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Comparing Autobiographies – Stephen Fry, John Cleese and Alan Munro: My Winner Is….

December 7, 2014

Fry 2Cleese

I usually take a large number of books with me on business trips. I know I won’t read them all, but it means that I have a choice. Two I was looking forward to reading were autobiographies published around the same time this year. The first was More Fool Me, the latest episode from Stephen Fry, and the second was So Anyway… by John Cleese. A third, very different, autobiography by Alan Munro I’ll talk about later.

Having just finished Cleese’s book, I’m trying to figure out why it took me only three days to read, and three times as long to finish Fry’s. And why Cleese, from my perspective, has written by far the better book.

Both deal with a period of the writers’ lives rather than the whole span. This is the modern way. Why spill all the beans in one volume when you can extrude them over several? Both are full of stories about famous people with whom the authors have worked or played. And there’s a good deal of self-examination, which is unsurprising given Fry’s well-known bipolar condition, and Cleese’s long-standing interest in psychotherapy.

But one difference between the two narratives is that the names dropped by Fry seem to feature mainly as supporting characters in his personal dramas. Cleese, on the other hand, uses his portraits of friends and acquaintances to illustrate his thoughts on the art of comedy. In fact you could argue that Fry’s book is mainly about cocaine, whereas Cleese’s is about comedy.

Perhaps because I’m closer in age to John Cleese than I am to Stephen Fry, I feel that I can relate more easily to the former. His acute observations of early influences on his life – his parents, his teachers and the nuances of the class system – are rivalled only by those of his near-contemporary and fellow-dramatist, Alan Bennett.

I had the same kind of education as Cleese, and like him, I taught at a prep school before going up to university, and so experienced the sudden role change from pupil to teacher that he describes. I will always treasure the memory of acting out the Battle of Cannae in front of a bunch of bemused ten-year-olds.

Also we are similar both in terms of having a pretty even left brain/right brain balance and of having a strong degree of introversion. And more importantly, we both loathe the Daily Mail. The major difference is that he has towering talents way beyond any that I possess.

I’m no less an admirer of Stephen Fry. He has a superb turn of phrase, tells a great story and has done some fine work on TV and film. Where he loses me in his latest book is in his description of his long love affair with cocaine.

The only thing I’ve ever put up my nose is nasal decongestant, so his descriptions of coke-fuelled nights at the Groucho Club leave me cold. Not with disapproval – after all most of us have our favourite methods of killing ourselves – but because I just don’t find the antics of snorting celebrities to be particularly interesting. You can read about stuff like that in gossip columns, on the net and goodness knows where else. That said, in an exception to my comment about name dropping to serve his personal narrative, he writes with great affection and respect about Hugh Laurie, his long-time writing partner.

But when Cleese talks about Peter Sellers or Ronnie Barker, for example, we learn as much about the way they went about their craft as about their personalities. Fry fills much of the later stage of his book with a diary covering a period when he was writing his second novel; his purpose seems mainly to illustrate how ridiculously busy he was at the time. Whereas at a similar point, Cleese talks us through a series of comedy scripts, and comments on why they worked and why they didn’t. Much more instructive and satisfying.

I also like Cleese’s character sketch of David Frost. He describes him as “pronoid” which is the opposite of paranoid. Frost, apparently, always worked on the basis that everybody wanted to help him. Thanks to his charm and organisational skills, they usually did. And when he claimed the lion’s share of the writing credits for some of his more successful shows, none of the writers who did the donkey work, including Cleese, seemed to object. Remarkable, when these days so many writers and entertainers seem to consult their lawyers before they get out of bed in the morning. I’m sure the fact that he was the rain-maker for so many of their careers had something to do with it. A great case study for those who make their living prattling about the power of positive thinking.

Cleese comes over as the humbler of the two. Prickly, yes, and probably a bit of a pain to work with, but never less than honest about his shortcomings and deeply committed to his life’s work. Fry does a good line in self-deprecation as well. He’s also very serious about his work, yet I get the impression that he has an inner confidence in his talent that Cleese always struggled to maintain.

I also I don’t get the same sense of curiosity in Fry’s outlook on life as I do from Cleese. We learn more about the drama around Fry than that which plays within. No problem with that. He hasn’t had the easiest time managing his inner self and he’s entitled to set his own boundaries of disclosure. But Cleese – at least on the evidence of the two books, seems more rigorous and analytical, both about himself and his work. Unfair perhaps, because Fry has done much to increase public awareness of bi-polar disorders.

A couple of years ago I review Keith Richards’ autobiography under the heading of All About the Music. By which I meant that for all the Rolling Stone’s graphic tales of drug abuse and debauchery, the underlying theme of the book was music, not Keith’s lifestyle. I feel the same about John Cleese’s autobiography. As I said earlier, it’s fundamentally about the art of comedy, whereas Stephen Fry’s book is mainly about Stephen Fry – and his relationship with cocaine. Funny? In places, yes, but lacking the light and shade – and the forensic observations – of Cleese’s work.

Anyway, enough of the comparisons. They didn’t ask to be judged against each other. I just happened to read the books in quick succession.

Both write in an engagingly conversational style, far less formal than that of a very different autobiography I read around the same time: Alan Munro’s Keep the Flag Flying.

Munro

Munro is a former high-flying diplomat. I bought his book mainly for his experience as British Ambassador in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. I can’t say I learned much from his revelations. I shouldn’t be too surprised, given that he is bound by the Official Secrets Act, but apart from a few amusing anecdotes he doesn’t have much to say on the Gulf War that I don’t already know. Incidentally, isn’t it the case that the great and the good tell anecdotes, whereas normal mortals tell stories?

The writing is very polished, and in a style typical of a well-brought-up product of Oxbridge born in the early thirties, whose phraseology was honed through years of critical editing by legions of Foreign Office bureaucrats – witty, dry and understated. I could imagine him dictating his memoirs from a comfortable chair beside a roaring fire at one of London’s better gentleman’s clubs. As John Cleese wrote when describing the qualities of his favourite prep school master, Mr Bartlett, Munro’s writing evidences:

“…the Edwardian gentleman’s approach to life: courtesy, grace, restraint, the careful avoidance of embarrassing others, non-intrusiveness, considerateness, kindness, modesty – nay, more than modesty, self-effacement; the kind of qualities that would disqualify one for ever from employment by the Daily Mail.”

Though I suspect that Sir Alan might disagree. He certainly had more ambition and cutting edge than poor Mr Bartlett, who discovered late in his career that the headmaster had for years been paying him less than the odd-job man.

About the only time Munro gets close to bitchy is when he reveals his strong disapproval of Alan Clark – chancer, cad and brilliant diarist who served for a time as Defence Procurement Minister under Margaret Thatcher, and was caught up in the row about export licences to Iraq.

Still, there’s plenty of interesting stuff for a lover of the Arab world, especially his descriptions of pre-Gaddafi Libya and Lebanon before the civil war. And unlike Mr Bartlett, he has a strong sense of the absurd.

All in all, A-minus for style, B-plus-plus for content and C-minus for insight into the person behind the diplomat – just as you would expect, I guess.

But my winter term prize for autobiographies goes to John Cleese by a mile – a man much more after my own heart than the other two. At this point I confess to a bias.

In 1974, during a short-lived and not very successful career as a concert promoter, I wrote to him with an offer to come and do “An Evening with John Cleese” at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. He wrote a very courteous personal reply – not the kind of standard rejection you might get from an agent nowadays – explaining that he would love to do it, but that work commitments made it impossible in the foreseeable future. I’ve had a soft spot for him since then.

If he hasn’t yet managed to finish paying off his third wife’s divorce settlement, with a bit of luck we’ll hear from him again. After all, we still have the Python years, Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda to come.

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