Stephen Fry's documentary about gay life across the globe is unexpectedly absorbing

It was his stay in St Petersburg that touched and horrified most. The reedy young activists he met were so brave – they made me think of silver birch trees in a violent ice storm – and we got a frighteningly authentic whiff of the prevailing atmosphere.

Stephen Fry: Out There
BBC2

I didn’t have high hopes for Stephen Fry’s two-part documentary about gay life across the globe. There’s some part of Fry that I can’t ever quite warm to and when, early in the first film (14 October, 9pm), he went off to see Elton John and David Furnish – cue the loud crunch of tyres on sweeping gravel – my heart sank.

It may well be true that, for Fry, Elton’s decision to come out was a “game-changing moment” but I can’t believe it was for many. Elton is another person to whom it’s rather hard to warm, for all his “bravery”, for all his fundraising white-tie balls. The clue to some of my distaste on this score lies, I think, in the words “white tie”. What do Elton and Furnish represent in our culture? The word that floats unbidden into my mind is “excess”. So kill me! I’m a puritan at heart – though not, I hasten to add, a sexual one.

After this, however, things picked up. The films were moving, absorbing and often blackly funny, and all praise to Fry, who managed to stay calm during several encounters that would have left me punching the walls. In Uganda, a country where politicians still hope to legislate against homosexuality, Fry enjoyed a bizarre conversation with a pastor who muttered darkly about carrots.

“Oh, gracious!” said Fry, mildly.

“You’re not using your penis the way you should use it!” continued the pastor, upping his game. “But I’m not interested in anuses and penises,” Fry said. He then listed his preferred sexual practices, none of which involved penetration. From the tone of his voice, he might as well have been reading aloud from the menu at the Garrick Club.

Next, to the US, the home of “reparative therapy”, which seeks to “cure” gay men of their urges. In Los Angeles, Fry met Joseph Nicolosi, the psychologist who is one of the technique’s leading lights and who believes that homosexuality is the result of childhood trauma. For a while, they batted the arguments (I use the word loosely when it comes to Nicolosi) back and forth. It was all a bit desultory, and I was worried; Fry seemed to be losing heart. But then a coy look moved over his face. Taking in Nicolosi’s tanned visage, carefully trimmed beard and surprisingly dark hair, he told the good clinician that his appearance was distinctly metrosexual: he could very easily pass for a gay man. Nicolosi, silent now, looked stunned; his mouth actually fell open a little. Goal!

I’m joking around, but in fact Nicolosi’s “therapies” are at best cruel and at worst dangerous. Fry’s second film (16 October, 9pm) ventured into more upsetting territory: in Brazil, a gay person is murdered every 36 hours; in Russia, it is illegal to “promote” homosexuality, a law that has far-reaching and monstrous consequences for the parents and children of gay people (who are “promoting” homosexuality by being alive); in India, the hijras (men who, broadly speaking, identify as women) are forced to live on the outer margins of society. Fry proved a kind and thorough reporter on these matters – though I wish he had not cried so often, which I found self-indulgent.

It was his stay in St Petersburg that touched and horrified most. The reedy young activists he met were so brave – they made me think of silver birch trees in a violent ice storm – and we got a frighteningly authentic whiff of the prevailing atmosphere.

In Russia, nationalism has brought with it religious zealotry, incense seeping into the crevices of the political life, noxious as gas. Fry was granted an audience with Vitaly Milonov, a politician who has suggested that gay athletes could be arrested at next year’s Sochi Olympics. They spoke for some minutes. Milonov is training to be a priest, and kept going on about angels.

“How do you sleep at night?” asked Fry, exasperated. “I can sleep after I pray,” Milonov replied. Fry’s references to St Petersburg’s glorious past – he mentioned Tchaikovsky and Diaghilev, both of them gay – fell on deaf ears, which was hardly surprising.

I looked at Milonov, blunt as an old penknife, and tried to conjure his hinterland. I could see him lighting candles in an oniondomed church and I could see him rocking out to Deep Purple or Smokie (of Bradford, who are huge in Russia) as he drove home through snow-streaked boulevards. But I could no more picture this unthinking homunculus at the ballet than I could imagine him striding across the room and kissing Fry tenderly goodbye.

Stephen Fry outside the city parliament in St Petersburg, Russia. Image: Getty

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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