you'll want it back.