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Hugh [Laurie] and I, perhaps because of the permanent guilt derived from our perceived privileged upbringings, instinctively recited in our minds the likely response of critics whenever a new project arose. We had in mind some kind of antagonistic Time Out reviewer. The wrinkle in his nose, the snort of his derision, the slow downward curl of his lips – we were there before him, writing his copy as if inside his head and the heads of everyone else.
In the early spring of 1989 we began taping the first full series of ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’ (‘a lacklustre throwback trapped in an irrelevant Oxbridge past,’ we imagined Time Out snarling furiously). In the summer of that year we recorded ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ (‘a sad dip in form after the delights of “Blackadder III”,’ Time Out would be sure to mutter) and immediately after that Hugh and I filmed the first series of ‘Jeeves and Wooster’, throughout the shoot again sharing what we imagined would be Time Out’s verdict: ‘while the rest of the world leaps ahead in innovation and edge, Fry and Laurie welter feebly in a snobbish and puerile past.’
When we filmed ‘Peter’s Friends’, Hugh and I were, to our eternal discredit, deeply embarrassed about the whole thing. Occasionally in the hallways, corridors and drawing rooms of Wrotham Park (the grand house outside Barnet where we had already shot some scenes in ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ and where I was many years later to shoot scenes in Robert Altman’s ‘Gosford Park’) occasionally, Kenneth Branagh would see Hugh and me looking hang-dog and licked to a splinter between set-ups.
‘Everything all right, darlings?’
‘They’re going to hate us,’ I moaned.
‘Who? What do you mean?’
‘“This incestuous, up-itself tale of Oxbridge wankers who reveal their feeble, wimpy and effete so-called ‘problems’ over a weekend of excess in a country house…” can you imagine how Time Out are going to react?’ (I’ve no idea why Time Out was still the symbol and focus of all our insecurities.)
‘Time Out? Who gives a fuck? It’s read by about 12 people. Seriously, loves, why would you worry about what they think?’
For all I know this is deeply unfair and Time Out welcomed us with lavish praise. We were too scared to look. I remember years earlier Rik Mayall opening a Time Out to see a review of the second series of ‘The Young Ones’. ‘“Nothing like as good as the pioneering first series,”’ he read, then spluttered, Rik-like, ‘but they hated the first series. Bastards!’
‘More Fool Me’ by Stephen Fry is out now in hardback, published by Penguin. ‘Stephen Fry Live! More Fool Me’ is at the Southbank Centre and broadcast live to cinemas throughout the UK, Wed Oct 1. www.stephenfry.com.