community

Why Stephen Fry is a special kind of LGBTQ icon, by Simon Callow

Simon Callow pays tribute to his friend and former co-star Stephen Fry, recipient of the Attitude Icon Award, supported by Virgin Atlantic.

2020-12-01

My impression of Stephen is that he emerged fully fledged from the womb, or was plucked from his father’s thigh, like Dionysus, a god with whom he has from time to time dallied.

When I first met him, he was still pretty young. He was enormous, kindly, effortlessly charming, very funny and apparently omniscient, generously sharing with all and sundry his knowledge on a hundred thousand subjects, and all the possible tangents of each and every one of those hundred thousand subjects.

So much knowledge inside that magnificent head, the head of a Habsburg Emperor, of a general, of a spymaster, of an archbishop, the knowledge pouring out of it almost incontinently.

Later, I met Stephen’s parents at a book launch – his first, I think – and I said what fun it must have been to have had Stephen as a child. “Oh, it was a nightmare,” his mother said.

“How so?”

“It was the questions.”

“Isn’t that a good thing in a child?”

“No, no, you don’t understand – questions to which he knewthe answer and you didn’t. ‘Of which culture was Quetzalcoatl the God?’ ‘How many stops are there between Leningrad and Moscow?’ That sort of thing.”

I suppose all that knowledge had to have an outlet somehow. Now, of course, we know that it has – in novels, in memoirs, in those splendid mythological books, in documentaries, on chat shows, on QI. He once told me that we never forget anything, it’s just that we can’t always access it. Uh-huh. Except that you always can, Stephen, damn you.

But along with that mental virtuosity, and quite apart from it, he has a whole slew of other talents, any one of which would be quite enough in themselves for an ordinary mortal. I only acted with him on one occasion, but it was a delight – he’s generous and responsive and appreciative and available and alive.

He also directed me once, in an excellent film, which, of course, he also wrote – Bright Young Things, after Evelyn Waugh – and he was terribly good at it and I wish he’d direct more.

He is a reader-out-loud of books sans pareil. He’s also the best of MCs, a rare and demanding skill, and he is the most ruthless charity auctioneer on the face of the earth, smilingly and expertly extracting a whole year’s worth of income from his helpless victims.

He is also a great and important role model for gay men.

When I first met Stephen, all those decades ago, he was very publicly celibate, but since then he has re-embraced his carnal and romantic selves, and stood up, articulate and passionate, to be counted as a gay man, a husband, a leader and a spokesperson.

Simon Callow starred opposite Stephen Fry in 1990 BBC two comedy 'Old Flames'

He has openly acknowledged his struggle with depression and proclaimed the great truth so well expressed by William Shakespeare in As You Like It: “We are not all alone unhappy.”

He is a great contributor to the gaiety of nations, a scholar and a gentleman, a model citizen and a bit of a bloody genius.

Asked which quality he valued above all others, he said, “Kindness,” and that is the thing that binds all his other gifts together: he is the kindest and best of men.

Watch the 2020 Virgin Atlantic Attitude Awards, powered by Jaguar on YouTube now.

The Attitude Awards issue featuring all 14 winners will be available from 1 December to download and to order globally.

Subscribe in print and get your first three issues for just £3, or digitally for just £1.54 per issue.