Bertie Wooster or in his more demanding turn in Kenneth Branagh’s Peter’s Friends. In Wilde, however. those years of absorbing the life and style of Oscar allowed him to shake off the external details and journey beyond impersonation to the heart of the man. And yet Fry also believes that, despite ﬂeshing out the role, Oscar Wilde remains a potent emblem.
‘To put it vulgarly, he is a T-shirt, up there with Einstein, for a lot of people,’ the actor says. ‘He’s a symbol for those growing up gay. Certainly for my generation, Oscar was a vindication and endorsement of our identities, when we didn’t have Gaytime TV, Faggot Corner, Queer Street or any of the other programmes that appear as soon as it’s half past eleven. Straight people must be wondering what on earth is going on. But straight people. as we know. go to bed right after Trevor MacDonald.’
loking aside. the sex scandal Wilde faced effectively ended his life, although he struggled on for a couple of years after he was released from prison. Today, you would think, people can penitently bounce back into the public spotlight within a matter of weeks following tabloid revelations. Or perhaps not: consider Labour MP Gordon McMaster. who committed suicide recently after a smear campaign about his sexuality. A hundred years on from Wilde's trial. the British are no less hypocritical.
‘.\‘ot rcally.‘ agrees Fry. ‘In the case of Wilde. most people today wouldn‘t believe he did anything particularly wrong. What he did is now not a punishable offence — he didn’t rape or abuse anyone. But back then, it so shocked society that people literally vomited. And what’s more. because of where he put his genitals — which is a pretty ordinary and uninteresting thing these days — it enabled them to dismiss everything he stood for intellectually and philosophically. That was the great disaster.‘
Fry himself is no stranger to the whiff of scandal. Two years ago he skipped off to Bruges. leaving his colleagues in the lurch, after mixed reviews for his performance in the West End play (Te/l Mates. Not that he believes the press were out to get him because of his successful stature.
‘Fverybody was so terribly nice to me. at least in the articles that I saw.’ he smiles. ‘l-low terribly sweet to be called “a national treasure” by Libby Purves in The Times. But part of the guilt I felt was that it looked like I’d gone on some sort of appalling angling trip for compliments.
‘The one thing it made me realise was — and it is a bit Wildean — if God wants to punish you. he answers your prayers. I had seriously thought that if I could be famous and rich. naturally I would be very happy. lntellectually. I knew all the clichés — money can’t btty you love, can‘t buy you happiness — but afterwards I could let go and not judge myself according to worldly symbols. I know that my life. my personality and my real self are not bound up in commercial status.’
This self-assessment doesn't mean Fry has abandoned his ambition. He has been financially comfortable since writing the libretto for hit musical MeA/id My Girl thirteen
years ago. but his workload continues to grow. His next outing on screen is as a courtjudge in the forthcoming Spice Girls movie, while his autobiography, Moab Is My Was/2pm. follows his novels The Liar, The Hippopotamus and Making History. Did the Bruges incident and subsequent inner contemplation lead to him writing fact rather than fiction?
‘Yes. 1 think so,’ he nods. ‘lt‘s an autobiography of a childhood, like Laurie Lee wrote in Cider With Rosie and the way Empire 0/ The Sun is a sort of autobiography of Ballard’s childhood. It’s a different genre:
’What Oscar Wilde did is now not a punishable offence - he didn’t rape or abuse anyone.
But back then, it so shocked society that peOple literally vomited.’
maybe it should be called a “memoir”. if that’s not too pretty a word. It only goes tip to the age of eighteen. but it was a very turbulent childhood. and one that took me an extremely long time to get over. A very messy business. ‘The time does come. I suppose. when that fifteen—year-old is now a stranger. You don’t remember the pain that he felt. and you feel slightly guilty of betraying him. The intensity
'A very gentle soul': Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde with Jude Law as Bosie
of adolescence is so peculiar, but so real. I discovered a few years ago a letter that my fifteen-year-old self had written to me, not to be read until I was 25, ticking myself off for being 25. Saying, “I know when you read this, you’ll screw it up in a ball and be really embarrassed, but everything I feel now is truer than what I will feel in ten years’ time. This is the real me.”
Although Fry hasjust turned 40. that’s still an early age to be setting one’s life in stone for eternity. Fans might wonder whether this is to be the first chapter of ongoing series or self- contained one-off. Fry assures them it‘s embarrassment that holds him back from writing future autobiographical volumes.
‘Well. the problem with chapter two would be it involves, naturally, a lot of people who are still alive and quite well-known,‘ he smiles shyly. ‘And it gets one into so much bother when one is honest . . . ‘
Wilde opens in Scotland on Fri 31 Oct. Moab Is My Washpot is available now. published by Hutchinson at £16.99. Fry is at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Tue 14 Oct, 8pm. See book events, page 96.
10 Oct-23 Oct 1997 THE LIST 15