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Black Sky Thinking

A Little Too Much Of Fry & Laurie? Celebrity Mediation Hits Overkill
David Stubbs , July 7th, 2011 11:46

You might expect better of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, but even these doyennes of the English highbrow are now part of the depressing trend for everything to require celebrity involvement

A Bit Of Fry And Laurie, never repeated but abundantly available in nine minute pellets on YouTube, was among the best work either of them produced and bears comparison with any sketch comedy before or since. They've done great things, the pair of them. They're talented, likeable and deserving of kudos and all the earthly goods that have trundled their way in the courses of their career. So it's not out of jealousy or disdain that I say that on learning Hugh Laurie had just cut a blues album, Let Them Talk, and Stephen Fry had recently interviewed Lady Gaga, the grinding and gnashing of my teeth was audible in neighbouring postal districts.

For a start, Hugh Laurie. There are those who say white men shouldn't be allowed to sing the blues. Not true. But rich white men like him (or rich black women like Oprah) certainly should not be allowed to sing the blues, any more than George Osborne should be allowed to confer charitable status on himself. It could scarcely have been less seemly if he'd blacked up and cut an album of minstrel songs. As for Fry . . . .well, more of Stephen Fry later. Suffice it, however, to say this. The past wasn't all its wistfully cracked up to, blighted as it was by World Wars, rickets, light entertainers who on closer inspection turned out to be Tory psychopaths, powdered egg and the mandatory wearing of three piece suits and hats at the seaside during heatwaves. However, here's the thing. Back in the 1940s, if you wanted a blues album cut, you went to BB King, not Bob Hope. And in the 60s, if you wanted the world's most famous pop stars of the day interviewed you went to, ooh, I don't know, here's a thought, a music journalist, as opposed to Ken Dodd. And in the 70s, if you wanted to see famous people "have a go" at something, you threw John Noakes out of a plane, with a (hopefully) functioning parachute attached to his back.

All of this is symptomatic of the latterday tendency whereby so much of our culture has to be celebrity-mediated, and if that means stepping on the toes of writers, programme makers, musicians, etc, whose opportunities to ply their trade are increasingly limited, so be it. You want David Haye interviewed? Get Ricky Gervais to do it. We see and hear so little of Ricky Gervais. You want an investigation into worldwide gang culture? Get Ross Kemp to do it. Him off of EastEnders. You want some fresh new media faces to replace the old guard? Get their sons and daughters to do it, Peaches, Lily, and, soon enough, presumably, Brooklyn. No doubt there's a bit of talent here and there in those passed down genes – but dynastically, it's an obscenity. The word "Geldof" should cease to have been bandied in the public domain well over 30 years ago. As it is, it'll doubtless hound me to my grave as Geldofs yet unborn have their own chat shows, advice columns and perfume lines.

If it's the future that is celebrity-colonised, so is the past, via Who Do You Think You Are? In which our intelligence is insulted on a weekly basis by the artificial spectacle of celebs apparently stumbling, on camera upon the extraordinary truth about their ancestors and their remarkable lives, as if these facts hadn't been pre-established well beforehand by researchers and disclosed to all parties concerned. Whatever, the message is clear. These celebrities were always special people. It's run in their genes for generations.

Question Time is one that particularly rankles – it's bad enough putting up with the likes of Nigel Farage and the borderline sectionable Melanie Philips on a practically fortnightly basis but their insistence on having celebrities on the panel generally backfires embarrassingly. Even Jarvis Cocker, a pop eminence whose heart is in the right place, floundered on the programme through sheer want of self-briefing. Carol Vorderman turned out to be Tommy Steele to Sarah Palin's Elvis Presley during her appearance on QT. Then there was Fearne Britton, who recently appeared on the show and confessed that she was entirely out of her depth during a discussion on the Greek financial crisis. Well, yes, I expect you are. So why did you agree to come on a current affairs show? You might as well have had Fearne "Amazing" Cotton on. (At which point, light bulb illuminates above the head of a QT booker).

However, Stephen Fry is the most culpable, not least because his near-pathological ubiquity is passed off as the ultra-impressive CV of a modern Renaissance man, with a brain the size of an enormous great bottom, as he'd doubtless wittily put it. Having written the book for the musical Me And My Girl early in his career, Fry had no great financial need to work again. And yet, this tireless sometime novelist, comedian, film star, short-notice TV guest has recently, among other things, hosted a panel show, tele-profiled Wagner, written the script for the remake of The Dambusters all the while maintaining a Twitter account on which every passing thought that emerges like a sweat bead from the Fry pores can be dripped onto his millions of adoring followers. And he interviewed Lady Bloody Gaga.

How good, bad or indifferent a fist he makes of any of these jobs is immaterial. He simply shouldn't be putting himself about this way, not just because he's grist to the ultra-cautious, ultra-conservatism of the commissioners-that-be who go time and again for the failsafe familiarity of his name – but also because it bespeaks some sort of malaise on his own part. The psychologist and author of The Selfish Capitalist Oliver James has never joined in with the celebration of Fry as a "national institution". He describes Fry as a narcissist, "jammed on transmit – and the signal is, "I'm cleverer than you."" He's intelligently hyper-functional but clearly emotionally dysfunctional. It's time for all of us – him, the media, the culture at large – to take an extended Fry-break and spread his workload around among those equally as capable as him but in far greater need of the work. The High Priest of celebrity mediation must be laid off.