Monday, August 20, 2007

Interviewing Stephen Fry

I should really have written this to you before or at least during BBC4's Stephen Fry Weekend but watching it reminded me. When I interviewed Stephen Fry for Radio Times about two years ago, everybody at the magazine treated me as if it were my very first interview with anyone. And here's the thing: so did I. 

Once a group of us counted how many words we'd actually had published: I can't remember theirs or how exactly we were able to work it out, but mine was closing in on a million and this would've been in the early 1990s. So I'm not inexperienced. And RT knows that well, I've had a lot of praise from editors on that over the years and I have written some good, strong pieces. But I suppose this was Stephen Fry.

And I suppose you don't often get to interview people you admire; I can only think of three people now. Dar Williams was a treat, I liked her even more after interviewing her. Trevor Eve, not so much. Well, actually so much that I'm surprised to say I ever did admire him. Maybe I just admired Shoestring.

And Stephen Fry.

Well, actually, I also interviewed Alan Plater in the mid-1980s and he was and remains a favourite writer but he's also a pal now so I kind of forget I ever did that. And you, plainly, when we've spoken I've been a bit tongue-tied but I've hid it well, I think, and I won't embarrass you by singling you out now.

Lots of people at RT told me I'd be okay, it'd be fine. One man said the trick to interviewing Stephen Fry was to ask a question and hit record on your tape. When the tape runs out, thank him and go. Not to nip ahead too far here, but that was pretty close to what happened: the man can spew. So can I, for that matter, but I don't sound like I had six weeks notice of your question and had researched it: his answers were all very fast but very considered and, to be honest, probably stronger than the questions really warranted.

I was asking him something about smart TV: he'd just been voted the cleverest man on the telly by readers of poll and my questions had to fall into two types: 1) how does that feel? 2) er, what else can I ask about and still stay on the topic?

Oh! I forgot this bit, seriously it's only just come back to me: I specifically was ordered not to ask that first part until the very end. It was thought, it was feared, that he'd be either too modest or just too unhappy with the poll to talk very much. And in the end he was extremely modest, very self-effacing and yet able to convey exactly the but-it's-really-nice that made me feel I was doing good.  But it meant I had to build up to that and I know we talked about what you might call smart TV, and what you'd definitely called dumbed-down TV. 

And I think I might as well have been on my first interview. I swear to you that it was because his answers were so good that I let him talk and talk but when I play back the tape it sounds like I'm simpering. And when I did interrupt him to steer the conversation somewhere else, my memory was that he'd said "Please do" (or something) and that it was the first time this had really become a conversation. But, again, listening back, he says "Please do" and it's more like thank-God-he's-asked-a-question-at-last. There's a chance I'm projecting.

Similarly, there was a point where he was making an analogy between dumbed-down television and health & safety rules. "Got to stop you there," I said. "My wife is a health and safety inspector." (Which she is, except when she's teaching jewellery-making. Have a look at her jewellery site.) And if you'd asked me ten minutes later, I'd have told you I just made Stephen Fry do an about-face on a topic.

Ask me the next morning, again after the tape, and no. He was slightly more complimentary to HSE but basically carried on precisely the same line: that companies use health and safety as an excuse for the most ridiculous things. I can't disagree, I don't want to disagree: remember all that stuff about HSE banning conkers in schools? Utter nonsense: the head of the school did it and blamed HSE. 

He said in one part of this BBC4 weekend that he's at pains to make people like him, that he goes to probably unhealthy and definitely unnecessary lengths to win you over. I was won when we nattered about iPods before starting the interview and much later when we were at his RT photo shoot, he gave me an including kind of look. I can't fault the man, I do like him, I continue to admire his writing just as much as I ever did.

But I can't see him without thinking I did a poor job and being very disappointed in myself. I did a rubbish job with Dar Williams for that matter: I think the interviews with her went well and I really enjoyed them but I never found the spine for the feature that followed so it reads a bit wet.  I've done a phone interview with Hugh Laurie too. He thought I was an idiot but was far too polite to say so.

So, conclusion 1: I should practice my interviewing more. When are you available? And conclusion 2: never listen to the bloody tape afterwards.


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