Having neglected my own blog for a long time, here’s a digest of all the activity which has ensured my fourth book, SOUPY TWISTS: The official story of the sophisticated silliness of Fry & Laurie is going to be a reality next year!
Now read on, dot dot dot…
- OH GIVE THE MAN A BLOODY MEDAL!
Good time of day to you, kind and undeniably attractive SOUPY TWISTS pledgers!
I was umming and even ah-ing about whether to make this first Shed post public or private, but if I keep it purely for you good folk who have already parted with some theoretical cash, it will allow me to be a bit more open and share some things that wouldn’t really do to get in the public domain. Specifically, although I shared the gist of the book’s genesis on my own site here, for those committed ABOF&L fiends like yourselves, there’s a bit more to it than I wanted to share openly.
You may have already gleaned, that Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie are pretty near the top of the list of Famous People It Is Very Hard To Track Down Or Otherwise Keep Up With – and even with their personal blessings and promises to help with the creation of Soupy Twists in place, the next year or so will be a case of very slow, very careful diplomacy. This is a process made a thousandfold more tricky by the fact that both colleagues will be busy in America for much of the time of the book’s composition, so any hopes of sharing cocktails long into the night may be beyond possibility.
Stephen has just had his CBS sitcom with Joel McHale, The Great Outdoors, picked up (though of course, in US TV, that is no guarantee of a long run) and he talks of being more permanently based in LA, whereas Hugh is once again locked in to a US drama in which he plays a doctor: Chance. Grilling an actor about the fun he was having 30 years ago is rather tricky when they’re immersed in playing a character on a film set 5,400 miles away, and we only get maybe one nudge window for Hugh every fortnight – hence the dear chap not yet tweeting about this book. He has pledged to, and cordially, but it won’t pay to hound him about such things.
Similarly, Stephen also solemnly vowed to tweet the arse off Soupy Twists, but that was back in February, and as we know, things have changed. (Although, purely entres nous, it’s not beyond possibility that the account could be revived by proxy, as an official @stephenfry account run by a friendly elf, which I think is a wise compromise – he does certainly seem to have rather nailed his colours to the mast as far as elbowing social media goes.) Back in February, when I was glad to get an hour with The One And Only Gelliant Gutfright at his chosen rendezvous (a quiet tea room just round the corner from The Ritz) he was on a brief break from rehearsing his presentation of the BAFTA ceremony, and as we know, an ill-perceived personal joke with a friend of his on that occasion brought him his first Twitter roasting of the season, and only a couple of months later another rather unfortunate bit of chat about the perils of self-pity (where, as part of the wrap-up to a US TV interview, an overly relaxed SJF mentioned childhood abuse as a regrettable example of times when fortitude is needed) somewhat finished off the job, as Twitter’s kneejerk hordes grabbed their pitchforks and sent him racing off over them thar hills. This has been a blow to his millions of fans, and let’s not be disingenuous about this, it’s hardly helped Soupy Twists, but we shall labour on as best we can.
Returning to that convivial tea (actually, as I mentioned, it wasn’t tea in the end, but Stephen was in the mood for a knickerbocker glory, and I wasn’t one to demur joining him in one) we did have time to talk over all elements of how I would write this book, and left each other warmly confident that Soupy Twists would be a worthwhile pleasure for everyone involved. But now can be told the true fist-gnawing nightmare I experienced on that occasion. Knowing that a launch trailer was going to be needed, I asked whether I could film a short clip of approval from him there and then on my iPhone – cue one of the greatest moments of my life, when the man who has been perhaps my greatest living influence for the last three decades poured out a honeyed barrage of praise for me and the books I write. I was truly in eighth heaven at least. Until we went our separate ways, and I examined my iPhone camera roll, and found only this:
… Yes. Yes, double damn, blast and fuck you, yes – in the excitement and rush, I had forgotten to flick the phone onto Video mode, and had only taken this photo of Stephen, pre-glowing-tribute. So dizzying a pleasure and so crushing a disappointment in such close juxtaposition was rather hard to deal with, but thankfully, an hour’s badinage on the phone with Hugh from LA (or was it Baltimore? I think he was still filming Veep) the next day was quite a considerable balm.
Which brings me to my reason for writing this first Shed post – I’ve put together a 6-minute audio clip, attached to this post, beginning with a snatch (and yes, I’m sure snatch) of the first time I ever interviewed Fry, for my I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue book in the last decade – and then a carefully chosen snippet (yes, also sure snippet) of this recent chat with Hugh. It was such a pleasure, because he was one of the very few I left in peace when writing The True History Of The Black Adder, as he was filming the last few episodes of House at the time. Hugh has been no less of a hero than Stephen for most of my life, so to have his personal blessing in this way was a long overdue treat.
I hope this little insight into my gabbing away with the two colleagues we are all here to celebrate is almost as much of a treat for any of you reading this. In the coming months I will carefully select a few pieces from the ABOF&L archives to share with you pledgers, and otherwise generally keep you updated as to how the book is coming on – I’m already booked into the dear old home-from-home BBC Archives in reading next month, will be getting up at 5am one day in July to visit the Footlights archive at Cambridge University, and have made in-roads into interviewing all sorts of excitingly talented friends of Fry & Laurie.
And keep spreading the word – 25% in a week is pretty good going, and will hopefully somersault when Hugh alerts his Twitter crowds, but the sooner we hit 100%, the more relaxed and pleasant the march towards publication will be.
If you have been, please do so. For now, best to leave you with a simple valediction:
2) HAPPY TOWEL DAY
The links between The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and Fry & Laurie are of course blatant and exhaustive – Stephen and Douglas Adams were particularly close friends for many years, both vying for the title of biggest Apple geek in the UK, while Hugh was at one point odds-on favourite to play Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker movie, for which Stephen was the perfect Voice Of The Book.
To celebrate Towel Day, enjoy some highlights from the original Frood launch event, with the excellent Toby Longworth and myself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73aJvOdJJYw
It would be wonderful to have a similar event for Soupy Twists when the time comes, watch this space…
HAPPY TOWEL DAY!
3) BFI: Sale Now On
It’s coming up to nine or ten years – nigh very much on – since I first began writing books on comedy history, and yet, disgusting though the fact is, I’ve never been here before. It’s taken the Fry & Laurie story to bring me to famed haunt of cultural historians the world over – the BFI. The BBC Written Archives have long been a second home, and I’ve seen many a mind-blowing rarity thanks to the kindness of individuals, but not yet had cause to spend the small fortune required to feel like a proper archivist and mosey into the BFI building, ready to see something it would otherwise be impossible to get your eyes on.
We’ve all seen those few seconds of Hugh turning up on almost-forgotten* late 70s BBC 2 show Friday Night, Saturday Morning – appearing from behind a potted plant in redcoat army regalia – and that just wasn’t enough for my purposes, frankly. I needed to see those shows (because there were two Footlights specials, in November 1979 and 1980) in full, the clips in context, and maybe find out if they were at all… well, funny.
Thanks to the helpful Kathleen and Steve, my visit to the BFI Archives was a cosy enough affair, and I was given a surprising level of freedom – and I only hope that what I’m doing now isn’t against the rules, and taking unfair advantage of that trust. I can always remove everything from the internet if I’ve gone too far over the line legally, and it’s not as if I’ve actually pirated the two tapes I saw and put them up online in their entirety. What I have done is made audio recordings, and in a few key areas, short iPhone videos for my own use – and the odd quick snap of the TV screen as I viewed the episodes.*
These timecoded archive TV leaders make some archivists positively engorged. But I prefer girls, personally.
Innocent young Hugh in a most unfortunate Jimmy Savile skit, featuring Rory McGrath as the criminal.
As this photo devastatingly proves, the trite but overwhelming chief impression is just how insanely baby-ish Hugh Laurie is in his TV debut (the first episode, showcasing the 1979 Footlights show Nightap, was recorded several months before Hugh rowed against Oxford in the 1980 Boat Race). And this is why I feel it was worth the £100-odd the whole BFI experience cost me – Hugh was only TWENTY YEARS OLD (and about five months) when he first appeared nationally on our TV screens, on BBC 2, performing comedy sketches. That’s a ludicrously tenderfooted age for any comedian to gain a national audience, and key to the context of Hugh’s performance in The Cellar Tapes broadcast in 1981 – he was practically an old hand by then. There was also a Radio 4 broadcast of Nightcap that summer, so it was all go for the undergraduate who was only messing around with his theatrical friends while he rebuilt his strength for the Boat Race.
The first programme was very Nightcap-oriented, and featured the cast of Hugh, Emma Thompson, Simon McBurney and Robert Bathurst, while the second, recorded almost exactly one year later, replaces McBurney with older ex-Footlighter Rory McGrath.
Are these two hours funny? Let’s dispense with the usual truisms about humour being subjective to say: ‘barely’.
Even special guest Peter Cook wasn’t quite on the ball in this late-night slot, and although I sniggered a few times at random silly moments, viewing the programmes was more a case of absolute fascination than hilarity. The Friday Night, Saturday Morning strand was designed to be different every week, with no set presenter or format, and these two Footlights shows are pretty much The Frost Report, updated. Martin Bergman is the presenter, and despite his being now known primarily as Mr Rita Rudner, it’s astonishing how clearly he was being lined up as the new Frost here, it’s quite uncanny. He may not have become that at all, but he plays a crucial part in the Soupy Twists story, and it’s interesting to see him in action here.
By 1980 Bergman was performing with his Footlights contemporaries Jimmy Mulville and Rory McGrath on the Radio 4 series Injury Time (also featuring Emma and Robert, and on one occasion, Stephen Fry), and these programmes do have a slight feel of being an attempt at a TV version. There are skits on how awful The Sun is (with plenty of shots of Emma in a bikini which have it both ways, being satirical while appealing to Sun readers anyway), a bizarre corpse-filled two-hander between Hugh and future Cold Feet star Robert Bathurst as two cowboy old-timers, and an extended riff on Billy Bunter at a comprehensive school which only has to be seen to be absolutely horrified by – and yes, that is mainly down to Rory McGrath’s appearance as a dreadlocked rasta. Although Hugh’s terrifying punk isn’t much more convincing:
Emma sings a number of songs, but there’s no singing from Hugh this time. He does, however, crop up with his by then ex-girlfriend in a Mrs & Mrs spoof, and makes a very first appearance in American guise, playing a kind of pretentious TED Talk figure who can’t help filling his speech with too much multisyllabic jargon:
Anyway, the greatest risk I’ll take with the material I amassed is the video below, as I feel strongly that any and all Peter Cook material which can be found should be shared ASAP with all his devoted fans, like myself. Given the endless connections between Peter and his good friends Stephen and Hugh, it’s not too out of place to include it here – I only wish it was more of a forgotten jewel, but the truth is Cookie tells a fair few stories which will be familiar to fans from other televised chats over the years, and they have been more highly polished in the other tellings. But here, for your entertainment, at least until I receive word that I have broken endless rules and have to remove everything from the internet, is a very rare Peter Cook interview for you all.
If I’ve got away with this, I’ll consider uploading a few other snippets in the coming weeks and months. In return, do keep spreading the word and helping Soupy Twists to reach that all-important 100%!
*Forgotten, that is, except for the memory of Harold Wilson being awful at hosting, and especially for the endlessly repeated – even restaged – Cleese & Palin vs Muggeridge & Stockwood Life of Brian debate which I don’t think I could possibly see again in any form without smashing someone.
*PLEASE try not to download these images, or any material, and share them on social media. No matter how much you love Hugh. These images are really intended for use only in direct connection to the Soupy Twists book, and I might get in awful trouble if they travel too far… Thank you!
4) Archives & Endives*
Dear “A Bit Offers”, as literally nobody ever calls fans of Fry & Laurie,
Funding has slowed at 45% so everyone out there who wants this incredible laugh-packed celebration of Stephen & Hugh’s careers in their stockings next year – please do keep spreading the word, tell anyone who loves quality British comedy, and any and all help is gratefully received! I’ve just been in touch with Stephen and Hugh, and there are plans afoot which should make the 100% feel nearer, but it’s too early to say anything else at this point, and we really do need to keep the total rising and rising…
Anyway, it’s time for another update from the archives, after a fraught and painful week or two! So here’s far too many pictures of me simpering in front of places important to this book.
My first visit to the unprepossessing little Reading bungalow known as the BBC Written Archives was almost ten years ago, and it would be unthinkable to miss out such a crucial stage of a book’s composition now. I was forewarned that, as the available archives only reach up to the mid-80s, there wouldn’t be a huge amount to find on Fry & Laurie, but I was sure it would be worth the pilgrimage, and I was proved right…
In truth, I’ve hardly ever gained much from sifting through the old contracts like this – the names of a few forgotten shows worth chasing up perhaps, the evidence that both S and H appeared in the first series of The Lenny Henry Show (though how I’d see their performances without paying lots of money to the BFI I do not know). But the real value in the ticket to Reading comes from threading their script microfilm reels into the machine, and trawling through the BBC’s nightly output on paper, in the hope of turning up something exciting. This is more rewarding for older shows – my time researching Blackadder seemed to suggest that in the mid-80s some directive went out, telling producers to mainly save exact broadcast transcriptions of shows, rather than the cut-material-packed rehearsal or shooting scripts, which reveal staggeringly exciting scraps which were never meant to see the light of day.
Nonetheless, the early ABOF&L scripts did reveal a fair few extracts which never made it to the screen – or even to the ABOF&L scriptbooks, which often parted from the broadcast sketches as we knew them.
Forgive the bad quality of these grabs – they are white-on-black files, appearing on a screen and then literally just snapped with an iPhone, and then inverted in Photoshop. Murky is not the word, but at least I can make out the words and salient details. The scripts for Saturday Night Fry were particularly pleasing, elegantly formatted by Fry on whatever early Mac he was using at the time – and, surprisingly, with many pages of cut material, as well as clear indicators as to what was written by Stephen (the vast majority) and which bits by Ian Brown and James Hendrie – generally the ‘The Show That Shall Not Be Named’ spoof sections, ‘Stephen Will Do His Level Best To Comply With Your Wishes’.
Besides the scripts, the BBC’s cuttings are also worth a look – although there were around 12 times’ more for Stephen than Hugh, of course. The weight of copy written by and about Mr Fry over the last forty years would fill an entire library, to Mr Laurie’s modest scrapbook.
And at the risk of overdoing the ‘posthumously disgraced celebrity’ motif, here’s a just-about legible Fry article by Clement Freud which I have no use for:
To conclude this update – as I have been busy trying to earn a few pennies and otherwise live my life since returning from Reading – I was lucky enough to get a lift to the ridiculously idyllic Gloucestershire village of Uley a couple of days ago, to have a look around Stephen Fry’s own personal Hogwarts – Stouts Hill, once a prep school, but now imposingly beautiful (and surprisingly reasonable) holiday accommodation.
I very much enjoy walking where my comedy heroes have walked if I’m writing about them, soaking up the atmosphere of their lives and so on. There was little practical reason for being in Uley except to marvel at a village in 2016 that boasts not only a shop (perhaps the very one wee Stephen truanted to when in need of better sweets than the tuck shop could provide, it’s hard to say) but also a pub, brewery and even an arts centre! I’m very glad I visited, and it’s only just up the road from Bath really…
Next stop – Cambridge! For which I must set my alarm for 4.30am next Wednesday… come on, I can do this…
* There are no endives in this post. It doesn’t even rhyme.
5 69% FUNDED!
SOUPY TWISTS is now 69% funded!
As that number obviously has no connotations of any kind, here’s a Fry & Laurie sketch to celebrate: CONSENT https://new.vk.com/video7575647_163917896
I have mixed memories of performing this sketch for a Comic Relief show in 1999. With full approval from their agent Lorraine Hamilton, of course. I played the male silent client, and am no Robert Daws. Plus, it was decided that the sketch would be enlivened on stage by having the clients act out their lawyers’ descriptions, which totally negated the humour of the sketch, and required a lot of theatrical dry-humping. It was not my idea, okay?
In further news, a week or two after the Hugh Laurie on Tracey Ullman video, to redress the balance, I just uploaded a rare Fry sketch from ‘Rita Rudner’ – the American star’s 1990 BBC 2 show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGwGoSwpBYg
Some exciting interviews are lined up, and both colleagues have just received the first batch of email questions (there will also be in-person interviews, of course). The manuscript itself is flowing out quite pleasingly, but I’m already terrified of wordcounts – just writing in a frothy, non-obsessive manner, I’ve reached 5,000 words without quite introducing Stephen into the story just yet… Anyone for an extension?
I’ll leave you for now with this remarkably prescient article from the Mirror, in 1982. You can’t say that paper is composed of nothing but mad people sending in letters about miserable bus conductors and good ways to keep your money safe, in a special pocket sewn inside your coat…
6) CHEER OH, CAMBRIDGE!
Happy weekend eve, kind Stephen & Hugh-philes!
Biggest news first, the latter hero has admitted his participation in this project to the world:
… Five months after promising to do what he could to me in person – at the time, we didn’t know this would be an Unbound book, so nobody thought so much early publicity would be necessary, so it is extraordinarily kind of him, and allowed us to creep up to a two-thirds total! And we’re confident that 100% will be reached before the autumn, but for reasons we cannot yet divulge… Until then, do you have 200-odd Fry & Laurie-loving friends? You surely must. Give them a ring.
Research for Soupy Twists is something of a challenge. Go to YouTube, and type in “stephen fry interview”, and you may get an inkling of the similarity between what I’m doing, and capturing the entire firmament in a small woolly hat. Not that wallowing in Fry & Laurie’s past is anything but sheer unvarnished pleasure, of course, but it’s not for the faint-headed.
Lest you think this unpaid work is all transcribing videos from a pillow throne, the greatest chunk of research for this book took place last week, when I arose at 4am to spend a value-packed day at F&L’s magical alma mater, Cambridge – a double slog of a journey from Bath, and I wasn’t back home until 1am the following day, but I made sure to get maximum use of my time in the city. Living somewhere as breathtakingly beautiful as Bath, it takes a lot to impress me, but Cambridge’s gargoyle-packed Medieval majesty makes it one of the very very few places that can manage it.
The last time I was here, researching for my Douglas Adams biography The Frood, I was given splendid dons’ quarters at St. John’s College, with complimentary decanters of port, but this time I was itinerant, and many miles were walked. As my time at the University Library to go through the relevant years of the Footlights archive was not until the afternoon, one thing I did feel the need to do when there was retrace our heroes’ steps.
And so I wandered out into the leafy suburbs, where I found Hugh’s home, Selwyn College – just over the road, practically, from Newnham College, where Emma Thompson was stationed…
From there, walking into town brought me to Queens’ College, Stephen’s home for much of the duration of his education. It was surprisingly tough to pinpoint for me, due to so much of the building – or rather, estate – being relatively new, and, as I’ve never been to Cambridge in term time, the area was absolutely swamped in tourists (“He is a tourist, you are a holidaymaker, but I am a traveller…!”).
Anyway, from Queens’, you’re almost in the centre of town, and the Footlights cellar clubroom beneath the Union, just around the corner from the ADC Theatre, where it all happened. I even had a jolly good go at identifying which shop used to be the Whimburger joint where the Cellar Tapes gang habitually hung out – the poor staff in the shops had no idea, but it was presumably one of these… A blue plaque must surely be in the post.
Even (do excuse me for saying, Stephen and Hugh) 35+ years on, it was all too easy and too pleasurable to picture Hugh heading off to for a rehearsal, picking up his pals as he travelled, and stopping off for a burger or three on the way.
… Returning to the subject of the ADC, quite pleasingly, Spamalot, the creation of another Footlights alumnus, was running there at the time, and I was very lucky to be shown around by the theatre’s kind staff, so I could drink in the atmosphere of the arena where Stephen and Hugh really began their careers.
The author exercises his continued right to ruin every photograph by turning them into selfies.
But atmos imbibement only gets you so far, and the main thrust of the costly and exhausting expedition was to see what remained in Dr Harry Porter’s archaic Footlights collection at the library. At the risk of in any way raising an eyebrow at our heroes, there’s no denying that there was considerably less paperwork remaining from Hugh’s presidency than most eras – sadly, there was to be no excited script discoveries, just a few typed running orders for smokers, a host of cuttings, programmes, and – the biggest treat – the original posters for The Cellar Tapes, and Hugh smoker Memoirs of a Fox. Perhaps I should be grateful that this is all I found, as it was tough enough to squeeze every document in before chucking out time, and a pint or two at the Baron of Beef before making the long journey home.
See above. Or rather, don’t.
With this journey taken, it’s fast becoming time to declare the research period of Soupy Twists production at an end, and it is time to settle down and start chewing pencils hard as the actual act of composition begins. This is slightly less blogworthy stuff, but of course what does remain is the need to interview a whole host of beloved famous names who feature in this rollickingly good story, so I will keep you all updated on how that process is coming along, as Soupy Twists marches towards glorious existence.
Finally, I will leave you with this extraordinary discovery, from Tracey Ullman’s 1997 HBO sketch series. To have found this literally on the day that David Cameron finally resigned is the most bitter-bitter experience – I swear to Satan that had this been uploaded a year or two ago, it would have gone viral, mocking as it does the kind of Bullingdon Club pig-loving behaviour of our previous Prime Minister in an eerily prescient way… PORKY BOY!
7) STEPHEN’S DOG
Stephen Fry turned 59 this week! And what do you do the day after your birthday, when everything feels rather hollow and back to business as normal? Why, you send a very well-received tweet, of course!
And so, six months after The Great Withdrawal, the consummation devoutly to be wished has been… consummated. Mr Stephen Fry has joined his colleague Hugh Laurie in admitting to the world that their joint careers are being plumbed by yours sincerely!
I’m deeply grateful for the 1000+ Likes and 227 Retweets his tweet has garnered – perhaps the hope that it would spurt our total up beyond the 100% mark was a little ambitious. But then, if only a fraction of those who Liked the tweet actually followed its sentiment to the full, we would be sitting very attractive indeed right now. Fear not, pledgers, there’s now absolutely no question of the book not happening, but it looks like it will remain a rather slow crawl to 100% – and will go beyond in the several months that will remain to actually put the book together for you all. The love out there for Stephen and Hugh meant that this was never in doubt.
But the modesty of the spurt we have had does make me want to reward those who have put their money where their hearts are all the more, and so, with Stephen’s express blessing (he had zero memory of the sketch, and laughed as much as any discerning punter when I sent it back to him), here’s a lovely opener for an episode of A Bit of Fry & Laurie that will never be performed.
Choosing the right piece to share out of the IMMENSE treasury of unused material SJF sent me is not easy – as I’ve mentioned before, only a fraction of this overwhelmingly publishable, funny sketch material can be squeezed into Soupy Twists, and there’s an embarrassment of riches which will remain in shadow (although much more material can be read if you pledge for the separate bonus print-out). This sketch is definitely publication-worthy, but it has no real connection to any of ABOF&L’s themes which would make it easy to reference in the text, and so here is perhaps the best place for it, to whet appetites and reward the faithful.
Only pledgers will see this blog, and for those who would love to enjoy ‘fresh’ F&L material, but haven’t yet pledged, they have only themselves to blame!
And so, I give you, the really rather nasty tale of STEPHEN’S DOG…