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4 June 2024

Stephen Fry’s cynical contempt for private members’ clubs

He is a part of the MCC he claims to despise.

By Kara Kennedy

Whenever Stephen Fry is in the news, denouncing the centuries-old, expensive institutions that he frequents, I ask myself: who is this for? Is Stephen Fry’s fanbase really expecting the actor to cut ties with everyone he knows and spend his remaining years in comfortable retirement? Does Stephen Fry know that it’s 2024, and we’re a few years past needing to cancel every bakery and bar that doesn’t operate solely in the name of racial justice? 

At the weekend, it was Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC)’s turn. Fry, who is the former president of the MCC, has said the 237-year-old club “stinks” of privilege. He added of his former stomping ground: “It has a public face that is deeply disturbing, sort of beetroot-coloured gentlemen in yellow-and-orange blazers sitting in this space in front of the Long Room and looking as if they’d come out of an Edwardian cartoon.” He isn’t wrong. Any club with a near-30-year waiting list to join, or a £45,000 fast-track to become an “associate member”, is likely to be full of tossers. But the problem with Fry’s condemnation is its desperation: he has paid for membership and partied in these institutions for years. It seems his objection is not about their nature: stuffy, exclusionary, male. Instead, it seems straightforwardly cynical – a shallow bid to appear in lockstep with contemporary mores.

Like most of the self-hating rich with a public platform, all Fry had to do was nothing. The situation is not unlike when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the self-identifying democratic socialist, in 2021 wore a dress emblazoned with the slogan “Tax the rich” to the then $35,000-per-ticket Met Gala. It is unclear whether she managed to move the needle on public attitudes to tax policy; but she certainly drew attention to the cost of the ticket, the custom designer dress, and her attendance at one of the most elite and exclusive social events in the calendar.

When Amelia Gentleman published the Garrick Club’s men-only members’ list in the Guardian earlier this year, Fry’s name was barely noticeable, tucked away with other actors such as Brian Cox, Matthew Macfadyen, Hugh Bonneville, Hugh Laurie, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Suchet and Damian Lewis. All he had to do was sit tight, keep schtum and ride the storm. After all, it wasn’t him anybody was after. There were bigger fish to fry — the head of the civil service, Simon Case, the Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden, The King, for goodness’s sake. Instead, in a frantic and sloppy attempt to look like the good guy, Fry, along with Sting, kicked up a fuss. They told the Garrick: “Admit women or we quit.” The internet rejoiced in shared contempt: the only thing less likeable than a private-members-club-frequenting-bore is a grandstanding member of the cosmopolitan elite.

The troubling question – why now? – remains. Does Stephen Fry have amnesia? Surely in his time at MCC, with the “beetroot-coloured gentlemen in yellow-and-orange blazers” he was among them, blazer and all? He frequents other, similar spots. Fry has reportedly spent many stimulating nights at the Savile Club, a Mayfair gentlemen’s club founded in 1868. Another of his haunts is the Groucho Club in Soho, the private members’ club for media and publishing types – which does accept women. He’s even implemented rules at the latter: no mobile phones and no wearing of string vests, which he called “fully unacceptable” because “there is enough distress in the world already”.

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It may be that Stephen Fry’s social-justice shtick is all for show. Just last year, while he was president of the MCC, the actor was accused by another member of telling an off-colour joke during a speech. Fry apparently opened with: “I had intended to say ‘good evening, ladies and gentlemen’, but there are no lady members present. I suppose they are off shagging.” He and another MCC executive disputed this account, claiming it was misheard. Nonetheless, Fry will need to watch his step. Whatever the reason for such an alleged change of tone, if he isn’t careful there soon won’t be any members-only clubs left to make jokes in.

[See also: The real reason Rishi Sunak’s national service plan is unhinged]

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