The Richard Herring Leicester Square Theatre podcasts are fascinating and fun, not because of the silly recurring questions (‘Have you ever tried to suck your own cock?’ and ‘What would you rather have: a ham hand or an armpit that produced sun cream?’) or Herring’s shabby interview technique, but due to the atmosphere that leads to the interviewee opening up and discussing things in a honest and interesting manner, with occasional jokes thrown in. They are revealing and intimate and funny and unusual, particularly for fans of British comedy.
The first series had plenty of these from a wonderful selection: Stewart Lee, David Baddiel, Charlie Brooker, Adam Buxton and David Mitchell, to name a few. Herring would get them talking about their lives in a way that wouldn’t occur in a normal interview process, which meant that great anecdotes would arise from unguarded guests who seemed to enjoy the night as much as the audience. Intriguing nuggets of information would appear out of nowhere, as the guests felt relaxed and felt part of a conversation about their work and their history.
I don’t know how Herring got Stephen Fry to be his guest, but I’m grateful he did because the podcast from last Monday night was the best yet (and not just because I got to attend in person). The show had sold out on the day it was announced – I got lucky when I saw Herring’s tweet announcing Fry’s attendance – and it was a packed house on a warm summer evening that filled the downstairs auditorium. The host was nervous in the pre-podcast stand-up section – Fry had yet to arrive and he was worried he might not turn up and have on his hands an angry audience demanding their money back (as he joked, it’s not as if Fry had never failed to show at a theatre performance …), which I think reflected in his performance, which was slight on material and more about talking to audience members, although he thinks differently as he has released that as a separate podcast (something he doesn’t usually do as a way to entice people to pay for a ticket to the night). However, when Fry sneaked in the side just before 8pm, Herring relaxed and stopped the chatter for an interval before the main event.
And what an event it was: 90 minutes of wit, honesty, anecdotes, revelation and eloquence. I think Herring was a little in awe of Fry but he didn’t try to cover it with his usual braggadocio; instead, he realised that he was second fiddle and let Fry take the lead, occasionally putting in a joke but standing back to allow Fry room to talk. Talk he did: he chatted about various film roles (he did Spice World because he, like all the other actors, would be loved by their sons/daughters/nephews/nieces/godchildren if they gave them signed photos of the Spice Girls), with nice anecdotes about working on A Civil Action with John Travolta and working with Walter Matthau on I.Q. He did a great Rik Mayall impression when he talked about suggesting the University Challenge idea to Mayall and Ben Elton after the first series of The Young Ones. He also did a good Dustin Hoffman when relating an anecdote about Hoffman asking Fry for his autograph for his daughter. He said that Hugh Laurie was still his best friend after all these years (for the past 25 years, they have always had Christmas together, either at his or Laurie’s house), which was rather touching. He and Herring discussed in detail the character of Fabian in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and talked eloquently about his life in response to Herring’s (deserving) praise of the first volume of his memoirs, Moab Is My Washpot, and told the story (with accents) of being hypnotised by a Hungarian man in order to be able to sing for a sketch on ITV’s Saturday Live; he also thoroughly answered Herring’s recurring questions about self-fellatio and the ham hand/sun cream armpit dilemma. Fry was his usual mix of intelligence and warmth and insight and humour, and it was a joy to be in the audience, but there was more to come.
The huge revelation (which would become headline news on Wednesday when a transcript of the podcast was released to the press – it was very strange to ‘know’ the news nearly 48 hours before it was announced) came about from the simple question, ‘What’s it like to be Stephen Fry?’ (one of the questions of the 12-year-old son of the producer of the podcasts). Fry talked about how lucky he is, with the success and the privileges that have ensued (‘Oh, another invite to the royal box at Wimbledon – shall I go?’), but then started to talk about how his bipolar disorder affects him, and that he had tried to commit suicide in 2012 (the first time he has mentioned it), with a combination of pills and vodka, which caused him to pass out and then convulse with such violence that he bruised four ribs. Fortunately, he was discovered by the producer of the programme he was working on and he was brought back to the UK and recovered. He talked about how there was no reasoning behind it (if there were, he could be reasoned out of it), and how he couldn’t talk about it to anyone, let alone a best friend (‘Imagine your best friend in the world. Now imagine you have a genital wart. Would you tell your best friend?’). It was quite something to be in the presence of this man who has been an inspiration to me for many years and I was shocked at the revelation and then overjoyed when he said at the end that he was much better now and on better medication, and the whole audience applauded in unison in happiness that he had survived this ordeal. It was a fitting ending to the show, even if we could have stayed there and listened to him talk for much longer, which was really something special (even Herring was moved, as he wrote it about in his daily blog). You should really listen to the podcast to enjoy it for yourself – you won’t regret it.