Stephen Fry: “Lost, alone and I wanted to take my life” | E201 | Transcription
Transcription for the video titled "Stephen Fry: “Lost, alone and I wanted to take my life” | E201".
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I was lost and adrift, and really what I first wanted to do was to take my life. Steven Fry! He's a comedian, Ian, an actor, and a national treasure. He's a director, he's a writer, and you probably will miss things out. You've mastered language, and for nights, my night! I was a deeply difficult child, and my parents sent me to a psychiatrist when I was 14. I started doing weird things. I was sent to prison. So, the best I could do after a disastrous childhood, I decided, was now concentrate on getting into Cambridge. That changed everything. Ladies and gentlemen, Steven Fry! I want to please people, and if I don't, please, then I get upset. I've done it wrong. Age 37, you star in a play. The play gets some pretty harsh reviews. I was lost and adrift, and really what I first wanted to do was to take my life. Steven vanished on Monday, leaving a number of letters for friends. That started my journey into my mental health. When you were 55, it was your third suicide attempt. Fred's own, that's right. Can you take me back to that moment? Before this episode starts, I have a small favour to ask from you. Two months ago, 74% of people that watched this channel didn't subscribe. We're now down to 69%. My goal is 50%. So, if you've ever liked any of the videos we've posted, if you liked this channel, can you do me a quick favour and hit the subscribe button? Thank you and enjoy this episode. I'm so fascinated by people's foundations that earlier this year's their context, because it seems so apparent that that ends up shaping who we are and who we become in our orientation in life.
Journey: From Early Life Challenges To Finding Joy
Early context (01:44)
So, as I read through your story in your earliest years, it was an unthinkable roller coaster ride of twists and turns. But what do I need to know about Steven Fry's earliest years to understand the man that sat in front of me? Well, to use the language of the time, I was a disruptive, deeply difficult, screwed up child. That's kind of the language they used then. And I think, to give myself some, I won't say credit, I would probably, in later years, have been diagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I was extremely difficult to keep still, and I found it hard to focus. I was, I'll say, at vain as it may sound, I think intellectually advanced for my age. I was very quick with language and with speech, and just seeing things and remembering things in particular. So, I never had to revise. So, in that sense, I had a lot of spare time. But on the other hand, socially, and where it matters to a child, I never fitted in or felt fitted in, because I was bad at all the things that are valued when you're a child. I couldn't catch a ball. I sort of did the sort of uncoordinated hand clapping method of trying to catch, which is always mocked, like just as you've done. The cry of "Unco" would follow me, short for uncoordinated and worse. Kind of words we certainly don't use now to describe it. Shall we say a dyspraxic figure in terms of physicality? I was growing too fast, too tall and very thin, hard to imagine now. And I wasn't musically very gifted, particularly, and I couldn't draw. So, all I had was my passion for language, and I loved it, and I played with it, and I told stories, and I tried to mount myself less unpopular, put it that way. By, by, it was a boarding school. I was sent to where at the age of seven in Britain, which is not a huge country. It's about as far as you can be from home there. My parents were in Norfolk on the east coast, and I was sent to Gloucestershire on the west to a prep school from the age of, as I say, seven, which, to some people, sounds a bit cruel and weird to send a seven-year-old boy 200 miles from home and just have them there. But you have to remember two things. One, that was what happened as far as I was concerned. My father had gone to a similar school. My mother had boarded since she was four. But that was because she was a Jewish refugee in England, and her father wanted to hide her away from the impending Nazi invasion, and so that was a particular reason. But my brother had gone at that age, and, of course, by definition, everyone at the school was in the same boat. So you just thought, "That's what happened." I mean, if you take a child and put them in a cupboard between half past two and three in the afternoon and shout at them through the keyhole every day, they'll just think, "Oh, that's what happens." And then you welcome them out and give them a big hug and say, "That was a cup of time." You know what I mean? Anything you do to a child regularly is the normal world, essentially, until they see other children having a different experience. But so class-locked, I guess I was without really noticing it, grew up in the countryside, in a large house. Not done to an Abbey, but we had gardeners and people coming into clean and that sort of thing. Servants, I suppose. Staff, whatever word you want to use. And it was deep in the countryside, and the other boys that I knew, very few girls, but they did no girls, and even they went away to school. So all the boys I knew were going away to school, and the parents you met say, "When you go after prep school, then Stephen." "Okay, when I'm seven." And they go, "Oh, you go ahead." And that was it, because they didn't know any other children. I mean, that sounds monstrous, but that's just the way things were. Are you stuck to your own? It wasn't outright snobbery or anything. It just was the world into which I was born. So you don't really question it, particularly. And through most of my prep school time, age seven to thirteen is a prep school in Britain, I was very disruptive. I passed exams very easily. I tried as hard as I could to get out of any form of physical activity. I gave myself asthma attacks, whereas in order to be put off games, because I just hated that, particularly rugby and the muddy, cold, horrible things running and the collision of bodies and bones, and it was just so vile. I wanted to sit and read a book by the side of the field. And humour, particularly then as I moved to thirteen and went to the big school, the public school, as it's known, of course, anything but public, their private. And that was scary because it's 600 boys rather than the prep school's 90s. So it's a much less of a little nest and much more of a hoo. But I was thirteen. And so when you're thirteen, as you know too well, chemical starts to boil and bubble inside you and things begin to happen in your mind and soul. And I was not prepared for the astonishing cataclysm, the catastrophe, the glorious catastrophe of love. It had never occurred to me that it would be what it was, which is silly because we grow up hearing nothing but love songs. What did the Beatles do? Go on about love me do and please, please me and money come by love and hold my hand and everything's a love song. And suddenly when you fall in love, all those lyrics make sense. And you realise there's nothing else in the world and nothing else is even slightly as important. And of course I was in love with another boy and I was aware that that was probably not the right thing. And it threw me out of everything really. I just stopped being able even to pretend to be a normal, well-behaved school boy. I started doing weird things like climbing the roofs of all the buildings, the big chapels and churches and classrooms. So that was the first school from which I was expelled. I'm going to compress the story because it gets kind of goes on and on and on. I was then expelled from another one and then kind of another one. And then I left and went to London, left home, went to London.
Credit card fraud - getting arrested (08:42)
And the major problem there was I was in a pub, it was getting a bit chilly. I saw a coat like the look of it, half-inted stolid and left the pub. And then discovered there was a wallet in it. Oh my goodness. And two credit cards. So I went absolutely nuts around Britain with these credit cards, staying in grand hotels, buying things and traveling and so on. In those days they didn't even have magnetic strips on the back of credit cards for, you know, you just have to roll them on a piece of carbon to take an imprint. So it was very easy to use them fraudulently as long as you look vaguely convincing. I was aware because my father had once lost his birthday card that it was the bank that paid, not the poor fellow whose cards I'd stolen. So I didn't feel guilty in that rather pathetic way we do when we try and square our dishonesty. Eventually I ended up in Swindon of all unlikely times. I think it was going to meet a school friend and the idea was going to go to the Reading Festival. So I stayed in the hotel in Swindon and that's when a couple of them, I got back to my room. I mean, shopping, there were a couple of men in the room, which I thought was rather weird. And being used to hotels by this time, I assumed they were like cleaning all the maintenance people. I said, "No, it's all right. Don't need anything." Then said my name, only not my name, the name that was the name of the fellow whose credit cards I had stolen. Let's say his name was Smith. So they said, "Mr. Smith." And I went, "Yes." And they said, "Wiltcher CID held up there." And suddenly I realized that the jig was up. I was sent to prison on Vermont. I was sent to a young person's institution on Vermont. While they waited, there were seven counties, I think, that had paperwork that I'd traveled in with these cards that had to be caught up with. You're 18? Seven teams. He's just turning 18. That's right. Yeah, by this time.
Feeling like an outsider (10:52)
So it was interesting because I was reading about your, as I read through those first 18 years of your life, I saw someone with clearly huge intellectual potential. But also, which doesn't seem to be very common with someone who exhibits those qualities, someone who was rebelling against society, had this sort of, I think in your own words, an addiction to stealing things. And is that, and I couldn't quite figure out why, but what I'm understanding now is because it comes back to that feeling of being an outsider and rebelling against the society that you weren't able to fit into. I think that's exactly right. And my parents did send me to a psychiatrist when I was 14, 15. He was, I don't know if a member of parliament under junior health minister as well as a psychiatrist. So a very grand Harley Street office, you know, with one of those enormous Mont Blanc fountain pens, the size of a small submarine with which slowly writes things down. And he was slightly annoyed my parents weren't in the diplomatic service because apparently the way I behaved and the things I did were very typical of people from unsettled families. And, you know, there's constantly moving and so on. But he prescribed me something. And later I found out when I was doing a documentary about mental health and I went all the way back to my school and spoke to my old school master. He had a copy of a letter from that psychiatrist in which the psychiatrist had written bipolar question mark, which I knew nothing about at the time. That was when I was 15. So there was clearly some mental, they recognized there was a mental kink if you like. A hundred years earlier it would have been called a moral kink, basically. They're just saying he's a bad lot, you know. But we were on our way to being more understanding about children's behavior. But yeah, it's that whole mixture, my love of literature and stories and wanting to be involved in the world of ideas desperately to learn more and to understand more and to share ideas. A cheap wish watching Parkinson every Saturday night to be famous, but not sure how that could happen. It seemed absurd. And a deep, deep, like a hot lead leaking in the stomach whenever I contemplated my sexuality, this feeling, because all I read and read and read around it. You know, you go to a library in those days because there was no worldwide web. So you use what was known as the bibliography at the back of a book, which would recommend other books that were sources for that book. So you would build a web of connections of, so I read a biography of Oscar Wilde and that led me to biographies of other figures in his circle and other figures later and so on. And I saw there was this extraordinary tradition of literary artistic people who were, who were queer as we'd say now. And of course the ones I was reading about were born mostly into an elite part of the society that allowed them to go and live in North Africa or Italy or Greece. Or somewhere where it wasn't quite so dark and oppressive. But the average person who was born queer had a miserable outcome. It was illegal and the police would treat you dreadfully and newspaper articles. And so I saw ahead of me a life of shame and secrecy and all abstinence and sorrow. And it just, there was no possible way the world would be open and free for me. It would just be the best I could do after a disastrous childhood. I decided in prison was now concentrated on getting into Cambridge, become an academic, forget anything about the world because the world wasn't for me. And that would be enough. And it would also repay my parents for the extraordinary stress and distress I'd given them. And so when I was put on probation finally at the end of the prison thing having served quite a bit in Raman, I was just put on two years probation, went home, told my parents I would look after myself entirely, got jobs, got myself a moped. And to acknowledge that a course and amazingly got a scholarship to Cambridge, Austria. So that changed everything. It is the most remarkable turn I think that I've ever seen in someone's life. I think I've never seen someone who has a series of sort of criminal engagements, gets expelled from school multiple times. I read at 17, there was a suicide attempt after you had an argument with your father, which led you to be in hospital as well.
Going to Cambridge (15:39)
You end up in jail and then from jail you go to Cambridge. It doesn't seem like that part. It doesn't seem normal. And while I was at Cambridge for the first year I was on probation still. I remember saying to one of my tutors or supervisors, I said, "Oh, look at the date." And I'm no longer on probation. And he said, "You went on probation thinking I meant some sort of academic probation. You know that I hadn't done good enough essays and that I had been given a warning that I better work harder." He said, "You're not on probation." I said, "Well, actually I told him." He said, "What the hell?" "You're going out." "Why didn't you tell us?" I said, "Well, why didn't you ask me?" I never asked. But it is extraordinary how everything turned because in the first week I met Emma Thompson, who was an undergraduate reading the same subject in English, and I then saw her in a play and I was just knocked out. I couldn't believe it. I had considered maybe I should do some acting at Cambridge. I started doing that and really enjoyed it, but did lots of other plays as well. And I wrote a play called Latin. It was a comedy. And that went to Edinburgh. And it won a prize. And Emma came to see it and brought someone along to watch it that she thought might enjoy it with. And I didn't remember this experience. But that person was Hugh Laurie. And he apparently came and watched the play and said hello briefly. Then at the end of my second year, I was approached by Emma who said, "I'm going to come around and introduce you to Hugh. There you have met him." And I said, "No, I haven't." And she said, "Yes, you have." Anyway, she took me over to his college and knocked on the door and the door opened. He was sitting on the bed with a guitar in his lap. And he said, "Hello?" And I said hello. And his girlfriend was there making a cup of tea. And he said, "I'm just writing a song." And he started to play a bit of the verse of the song. And I said, "Oh, it's fabulous." And I sat next to him. We started to work on the lyrics of it. I added some ideas. And then we built it up into three or four verses and the choruses. And the song was finished. And then he picked up Pete's page. We started to write a sketch. And Emma and Katie were just staring at us and said, "What's happened?" We barely didn't ask each other our names. We just immediately just fitted. I'm sliding my fingers into each other to give an example. I described it as like falling in love, but then a platonic comedy love. We just seemed to gel straight away. It was most extraordinary. So from that moment on, we started writing stuff together for our show. And I thinking that either I was going to stay at Cambridge to be an academic, or maybe I was going to go to a drama school afterwards and join the Royal Shakespeare Society and hold spears and bellow speeches. And now there was this strange possibility of using comedy as a way of going forward and maybe not staying at Cambridge at all, but trying to tread the boards in an amusing way. Why acting?
Why acting? (18:48)
I sat here with Maisie Williams, who's the young gamer-thrones actress. Indeed, I know who you are. Yeah. And I find, you know, and then I read this book called "The Body Holds the School." And it talks about six ways that we can help our mental health in things like yoga and all these kinds of things. But one of them is acting, and it talks about the role that this kind of separation from identity and how that can be liberating and wonderful. And when I heard you describe your first acting experiences, you use words like blissful and amazing, and as if you'd found your place in the world. It's true. I mean, it is also, it is the acknowledgement, the love or the sense of attention you get from an audience that you're... It's not, I mean, of course, a kind of vanity, but it's not that you want to be praised exactly. It's just you want to experience that moment and keep experiencing it. It's not, "Oh, look, you must write marvellous things about me or come up after the show and tell me I'm a genius." That's all embarrassing. But the moment you're on stage and you feel that people are looking at you and not admiring you, Stephen, but that they are, you have won them over. They are following the story of the character you are and they are sucked up into it and you've made it. It's a wonderful feeling. But something even more primal than that, because I can remember when I was very young, five maybe, and my brother was seven going to a pantomime in Norfolk. And the usual thing happened, buttons comes out and goes, "Hello, boys and girls. Who'd like to come up on stage with me now and sing a song?" My brother dived under the seat and made noises like a piece of dust so that no one would notice him like most children. He was damned if he was going to get up and make an exhibition of himself in public. But I stood on my tiptoes with my arm up so high that I nearly split the membranes of my underarm. You know, "Me, me, me, me." And we both had the same parents. We both had the same DNA, more or less, not identical, but not identical twins. But I mean, really, we're pretty similar in terms of our birth and our parentage and environmental upbringing. And yet, he would rather have cut his arm off than go on stage and I would cut my arm off in order to go on stage. And that's just something that was built in. And that was when I was yet too young to be self-conscious, to have, if you like, those kind of issues of self-worth and wanting to lose myself somewhere else. It was just a young show-offie. I want to be up there. You see a stage, you want to be on it. Much of what you say about the mental health aspect is true, but it is also the case, and I'm sure you've sort of heard stories about this, that even when you're in a very long-running play, when you're in the wings for the first night, you know, there is, you are trembling, you are white. Your heart rate is really up. And you step on stage and you do it. But the weird thing is, six months later, if it's a long run, you're standing in the wings, you're talking to the stage management people like that. You're going, "Oh, yeah, I'll see you after this scene." And you go on. Doctors have done this. They've wired people up. Your heart rate is as high on that night as it would have been on the first night. It's just you've got used to it. The comparison, and it's not a comparison of quality or value, is with an RAF pilot. Every day, they're flying up like that, and they love it. They just made for it. I mean, it's frightening, and they hate to see their companions killed and so on, but the awful thing is when it stops. Suddenly the war's over. Every single day you were in a Spitfire, you were facing death, you were doing such amazing things, and now there's nothing. And similarly, you're in a long play. Of course, it's nothing like being in the Air Force. It's of no importance to anybody except other people. But nonetheless, it does cause the similar kind of shakes in your body and the excitement. And then that's the end of the run. Stop. And it does explain, I think, a lot of the substance abuse, the addictions and the kind of unhappiness and breakdowns and short-term marriages and relationships that are also common in the acting world. I mean, it may be true that there is something good for mental health, but I don't think anybody would say that as a group acts as exhibit mental health of a happier and better kind than other groups of people. So it's a complicated story, isn't it? It's so interesting that that's sort of anti-climax. I think we've referred to that before. It's like gold medal depression.
Where happiness really comes from (23:31)
We tend to set ourselves goals. If only I could live in that kind of a village in the south of England, like a quite near a station and nice little house, but not too expensive. And then you get it. And so, yeah, you live in the suburbs. Hooray. Oh, maybe that car, that new one, that Tesla or whatever, I'll get a... Then I'll be happy. You don't literally say then I'll be happy, but there's a kind of sense of that's all I really want. And each of these goals is met, and it isn't it. There's the line of T.S. Eliot. That's not it. That's not it at all. And we go through life thinking, that's not it. That's not it at all. There is something in all of us, a whole, a need for connection and love and truth and a sense of something beautiful beyond. And if you're religious, you call it heaven and if you're a humanist, you call it a fallen-achieved life of friendship and elements of sacrifice and so on. But you know that there's a hope for it, but if you mislabel it and think that it's connected with money or cars or mortgages or jobs or status, you're never happy because of your status, because of things you've achieved. Happiness comes from somewhere else, and of course, I've yet to meet anyone who can tell you where it comes from regularly, where it can be tapped like some resource. That's where you get your happiness. We know there's fake happiness from a blow of a drug or something like that, and that couldn't be a more fake happiness. And there's the happiness of sitting around a table with friends, that's beautiful, fleeting moments with friends and family, where it's all working and people aren't shouting at each other and you can just look at each other. I was at a memorial service for a very dear friend, the composer, Leslie Brickus, who wrote Feeling Good and Pure Imagination for Willy Wonka and Goldfinger and a lot of great songs. He was an amazing songwriter. And I remember I had a disdari entry, which was just getting to know him. There was a party, I think it was his birthday, full of people, some of them super famous and extraordinary people. But he, I remember just catching sight of him and thinking he looked so like a Persian cat, just looking from one friend to another with this huge smile on his face, just being happy to have his friends around him. It's a simple thing, and yet it's the best thing, and we chase things that give us less time to see our friends. We chase work targets and we chase journeys and holidays and things with individuals and so on. But I think we grow away from it. I think the older you get, the less you appreciate friendship, which is really sad. When you're in your twenties, you tend to do things as a group. You go on holidays as a group, because you haven't yet got married and partnered off and paired off. So I don't know if you agree with me, but I do think maybe that one of the jobs were getting older, but I'm convinced it when the job was getting older, is not to become gnulled. You know, like a tree. When the tree is young, you can bend it. It's a green stick as they call it. You can bend it and shape it and so on. But once it gets old, you know, and it starts getting that bark, and if you tried to bend it, it would snap. And we become a bit like that. Coming back to the first point you said there about the goals we should be striving for. I found that really interesting. If not striving for a gold medal or this thing or that thing, how does someone, you know, listening to this now, what kind of goals do you think would protect them against that gold medal depression? What kind of orientation? It's an interesting point. And of course, I, you know, obviously understand that there are people who need to meet goals in order to pay debts and, you know, that there are certain amounts of money they have to have to pay for their heating and their mortgage and all the rest of it. And I'm obviously not suggesting that that's valueless because you need to keep a roof over your head and everything else. But in terms of one's own personal sense of fulfillment and self-worth and achievement, I'm more and more convinced that it comes from how you treat people and how they treat you back and how you, how you would try to be a better person. I know it sounds really silly. I'm not a religious figure at all, but I'm very interested in religions. And I can understand that in some cases, religions help cement a sense of community, where I don't like it is very exclusive, of course, where you have to buy into a certain set of ideas and so-called truths in order to be part of that community. But I can understand how looking at a wide sense of life, and it's really about when you're falling asleep at night, and this may just be me. Can I fall asleep at night and feel I've been a reasonably okay person that day? Is this the one I have to apologize to next morning? Was I short and sharp with someone? Was I a bit mean? Was I lazy? Did I lie? Because I wanted my own way there. And that's just to have a saint and I always manage it too, but I do have a very loud voice in my head. Philosophers call it a deontic or deontological voice, this sense of obligation that is a peculiarity, it seems, of our species. As far as we know, the image I was used because they look so cheerful, an Amazonian tree frog perched on a branch with its big grin. Isn't thinking, "Oh God, I was a terrible Amazonian tree frog yesterday. I really let myself down. I was mean. I was unkind. I must try to be a better Amazonian tree frog." What we admire about animals is they spend 100% of every day being themselves. And we as humans are fully aware that we don't. We are not fully ourselves. We lie, we hide behind, we pretend, we fail, and we judge ourselves. Now that peculiarity of humanity is tried. People have tried to explain it in different ways. Obviously the Genesis myth is that we ate a fruit. It gave us the knowledge of good and evil and the sense of shame of our physical selves, all those things that separate us from animals. Because humans, since we were cognitively conscious, have been aware that we are animals because we can see that we defecate and eat and sleep and mate just like other animals, and sometimes very quite close to the other animals, if we, depending on what part of the world we live. But we can also see that we have these other things that animals don't. Who gave them to us? Where did they come from? What do they mean? And how do we live up to them? Are they a curse or a blessing? Do they make us mini gods? Or do they make us the playthings of gods? A cruel kind of little as flies to wanton boys to the gods? Are we? They kill us for their sport, as a webs to put it. So, and those oldest questions still really obsess us, particularly now, of course, because in the age of AI, we are able to be gods ourselves. We are making sentient beings and we will have to decide whether like the Greek gods, we give them fire or deny them fire and maybe they'll kill us. But will they have what we have, this sense of, "I try to be good"? I mean, you try to be good, don't you? Try my best. Yeah, you fail. It's right. And we all like that, but we don't pay much attention to that, and yet it's the most extraordinary thing about us. It really is. And I say, "I'm not a moral, I'm not a model of moral probity and rectitude of any kind, but I do have that loud voice and I've always had it." And when my grandfather died, and this is very... But I first learned to play with myself, I was terrified that he was watching me because he died. And I thought, "I can't do this because my granddaddy is watching me, and it's just awful." And in a sense, that, there you have it, in one image. That's what humanity has been cursed with. Since our birth, the big daddy in the sky is watching you, and it's making you self-conscious, and you're holding back from your true nature because, "Oh, I can't do that in front of God." And somehow we have to square that, and give ourselves permission to be who we were born to be, and allow ourselves to live the full lives that we feel that we're on a journey to, but accept also that we will feel that we let ourselves down, and that we're guilty of this and guilty of that. It's very tempting to be more like someone like Samuel Beckett and the absurdists, and just say, "There is no meaning to any of this. It's absurd. Life is absurd and meaningless." And know very well that in philosophy there are very, very few professional philosophers who believe in free will. But we all live as if free will exists, and we all have to live as if we are accountable for our actions, otherwise society falls apart. But if deep down we know that really there is no free will. I mean, the most extreme examples are, in a sense, the easiest to see it. A psychopath is not just a murderer, but it's a murderer who is cunning and who plans coldly their killing. They choose to kill. So you may say, "They're the most evil kind." But no one on this earth has ever chosen to be a psychopath. It's a condition. It's like saying, "Oh, he's an asthmatic. We must lock him up." Well, you don't choose to be asthmatic. You don't choose to be psychopathic. In case of psychopathic, you're harming a lot of people and causing misery. So, clearly we've got to find a way of removing them from the natural orbit of humanity. But, you know, it's this... I don't know, I don't really know what I'm talking about, but I'm having fun.
How can we change who we are? (34:15)
On that point, on that point of the psychopath, how possible do you think it is to really change who we are? It's a bit of a strange question, but another very cool question. Past the age of 18, the imprints have been made into our character, our identity, our sense of being, our search for validation, as you've described, and I've seen through your story and mine. How possible is it to change who we are, and are we anybody, or are we just a byproduct of our sort of DNA and our experiences? That's such a good point. I mean, we are, in that sense, we are a story, and the story is a mixture of different elements, and a story is a myth. It doesn't happen. It's a bit, I'm sure you've read the novel "Herrari." That wonderful chapter where it just sort of proves that Persia doesn't exist. It's a myth. It has a symbol. It has a people working for it. There isn't such thing as Persia. There's a Persia car, but that's not Persia, and so on. And similarly, there is us. Now, if I cut my toe off, I'm still Stephen. I'm just Stephen when I'm missing a toe. If I cut my head off, I'm dead, so obviously, you know, I'm the remains of Stephen. But if I start cutting more and more bits, when do I stop being myself? It's such an extraordinary idea. We're aware of our own self, and unless we have particular problems on the neurodiversity scale, for example, we also fully understand other people's selves, and that they have a self, and therefore they are. They have their own will and their own desire, and the chances are their appetites will be similar to ours. So, you know, if we're both not eaten for a day and someone brings in a tray and there's a cake on it, we'll look at each other and we'll know we each want that cake. We've projected into the other's mind. I mean, in the most simple way. The theory of mind, you know, shows us that. But what that self is, how it can be in any way quantified, it can't be removed from the body, as far as we know. I mean, obviously, there are superstitions and people talking about astral projection and some of this evidence that's ever been done. You can, in a metaphysical way, reach yourself into other people's selves, even after you're dead. Shakespeare does that every day to different people reading his sonnets, or Jimmy Hendrix or John Lennon does, whoever, you know, I'm reached by David Bowie. When I turn on Starman, I feel his self is connecting with me, his art, yes, his poetry, his vision, but also the self, he talks to you. That's what art does, and in that sense, you are immortal. Indeed, that was Shakespeare's obsession. So long as men can live and eyes can see, so long lives this, and this gives life to the, you know, he was aware that there is a way that we communicate beyond language. The actual sound and the throat of words being said, vibrating the ear is one way for language to get into us. The other, a very recent invention, only 5,000 years, is reading characters on a page and writing them. But the other way is more, is harder to understand, isn't it? But we do connect with people who are dead, who are away from us, who we remember. And their self is as real without a body as the self of someone who has a body. So in that sense, there is an immortality, but it's held together by communal memory and by means of communication. And if they die, then the selves of the past die as well, didn't they? Since you were a young man, at the core of you, what do you think has actually changed? If I went to the very core of you, and I could see it, I don't know, hold it in my hand, what would be different at the very core of you between the age of, you know, 25 and today, that's it.
What has changed from the core of your younger self (38:17)
I think I'm much calmer. I think I'm more accepting of things. I feel less need to prove myself. It may not sound like that, the way I've been rattling on. Of course, I've found a kind of permanent love. I kind of, that's very ungracious, but I got married nearly eight years ago. And that has changed things to be married, especially talking about that child early on who knew he was gay and saw ahead of him only a life of exile and shame. And I think that the prospect that I could ever actually be married and live happily, and for it to be of no big deal to anybody. I mean, there must be people I suppose in the world who think it's disgusting, but you don't often bump into them. I've made a big difference. And I'm ambitious only for an ex, if there's an exciting project like this film I told you I'm learning Polish at the moment to be in a film and I'm very excited and ambitious about the film, not because I wanted to win awards and be a huge success, but because I really haven't done anything quite like it for a very long time. And so that's a thrill. And otherwise, I suppose I just, I don't need to connect to people in the way I used to. I used to be slightly really shy enough to need cocaine to stay up at night and to go to parties. And there was quite a few years of that. 15 years? 15 years. You've done far too much research. But yeah, and I mean, I look back at it and I think I cannot believe I was such an arse. But on the other hand, there are friendships I made that I don't regret and things I discovered and learned about myself and so on. But mostly of course it was a very, very wrong course, fortunately not a fatally wrong course either in literal terms or in terms of career. But I realized that I am a very, very quiet domestic soul. I don't like going out. I don't like parties. I said to my husband a couple years ago. I said, I don't think I've ever met a person or read about a person that I hate as much as I hate parties. He said, that's a bit strong. Do you hate parties more than you hate Hitler? I said, well, that was just a sort of weird moment. I do get to parties, but I don't. Standing up talking to people with a drink in my hand is just my agony because I tell you another secret, which you may have uncovered, but it's an embarrassing one, is that I have a condition called prosopagnosia. It means face blindness. It means I will see you in the street two days time and I will blank you because I won't recognize you. I'm afraid. And it's absolutely heart and gut wrenching because you are convinced that people think you're looking down at them and you don't care about them. You haven't bothered to remember them because they're unimportant to you. And it really isn't that. I remember names all the time. Most people the other way around. I remember faces but not names. I have a little card in my wallet that says, prosopagnosia society. I give it to people. I say, oh, God, I'm so sorry. But look, believe me. You know, like I saw I did an event for mine last night and there was some wonderful people in it. I was moderating the mental health charity. And I was thinking in the camera, and I said, if I see any one of those people, we had this wonderful conversation. The chances of my recognizing their faces are so low. It's awful. And you know, you teach yourself various things like the colour of what someone's wearing on a particular day or if they have an earring or some sort of jewelry or something external to the face. But it's a very odd one. So that makes parties even more difficult. As you know, Intel are now sponsoring this podcast. 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Head over to johnlouis.com to check out the Intel EVO designs and get your 15% off terms and conditions apply. See more details in the description box. Age 37, you star in a play, which again, called cell mates, I believe. That's right. The play gets some pretty harsh reviews to say the least from a lot of the big newspapers as such. And that's another real low moment in your life where... Hugely so. Can you take me back to that moment? Yeah, I was pretty grim. I mean, we're done previews of it in Guilford and maybe what? Guilford and Richmond, I think, before coming into the West End into the Nell crowd theatre as it is now, the All-Breaths, it was, I think. And I was with Rick Mail, whom I loved, and sweet, funny man. He was brilliant and charming as always. The rest of the cast were nice. It was written by Simon Gray, a British player, I think, he also directed it. And I was playing George Blake, the spy, the British spy, who was sent to one with scrubs and then amazingly escaped. I was never comfortable in the play, and I was beginning to feel lost and adrift and deeply unhappy, and I couldn't understand why the good play wasn't that much of a disaster.
Lowest moment in your life (44:40)
I mean, you had good audiences and they applauded at the end. Some people said, "Yeah, I don't think it's his best play, but it wasn't an absolute catastrophe choice." At this point, because it's important context, you're well established. Yes. In writing in... Yes, things like Blackadder and Jeeves and Worcester and Brian Laurier happened, and my books had been selling, so I was in the public eye, I was well known. Anyway, there was a Saturday night, I guess the press night had been on Friday or something like that. So we then had a Saturday night, and then on Sunday, there were the Sunday papers of which I saw some, some of it were deeply unkind to me. And that did make a difference. I mean, I've said I didn't go just because I didn't like the reviews. And it wasn't entirely that. That would have been a bit weak, and certainly it was a weak thing to have done anyway. But it was a whole concatenation of something wrong in my head. I just suddenly saw myself as in the wrong place, doing the wrong things, and I wanted to get away from everything I knew. And really what I first wanted to do was to take my life, and I did run the car engine in the lock up garage of the flat where I was in London, and realised it was a catalytic converter that it wasn't really going to do much harm to me, and then there was stuff of it that I was just coughing a bit. And that's quite a significant decision to make following. I know, I just wanted out, really, that's it. I just, wherever I was, I wanted to be somewhere else. And if it was nowhere, that would be a first, that was the most perfect place to be. I just didn't see the, as anybody listening who's had the misfortune and the terror of considering taking their life, suicidal ideation as it's known in the trade, they will probably concur with me that there comes a moment where you just start saying to yourself, "What's the point?" It's a strange phrase because, you know, anyone could say it at any point, but there's some moments when you say it, it seems so truthful that there is simply no point in anything around oneself. And that's how it seems. Anyway, so I got in the car and drove to the south coast to Dover, I think it was, or no, Folkestone, and got on a ferry to Zabruge in Belgium and then ended up in Bruges, in Bruges, like Colin Farrell, Brendan. And I then wandered a little further east into Holland and then into Germany and Hanover and Hamburg. But you didn't tell anybody you were... No, no. And this was '93 or something. There was no worldwide web as such. It was just beginning to happen. Tim Bernersley in Switzerland was beginning to develop the world wide web. But there were these things called commercial online servers like CompuServe and America Online rather than direct internet connections. I had been connected to those for some time and had taken my computer with me, I guess. So I was in a hotel in Hamburg and then I got a message from my friend Hugh who said, "Old Fuddler, you must come home. Be in touch at least." And so I kind of sent him an email on this CompuServe thing. I agreed that it was nonsense. I had this... In my head this idea that I would go up from Hamburg and Hanover up Schleswig-Holstein, which is the border with Denmark and go up into Denmark. And somehow in the north of Denmark I would sit on a rock in a thick white polovo with a pipe clenched between my teeth, writing impossible poetry and teaching English to Danes and be forgotten, you know, and just live the rest of my life there. I have a total fantasy. But no, Hugh said, "Come on, it's fine. Come home. We really want to see you. Everyone wants to." And so I drove back overnight to Amsterdam and my father had got a flight to Skippo and we met in a hotel in Skippo. And then got a flight, a little airplane back to South End. What did you say to your father that day in Amsterdam when you met him? I said, "You've spent your life getting me out of terrible and embarrassing holes and this is probably the worst at them." And he said, "No, it's fine. It's all okay." And he was just wonderful. I watched a news report of your absence. Really? Yeah, I watched it upstairs before you had this conversation. I think it was maybe BBC News or one of the big stations that were watching that. You were basically missing. Yeah. A big picture of you on the screen and saying that you would, you know, the way that they'd framed it obviously as they said, you did this play. They showed some of the headlines, some of the reviews, and they said, "He's Stephen Frye's vanished." Oh my God. And everyone was very... Because I never saw any of that. I did see a photograph of someone, so many years later, of police on the roof of my house in Norfolk, which was slightly disturbing, looking for signs off me and obviously feeling the worst. Oh, it was a strange event. But in some ways it was a cleansing or a necessary step, I suppose, because as a result of it, I went to see psychiatrists and started to try and work out why my mind was taking me into such impossible dark places.
Manic depression (50:38)
Or, you know, when I had so much to be thankful for, what the hell? You know, I had enough money. I was well regarded in my profession. Why should I come to such a crisis? Just because someone didn't like my performance in that play. Not really good enough. And about that, I had a sensitive. So that started, what I suppose we have to call my journey into my mental health. And a few years later, I can't remember when, well, quite a few years later, probably about eight or nine, if not ten years later, I made a program with the BBC, two episodes, I think it was called The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, in which I tried to explore this peculiarity of this darkness that controud a mind so completely. But also that is part of an illness that I hadn't really understood. I'd heard the phrase "manic depression" and I'd never really heard the word "manic." Manic depression is two illnesses. Depression, which is a dark, depressed, lowered, as in depressed state. And mania is an elevated state of energy and full of balance and vigor and a desire to communicate with people. And depression is the exact opposite. You just want to line, bend, pull the duvet of your head and never speak to anybody. Whereas when you're in a manic state, you're always on the phone, boring people. So there are two poles, and hence it's also known by Pola. There's the one pole of mania, hyper mania, and the other pole of a depressed state. And so I wanted to find out more about it, and that's where I went back to school and discovered that the psychiatrist, when I was a boy, had written by Pola question mark. And I discovered that so many people lived with this problem. And I also discovered something quite extraordinary because I asked everyone I spoke to. I did a little button with my finger. I said, "I'm drawing a button on this table with my finger. If you press this button, you will never get a depressed episode again, one of those awful, terrible, depressed episodes." But nor will you get a manic episode, one of those heightened, elevated, jubilant episodes. Do you want to press the button? And almost none of them wanted to press the button. And it reminded me of the thing that George Auden, the poet, had written them, but don't take my devils away. Or my angels will fly away too. And I don't know whether that's a true thing, but it's a fear that we have inside us. That even an illness like Mania Depression and how serious it can be is part of us and gives us a secret power, gives us something extra. It's dangerous because it is highly, the word doctors use is morbidity. In other words, especially if it's undiagnosed. If you start finding that you're crashing in moods and becoming miserable and everyone's finding your pain in the ass, or you're absolutely wild and full of crazy plans and buying things, going on shopping sprees or being sexually exhibitionist or inappropriate. But people find that even more annoying. And if you don't know that it's actually an illness, then you just mask it with alcohol and narcotics of one kind or another. And they mask it pretty successfully, but they have their own problems, to say the least. And people can then slide down and leave their families. The families can no longer tolerate their substance abuse, for example, and they end up on the streets. And then there's a lot of discovery for them to know that they first have to get off the substances that have been masking the problem, then to face the problem. And it's a really, as we know now, a huge endemic problem, it seems, in our culture and country. Among young people, it's expressed with a rash of self harm that is just so upsetting to see children hurting themselves. And if you ask them why they do it, it's always the same answer, it's to displace the other pain inside them. It's because the pain in there is worse. So you do that to take away from it. And that, for a child, it's just heartbreaking to imagine. Post diagnosis of manic depression. What were you advised to do and what did you do to make life better with the understanding now and the awareness that you had this condition? Well, firstly, I went on a sort of exploratory journey of medication. So can't just try me on a number of things. So the envaporate, which has since become somewhat of a disgraced pharmaceutical, particularly when it's been given to people with various forms of epilepsy. And then lithium, and I was on lithium for quite a number of years. And then slowly I became aware of some of the kind of folk wisdom that has been around in our species for a very long time, but which was initially very irritating. I give an example. There are certain kinds of people who, if they hear someone's depressed, they will go and walk it off. You know, just go for a nice walk. And you think, hang on, this is an illness. Just saying go and walk it off. And yet, once you've confronted it and once you've tried to control it, once you've understood what it is, a chronic condition, i.e. a bit like asthma or diabetes, something that's with you, and that may not go away and may come back again and isn't necessarily under your control. You then do discover that there are therapies in life like exercise, gardening, making music, knitting. I mean, it doesn't almost matter what it is. It is, like as I say, a folk wisdom of taking yourself out of yourself and also believing in the future. It's incredibly important. The first thing I did, I think, that was a breakthrough for me, was that I lost some weight. I mean, I'm always fighting weight, but I was really pretty big back then, and I managed to lose about four stone. Now, it's not that losing four stone is in itself a vast achievement, but it tells me that I can control some part of myself. My physical body is not a rogue that will just do whatever it wants to do. I can say, "No, I'm going to make you a bit sleeker." If I can do that with my body, maybe I can do things in my mind. Maybe I am captain of my soul, master of my destiny, and all of that. So, yes, I started walking every morning when I was in London, around Regent's Park, and listened to audiobooks, just choose all kinds of books that either I hadn't read for years or I'd always meant to read, whether it was Dostoevsky or Agatha Christie. It wasn't about how literature necessarily, it was about just having a story in my head and walking and walking and looking and saying, "Wow, I have seven miles this morning. That's amazing." You feel you're doing something. So, it's really been a slow process of allowing myself, I suppose, to be who I am and not to fight for my place at the table. I suppose I've accepted that through immense good fortune, I am where I am. I don't need to say yes to everything that I'm asked to do. I don't owe it to myself to have to work all the time. And so, I am sometimes capable of saying, "Look into myself in the mirror and saying, 'You're quite happy today, aren't you, Stephen?' And then I'll go, 'No, don't say that. It's the worst thing you could say.' You've got almost 13 million followers on Twitter. What's your relationship with social media? Because, you know, up and down, I'm in Twitter, it really is accessible at the best of times, with creativity and abuse and trolls. So, reflecting on the experience you had when you were 37 with that critical feedback, I mean, Twitter is not a great place to be if you want. No, indeed it isn't. I mean, it is supportive too. I've learned how to use it in a way that is not likely ever to upset me anymore. There was a time when I was fully engaged with it and you call it accessible and I've used similar images in the early days. It was like a lovely swimming hole in a glade, in a lovely wood somewhere, where people of goodwill and from around would swim about and you'd bump into them and go, "Hi, how are you?" and just chat and then suddenly you notice, "Oh, there's a turd floating on there. What the hell is that doing there?" And then suddenly there'd be a bit of broken glass when you put your foot down or an old rusty pram or something and you realize that it'd become, as you say, a kind of sisple.
Your relationship with social media (59:36)
And that's a terrible shame. It's immensely useful to have that many followers because it means, you know, I can satisfy a few publicity requirements with one stroke of the pen as it were just by tweeting about them and it will reach a bigger audience than if I spend four hours doing a profile with a journalist who always want to get under my skin and ask annoying questions. So it's a lazy good publicity tool. I'm slightly worried that I don't know, that I may have to leave it if you know, Musk takes over. I'm not really sure that I want to be involved in his Twitter. It doesn't sound like a nice happy place. I mean, I'll consider I might just simply stop using it in any other way except to post things for charities or work that, you know, but rather than engaging in people, I just, I'm not sure I want to see some of the tweets that float up from the kind of people that Musk encourages. I mean, that I may be wrong it and it's not that I want it to be a left wing thing not a right wing thing I'm fully, of course, aware that it should reflect society as much as possible but, you know what I wanted to do in a sort of ways go on one of those. He appears Morgan do something is it GB news he does or one of those things yes. And I've sort of wants to go now you'll have to hold your ears now. So I was going hello how are you you all can't which looking great to see you can't you can't you can't and him to go to you can't say that. Oh, I thought this was the home of free speech. Is it I thought I thought this is the fucking home counting free speech, but it isn't. Oh, so free speech is negotiable there are bits that you can say and bits that you can. That's that's the point. I mean free speech is of course important but it's not. It's not the end point the end point is human beings living together in peace and harmony and happiness as much as possible without war and violence and envy and resentment and bitterness and or starvation and poverty and all those sort of things that that's the end point and it's probable that that end point is better arrived at if we live in a society where you're free to speak and share ideas and think freely and you're not told what to say. So that's in free speech is very much one of the key things on the way to it. But for some people key speech has become the end point. I want to live in a society where I can say anything. It doesn't matter if people are starving and the gap between which and poor is wider than it's ever been. The only thing that matters is I can say what I want. Well, that's that I just don't think that's what John Stuart Mill and all the original figures who wrote on liberty and free speech I don't think that's quite what they meant and I don't think it's what I see as the the you know the be all and end all but so you know I'm worried that there will be a rise in the kinds of anti you know kind of racist and transphobia and and deep anti feminist on the other side and all kinds of other nastiness will prevail and musk would go yeah that's that's what we call free speech I'm a free speech absolutist he called himself. It is it I mean it is concerning it is concerning generally I've made the decision that I just don't I don't tweet so I just post the podcast when it comes out and that's it because you know it's a losing battle you referred to like pieces of shit floating past in the in the once lovely lake and then a piece of glass and I'll end up having an argument with a piece of shit and I don't wear a piece of glass and I just don't want to. I think the what what I think of is like if at school you're captain of the chess club and you put the team up on the notice board and you pin it up on the notice board and you then go away. What you don't do is put the notice up and then hide behind a pillar and listen to how people respond to you. Oh I see the chip what's you put that up for he said wanker isn't he and all that I mean just put your notice up and walk away yeah and now to the credit you can have settings where one of the settings I have on my Twitter feed is that I can't see any tweets. It's a tweet directed at me from anybody who hasn't got any my address verified hasn't got phone number verified doesn't have a profile picture brilliant so I don't get many tweets because you know filters out a lot of the stuff so my notifications are pretty nice. You know they're pretty straightforward and it's because in the past it has been a distraction I don't want to fall into holes you know and spend hours with my life ways to try to chase down a troll. With this journey of mental health I know you're the president of mind I believe which is a phenomenal charity that everybody everybody probably knows for the work they've done and the important work they've done over the last decade is mental health has risen in public sort of consciousness. One of the things that I think about a lot is how the battles we fight for our entire lives there's sometimes a frustration around our inability to cure ourselves of those things so you know I sit here with people I speak to young people and even in my own life I've come to realize that a lot of my like real deep battles maybe they'll never come a day where they're cured with my traumas these you know the ways that I react to certain thing my triggers maybe they'll never be cured. And as I read through your story even up until ten years ago I could see that you were still having moments of real lows real depressive lows that you know I listened to I think a podcast episode you did where you said when you were 55. So you're I believe your third suicide attempt. Yes Fred that's right yeah you know I think I mean it is in that sense what doctors called chronic like asthma you can you know have an inhaler on you and you should be sort of safe and you know what you're allergic to what triggers an asthma attack. But you never stop being an asthmatic and the day could come when you least expect it when of course it's always the day you've forgotten you're inhaler where suddenly you just get this enormous attack and you can barely breathe and it might have been ten years since you last had such one I'm sure anyone listening who has lived with asthma will know what I mean. And and it's a bit like that with with the you know if you at your peril do you think you've conquered it you're living with it and coping with it and managing it and most of the time one manages it but sometimes you hear it the the you know the hoof beats back in the in your brain of the coming storm and you do everything you can to avoid it and tell friends now I mean that's it's so much easier said than done.
Depressive lows (01:06:06)
I have a theory I couldn't my general war theory is we all say how important friends are gosh we need friends friends the people you can say anything to aren't they actually they're not. If you had a general war. You wouldn't show it to best friend you say oh Tom have a good month. They would go shut up. Similarly would you mother you know to assist. And that's family but you show it to a stranger a doctor. So can you look at this and tell me if it's normal or right they go oh that's fine. And you feel okay so if that's true of some little physical part of yourself it's also true of the mental part of yourself that although you have family and friends who are supposed to be there for you it's actually very difficult even though you know it's the right thing to do to share with them what you're thinking. It's very hard and they'd be upset nearly always when you have a crisis if it gets as far as suicide obviously even more so but then they said why didn't you come and tell me they're actually angry with you. You know I'm there for you. Why didn't you come. Well because I was a general war team my mind does it work and I just feel and you have to try and overcome that but yes I have to be aware it won't necessarily go away. It's the other thing I often say is it's like the weather and the weather is real you know you can't ever say so I'm going out it's not really snowing and it's not a blizzard outside I'm going to wear a t-shirt t-shirt. You have to accept that the weather is real but you also have to accept that you didn't cause it. I didn't make it snow it's and and nor do you have to sort of welter in the problem of thinking well that's it it's knowing that it's going to snow for the rest of my life it's always going to be cold. It will actually pass again nothing to do with you you can't make it pass and it's those are the storms in your head. The mistake is not to think it's real I'm just imagining it no it's really raining in your head it is. What did I do to make it do this you didn't make it right it's not your fault. And oh I'll never go now it will some will come out you don't know when it's not under your control those are three things they're not absolutely hooray but they're just enough if you cling on to them to make you realize sort of what's going on. That it's out of your control that it's real and that it will pass. And what is the minds talked about the hooves of the horse coming is that is there words associated with with those moments is it because you said earlier about what's the point. Yes that is often the one what is the point and it's also just a it's like I mean all of us who had it and I'm sure many people listening will have different you know metaphors and comparisons it's it is like something being sucked out of your sort of energy set of it and that you feel drained and you're convinced your face has gone white and sometimes you look at the mirror and it has gone white there has been a physical response to you utterly white and people who love you and know you will see it in your eyes straight away so it's in my husband will say whoa what's the matter. I'll go I don't know I don't know I'm just going to go and lie down I just don't know he would have seen it instantly and I look at them myself in the mirror and say what is he seeing. It is a common thing and I noticed this during the during the the documentary if you take a magazine and you cover half your face and look at your right eye and then cover the other half and look at your left hand. Or even take a photograph in that way and then look it's amazing how I found people with who've had mental health histories that have not been happy have often have a more extreme difference in their left and right eye. Then if you look at my left and right eye one is rather cold and calculating and one is warmer and friendlier. That's usual with people I think I don't know any empirical science behind it but I did notice that almost everybody I interviewed had an extreme version of that and I don't know what that means or whether it's anyone's ever ever done any research on to it. But there are you know there are signs and signals that come it's you know like some people get I get itchy under the chin when I'm going to have an asthma attack for example. I'm not a good teacher but with with mania which is often worse I mean I interviewed someone who with mania you want to concentrate you want new projects you've got amazing ideas in your head you risk taking an entrepreneurial grandiose. And I interviewed someone in America who I interviewed the wife that the husband sadly did take his own life. So I was talking about life with him and she said it's a terrible thing to say she said but I was always happy when he was depressed and when he was manic. When he's depressed he's just you know lying cull up in a ball obviously I didn't realize he was going to take his life to go that far. But when someone's manic they are just out of control there so embarrassing they would do so weird things she said she said you're laugh but it was awful at the time. He had a car nice car it's like a one of the original mustangs or something and he took it apart piece by piece on a large piece of cloth in his garage as an American would say. And each piece you know the pencil remarker he did a little mark for where that piece goes and he wrote what the name of the piece was so the whole thing and he started chroming all the bright work and making it all perfect and all the engine parts were out. And then he had a change of state and it moved away from this optimistic bright mania and he just kicked the cloth and all the pieces and everything just piled into a heap of junk in the car couldn't be rescued. And there's a sort of metaphor for something there I don't know what it is but she said that's you know that that's the problem. And I've had many I had a manic episode right in the middle of someone's memorial it was quite extraordinary and it frightened me because the power of it was so intense. And I ran home and I called my doctor my psychiatrist Billy. I'm, I have to tell you I've had visions and I feel the closest I can describe it to is like Joan of Arc I feel irradiated by some extraordinary power and light it's the most extraordinary thing and I just don't know what I'm going to do. He said I'm coming right. He came around and he said this is a very dangerous day he'd see me and I had, I had started cooking and I'd started tidying the three different jobs and the cooking thing I'd done a plate with quail zags and it's so hard. It's so elegant around the edge of the plate it was so beautiful. Everything was amazing I said I didn't wave company I have never been happier and more in charge of myself he said no you're not well. You are really not well I can see you he said your eyes are absolutely kind of off the scale and I want you just to take this and he gave me some what was it called. It would come to me and it sort of calms you down it's an antipsychotic essentially I suppose or an anxiolytic or something like that. That was that was one of the more extreme manic moments I had and and actually was pretty frightening because it took me a long time to get down from it and I am the last person in the world to say that they feel like Joan of Arc. I had someone who has had some extraordinary transcendent religious experience but that's how I felt. You've accomplished so many unbelievable things in your career in spite of all of these struggles that we've talked about. The list is actually too long for me to even I wouldn't know where to start as I look down onto this little iPad in front of me and all of the milestones the books the roles you've played the scripts you've written etc. Why why and how why and how you you know it's always a difficult question because it requires us to abandon humility for a second potentially and and say something nice about oneself but why why you. I think the first reason and it would be the same if you spoke to a certain kind of musician is because I write and I have always written since I was a little by I used to write stories and when I then was at Cambridge and there was this thing of comedy. It was natural as with you and on my own to write monologues and sketches to perform and because I'd written them I sort of wrote them for myself to perform but the writing was at the bottom of it all.
Success, Artistry And Defining A Good Life
Why have you been successful (01:15:22)
And then acting jobs on their own came along which I didn't write or other people rose or I could just sort of add bits of writing to but I was always a writer. And if you look at musicians. The reason we venerate Bowie and Elton John and you know let him go and whoever it was they write their music doesn't matter how fantastic their voices are. Yes we love knocking coal or someone who is just a beautiful voice but the pantheon of great artists are those who create their own work by they write it. They write the songs they last forever if you write the song Paul McCartney or whatever you know I mean you just think even something like you see that postcode lottery and that who's that knocking up my door and you think that's Paul McCartney when he wrote that can not have been thinking. But he wrote and every day he writes to this day because it's that's what he is that somehow that's the voice in him telling him that's what real work is is the writing and the creating. And I love acting and I love presenting and reading audiobooks and things like that immense fun but the real work is always sitting in front of the blinking cursor and writing things. And everything else is gravy and fantastic gravy at that. Not because it's easier and I'm not sort of saying acting is easy it's just for some reason in my head you know the Protestant work ethic the Jewish work ethic. And what you like is the one that says you know sitting alone concentrating until bubbles of blood fall come out of your ears that's work acting as Shakespeare called it is play. He was a playwright and he called actors players. And I think we're all artists. This is a really good question and I always used to say no I was very friendly in the heyday well I still am with, for example Damien Hirst in the 90s I was very much an obituary as a grout show club and and and the you know the Tracy Emmons and the Damien Hirst would come in along with the OACs and the Blurs and so on it was very much the place where those incredibly energetic and new kinds of artists were disemble and you know I'd get drunk with Damien a lot. And I would sometimes say I want to be an artist and he'd say you are an artist anybody can be an artist I said no they can't. So what do you mean I said and I would say I'm an entertainer. I'm frankly a bit bourgeois I want to please people. And if I don't please them I get upset. I've done it wrong. For me the aim is to see delight in the face.
Are we all artists? (01:18:15)
But for you it's to make something that matters to you and if it disgusts people or horrifies them you can you're often full of glee. It's not you deliberately make them to hate it. There are enough people who love it to make you extremely rich the time he was only slightly rich but now of course it was a huge amount. And I said that's one of real artists is and my other artist friends not not all from that same generation Maggie Hamming was a wonderful painter in Suffolk and she's done my portraits several times or whatever. There's a real artistry there's a toughness about her a refusal to compromise an absolute what's central is her and her work and that's true of artists artists are bloody minded they bite the hand that feeds them. I'm pretty easy going if I'd you know a commissioner wants me to do something I'll ask him how he'd like it done I'll try and put my own voice into it my own tone into it. I don't have the artistic drive to make it something out of me there's a fantastic confidence and supreme almost contempt for society that artists have. And that's why they're so unpopular with the Daily Mail's and the bourgeois people because they don't please they don't provide what is comfortable or easy and what people would like or pretty or you know it's always oh does it's disgusting a throwing a pot of paint into the public's face that was said 150 years ago. You know it's always been thus and artists are special I think. I mean I like makers or craftsmen, artisans you know that who make beautiful things whether it's shoes or you know Tom Daley knitting a nice product or whatever it might be is a beautiful thing to see but art is to me at least and it may be a part of the kind of education I've had and that has privileged art above all things but art is special to me it has a special place and does special things. Usually very simple and that's the genius of an artist we die we the flesh this case we have dies and rots and we know this and mostly we don't particularly like to be reminded of it artists find it the most fascinating thing in the world. So even if it's Van Gogh with showing the petals falling off the sunflower there's death in there and as for Francis Bacon and indeed Damon Hurst and almost all painters they paint death they paint the truth about what we are becoming and painting is sometimes the last bastion against death I'm going to make something permanent because everything else dies. That's again to Shakespeare's sonnets you know this will last everything else will die but this poem will stay here. I made something permanent against death decay entropy all the horrors of the universe that the drag is done you know my nipples are dropping two inches every year as gravity takes hold and it will for all of us and an art keeps them propped up if you like. I very much I've been going back and forward about this point about art because I've realized as probably as I've got older that expression in some artistic form whether it's knitting that jumper like Tom daily does is so great for our mind. Absolutely. And you know you've talked about a few things there even when you talk about social prescribing just some way to express ourselves through the medium of music or painting or creation seems to be. It seems to be so human and so innately important to all of us. But at the same time I hear what you're saying regarding artists and their conviction to create from their own perspective versus to conform. I guess I guess maybe the difference there is that's a being a great artist. Yes, I think it's true. Yeah, there are there are qualities and degrees spectrum of. I mean there are people have tried to define I mean, an artist and a craftsman can make the same thing again and again identically and it's genius that they know they're making four chairs each chair is the same. An artist never does the same thing again they might have a theme that they do so you know you can get a lot of artists who you know who like to paint a particular subject, whether it's bedding field terriers and famous Scottish artists used to do a Craig E. Hisson, he liked to do little bedding and terriers and he liked there's usually a star somewhere but everyone is different. Everyone is a variation on a theme. Whereas an artist and is happy to make things that are perfect and the same each time a craftsman. But they're both good for the mind. In fact, probably being a craftsman is better for the mind. I remember Ron Atkinson said to me once years ago he's a very wise man and indeed and thinks a lot. Very, very, very thoughtful. And he said, and I'm sure he wasn't the first to say it's and there are many different names for this. He said, but it only ever works on stage if you are relaxed. But it only ever works on stage if you are concentrating. If you concentrate without being relaxed, you're just stiff and you're trying too hard. If you relax without concentrating, you're all over the place. But when both happen at once, you are master of time and space and you are in control. You're concentrating on every detail and every second of the audience's response and your timing is perfect. And yet you are relaxed enough to allow them to enjoy it without feeling any strain. Sportsman called that being in the zone. And it's immensely important to get that blend. And one of the ways to create it is, I think, not to do art because that's just too frightening. But to do crafts. And that can include painting. It could be painting by numbers. It can be just a general sketch where you're not trying to make it art. But once your tongue is stuck out, you've got that concentrated but relaxed on you. And as I say, it could be knitting, carpet making, it could be anything you choose. But something, or a jigsaw even, but something where you've made a change to what was there before. You brought materials together that weren't there before and you've done it in a way that has just given you a... You've listened to the radio or the television's on in the corner or you've got a playlist going and it's a magical thing. - It's a close day. - Yeah. And if anyone's thinking of how they might do that, one of my favourite films is a film called Running On Empty. It's Sydney LeMet film with River Phoenix and Judd Hirsch and those others in it. And it's about this family that are on the run because they attacked a weapons laboratory during the Vietnam War. And unfortunately, there was a security guard in there who got killed, although they tried to do it when it was empty. So they've been on the lamb from the FBI for like 15, 20 years. But that's the backstory. Anyway, it means that they don't have much and they're constantly having to go on the move when the FBI might be close. And the River Phoenix is captured as a musical genius as it happens. Not this relevant to this story. But he meets this girl and they start to fall for each other. And at one point, they're walking along the beach and he's picking things up and says, "Oh, this might do." And she says, "What's that?" And he says, "In our family, for Christmas or birthdays, we're only allowed to give something we've found or made." And I almost wept at how beautiful an idea that was. I know it's obvious we live in a ridiculous, crass commercial world where we score everything by its monetary value. But to say, we're only allowed to give each other things we've found or made. And so he'd found this stone and this piece of wood or whatever, driftwood or whatever it was. He was going to make something out of it. And his parents would be thrilled to have it because you've given them time and concentration. But you've also had the pleasure yourself of doing the making. So maybe someone listening will say to their family, "Hey, Christmas is coming up. We're only allowed to give each other things we've found and made." And especially at the time of, you know, financial crisis, who wants to go into this sick making nonsense of just going into shops and spending vast sums of money that, you know, on shiny things. And when you might just find a piece of driftwood or something that looks like a hedgehog and turn it into a pipe holder or a soap dish. That's all I'm saying. It sounds so cheesy. So it's a really, really beautiful idea and it's very much aligned to the relationship I have with my partners, to be honest. I'm sure everybody knows I have the means to buy whatever. I can't think of a recent Valentine's Day, birthday, just had my birthday, where anything has exceeded the £100 because it's all like scrapbooks and really sentimental personal stuff. So thankfully I'm with someone who wants that and would actually be probably disgusted if I got them a shiny thing. I generally, I've said this before, my partner would be genuinely disgusted if I got a shiny thing or like a designer thing. Like the look I would get, you know. So here's a question. If you're, if you're, if the good life in your own subjective definition of whatever that means, if the good life, your best life was a, I've asked this question, but I'm going to ask a variation of it to you, was a recipe constituting of a bunch of things. Constituting of a bunch of different ingredients. What do you think you need or is missing from that list of ingredients for you to have the dish of a good life? Wow. That's an amazing thought. I mean, there is a part of me that obviously feels, I say obviously, that feels in another world, if I'd timed things right, might have had children and that's an experience that enormous number of people. It's an enormous number of my fellow humans undergo and it clearly gives pleasure. I have many God children. Nieces and nephews and greatnesses and great nephews. And, but I've never experienced that, that a child growing up and, and, and, and that, I mean, it's slight sadness.
What creates a good life for you? (01:28:34)
It's, it allows me fantastic, ironic, sarcastic, in fact, conversations with people sometimes where someone goes, "Oh, this nonsense about global warming, I mean, you know, and I'll go, no, I'm with you. I don't have children either. So I don't care what happens to the world." And they'll go, "Well, no, I've got kids." I say, "Oh, do you hate them then? You hate your children. So you don't want them to have a nice world." "Well, I don't, I mean, yeah, that's fine." And they'll go, "Oh, look, don't be stupid." And I'll get, "Well, I still hate them." Silly off me, but, but it does, yeah, I mean, that's probably the biggest hole in my, in my life experience. I've been fortunate enough to have done so many things and to experience so much and met so many people. I've been thrilled to meet and had opportunities that just, just unbelievable really. And of course I've had opportunities, I suppose to have had children. I mean, I could have sorted something out. I could have, you know, Elliot and I could, you know, we talked about it a bit, but we never, we never talked about it at the extent of right. So we're going to a clinic tomorrow to talk this through to some expert, you know, we never quite got that fight. It was always just, "Yeah, it would be nice, wouldn't it?" And so that's probably the, I mean, otherwise, of course there are regrets in life because as you get to, I'm now from the 25th of August nearly your birthday, I was my birth 24th of August. So from that day onwards, I was closer to 70 than 60. This was my 65th birthday on the 24th of August. So as you move towards the seer, the yellow leaf as Shakespeare put it, oh, so embarrassing. Shakespeare calling saying, "Could you stop quoting me?" Oh, it's my sister, it might be important. Joe, yes, sorry, I'm still at the, oh God, am I late. Oh shit, I am, yes, you're quite right. The driver is saying at the moment, "Worryed about getting you back." The driver is worried about getting me back in time. I understand. Thank you darling. Unless we're having such a good time, I had no idea how the time was passing. Please give my love to Mr Bartlett. Hello, Joe, I can... Joe loves you, Bartlett. You're the Bartlett pair, the juicy Bartlett pair, yeah. Please apologise for me interrupting. I know you see because you're having a nice time, but I felt I should do my duty. You bet. I'm really appreciated. Thanks. I'll text them in the cab on the way there. Gosh, I'm sorry. No worries at all. Listen, Stephen, thank you so much for your time. We do have a closing tradition, just where the last guest asks a question for the next guest. That's right. So I'll just rattle this one off to you. And I absolutely can't read the writing. What is it that motivated you once you... Do you have any idea? He's already had it. What is it that motivated you once you already had it? Oh, do you mean once you've reached a goal, why do you keep at it? You got to the point in your life where you had achieved so much. Most people would be satisfied with retirement and wrapping it all in. What then became your motivation in your life? Honestly, pleasure. The fact that I still enjoyed it so much. When I met new people who wanted me to do a new thing like this dinosaur program, I'm doing dinos, yeah. Doing this new technology, being with the dinosaurs, so exciting. It was just a whole new thing for me. And I'd never done anything like it. And so I just said yes.
Ending: Final Thoughts
Last guest question (01:32:13)
And even though it meant like, "How am I going to get a week to be in that studio and do this and enough stuff and prepare for it?" And so on. Turned out to be a wonderful program and a unique kind of technology demonstrating these dinos. So that is an example. It's just, and similarly, doing this Apple TV show, which I'm doing now in America, called The Morning Show, which is good fun. And just occasion, it's the thrill of the variation. So it's the variation between doing a documentary and then suddenly having to spend four or five months just working on a book. And then doing some slutty piece of TV or film with big stars in it feeling like, "Ooh, I'm in Hollywood." It's not that I'm calling The Morning Show, it's like, because that's the least slutty thing I've ever done. I've actually had the privilege of seeing all of the above other than your upcoming movie, which hasn't been shot yet. But when I saw dinosaurs, it brought me right back to my childhood and watching Jurassic Park with Orr, and as if I was stepping back in time to a place in our history. Thank you so much for your time, Stephen. I really appreciate it. You're someone that would really... Oh, real pleasure. And do I have to leave a question for your next year? If you could, that would be amazing. I'm going to give you the book that I ever see here. Thank you, Stephen. Quick lead from one of our sponsors. I've got a tip for all of you that will make your virtual meeting experiences, I think, ten times better. As some of you may know, by now, BlueJeans by Verizon offers seamless, high-quality video conferencing. But the reason why I use BlueJeans versus other video conferencing tools is because of immersion. Their tools make you feel more connected to the employees or customers you're trying to engage with. And now, they're launching one of their biggest feature enhancements to impact virtual events so far called BlueJeans Studio. I actually used it the other day. I did a virtual event using the studio, which I think about 700 of you came to. TV-level production quality, all done by one person with very little technical experience on a laptop. So if you've got an event coming up and you're thinking about doing it virtually, check out BlueJeans Studio now. Let me know what you think, because I genuinely believe, I know this is an advert and I'm supposed to say this, but I genuinely believe it's the best tool I've seen for doing really immersive, simple but high-quality production virtual events. For many years, people have been asking for a coffee-flavored heel. And quite recently, heel released the iced coffee caramel flavor of their ready-to-drink heels. And I've just become hooked on it over the last couple of weeks. I've been on a really interesting journey with heel, which I've described and talked about a little bit on this podcast. I started with the Berry Ready-to-Drinks that I moved over to the protein-salted caramel because it's 100 calories and it gives you all of your essential vitamins and minerals, but also gives you the 20-odd grams of protein you need. And now, I'm balanced between them both. I drink mostly the banana flavor ready-to-drink. I've got really into the iced coffee caramel flavor of heel's ready-to-drink. And now I'm drinking that as well as the protein. Make sure you try the new ready-to-drink flavors, the caramel flavor is amazing, the new banana flavor as well as amazing. And obviously, as I said, the iced coffee caramel flavor has been a real smash hit, so check it out. Let me know what you think on social media. I see all of your tags on Instagram, posts and tweets about heel.