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Success as a writer, actor, comedian . . . then STEPHEN FRY does a runner from the West End stage. Alan Morrison met him a few weeks ago, just before the actor became front page news.

licking through late February’s newspapers. from tabloid to respected broadsheet. you might think that fewer column inches were given to the real George Blake‘s escape from Wormwood Scrubs in 1966 than to the flight of actor Stephen Fry from London’s Albery Theatre to a bolt-hole in Belgium. Excessive stagefright. bad reviews. or a breakdown hastened by overwork? Journalists speculated endlessly, some showing genuine concern. others polishing their own egos as they debated whether or not it had been their comments on Fry's performance as the former spy in Simon Gray‘s Cell Mates that had ‘pushed him over the edge‘.

But why did the British public lap it up? Abandoning a play early in its run hardly merits front-page headlines alongside peace talks on Northern Ireland. Nor is it a new phenomenon: John Sessions. Nicol Williamson and Daniel Day-Lewis have all done the same in recent years. But the British love their eccentrics and. in Fry. they have one of the most lovable of luvvies. His is a cuddly persona funny without the smart-arse cleverness of Sessions. successful without the pushiness of Branagh. Slightly chubby. bent-nosed and an admitted celibate. he doesn‘t pose a threat to male or female.

Or rather. this is the 37-year-old. post- Cambridge Stephen Fry. It was there. with the University‘s famed Footlights revue team Emma Thompson. Hugh Laurie et al that he found his vocation. and distanced himself from the youngster who had been expelled from school and had later found himself in a young offenders' institution after a credit card scam. Nevertheless. he remains a shy figure who has. in the company of friends. pushed aside his bouts of depression with a joke or two. while occasionally visiting a psychiatrist.

When I met Stephen Fry only a few days before the start of the West End run of Cell Mates. there was no hint of the much reported ‘emotional turmoil‘ that was to come. He was as affable and witty as ever. often mumbling his answers in a self-effacing manner. Mostly he talked about I.Q.. the American romantic comedy he made last year with Meg Ryan. Tim Robbins and Walter Matthau. In it. he plays an

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English academic engaged to mathematician Ryan. the niece of Albert Einstein (.‘Vlatthaul. Robbins is the good-hearted car mechanic who is obviously the better match for the girl. and the bulk of the movie sets about bringing them together with typical cinemaland charm.

‘Of course. the part I was playing is a traditional one for English people to play in American movies an emotionally constipated cold fish.‘ liry admits. Although not the first choice for the role »— ‘I felt not in the least bit embarrassed about taking Jolm (‘leese's

leavings‘ —- he does lend it a mild air of

pomposity. His previous outing on the big

The British love their eccentrics and, in Fry, they have one of the most lovable of luvvies.

screen was in Kenneth Branagh‘s luvvici‘est Peter's l-‘riemls. and the difference between low budget British fare and an American studio project was dttly noted. ‘ln Britain. every movie is a separate cheque-book. a separately financed deal with its own bank account. Whereas in America. when you get paid. it says “Paramount Pictures Corporation" the same cheque-book that would have paid (iloria Swanson. That's a thrill.‘

Even if I.Q. doesn‘t bring a flood of film offers. Fry’s links with cinema are likely to continue through his talents as a writer. He has completed a romantic comedy of his own called Long Island Ice 'Iea and is working on an adaptation ofJohn Kennedy 'l‘oole‘s cult novel A

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Confederacy ()f Dances for Steven Sodcrbergh. Mike Nichols’s film version of Fry’s first novel. The Liar. might have fallen through. but the writer can console himself with the royalties that continue to roll in from his second book. The Hippopotamas. and from his re-vamping of the stage musical. Me And My Girl. Meanwhile. A Bit 0/ Fry And Laurie amuses the nation’s television audiences on Sunday evenings and he's even been re-elected for a second term as rector at Dundee University. All of which would make anyone suspect he was overstretching himself with too diverse a career.

‘I don't really see it at all as a career.” he insists. ‘l just sort of bumble along from thing to thing. The glory of writing is that you’re not beholden to anybody else: you can get tip at Ham. and shuffle around the house in carpet slippers. and not shave. and make coffee when you feel like it. But after a few months of that. you get very lonely and you think of the life of the film actor. having a car to take you everywhere. it’s great to have both. really. I think they son of cater for two sides of my personality.‘

Perhaps Fry‘s loner and ensemble wires got crossed. and one side of his personality bullied the other into laying low. It is unlikely that he has done any lasting damage to his credibility or his popularity. The public are sympathetic. and will accept his apologies as if he were an overgrown schoolboy whose prank has left him red-faced with embarrassment. it’s the kind of silly ass behaviour that‘s almost demanded of him. '3 I. Q. opens in Scotland on Friday I 7 March.