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THE AFTERNOON PLAY
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Jon Canter
Jon Canter, author of I Love Stephen Fry, shares his inspiration
This play would not have been possible without the participation of Stephen Fry in the role of Stephen Fry. While I was writing, producer Fiona McAlpine was busy worrying, as all good producers should. What if Fry, England's busiest and most popular man, were not available for the recording? Who, she shamelessly asked me, could replace him? Was it possible I could re-write the play as I Love Julian Clary? What about I Love Graham Norton, or Dale Winton (depending on who's available)?

No. It had to be Stephen. This is a play about Jackie, a middle-aged married woman who works in a newsagents in a small town in Suffolk. Her youngest child's about to fly the nest and she faces the prospect of spending the rest of her life with a long-term husband incapable of surprising her. So, in her dreams, she starts an affair with Stephen Fry. He's everything her husband is not: learned, metropolitan, eloquent, famous and gay. The affair gets out of hand when her daughter meets Stephen Fry for real, in a Norwich curry house, and blurts out that her mother's in love with him.

So. Why couldn't Jackie's daughter meet Clary, Norton or Winton in that curry house? It's crucial to the comic situation that Jackie falls in love with a gay celebrity. By definition, he's not once but twice out of reach; his fame and his sexuality are a double whammy. But what draws Jackie to Stephen is neither his celebrity nor his sexual elusiveness but his brainpower. She's a bright woman who left school, got pregnant and married and never fulfilled herself intellectually. So her fantasy man is someone with captivating intelligence and perspicacity. Sorry, Dale - you're a lovely bloke but you're just not right, mate.

I've known Stephen for 20 years, on and on, on and off, and sometimes off and off. I was script editor on two series of A Bit Of Fry and Laurie. A script editor's job on a show like that is to question the structure, length and funniness of the scripts. But since the scripts were written by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, my question was more often than not: "How do you want your coffee?"

He is now, unquestionably, a national treasure. You expect to be handed a brochure about him when you enter his house. His voice, in particular, is imprinted on the national psyche.To a generation of children (and their parents), he's Stephen "Harry, Ron and Hermione" Fry. I've always wanted to write something for that voice, something far from Hogwarts, that explored some of the pains and pleasures of that degree of fame.

Two other things triggered this play. First, a woman in a nearby village told my wife that whenever she tried to have sexual fantasies about famous men - Brad Pitt, say - the famous man always ended up having her husband's head. Even in her fantasies, her husband's head stalked her. Brilliant. There was no way I wasn't going to steal that.

Secondly, I fell in love myself. With a film. It was Being John Malkovich, directed by Spike Jonze from a sublime script by Charlie Kaufman about a down-on-his-luck puppeteer who happens upon a portal that leads inside the brain of the eponymous film star. If you haven't seen it already, I envy you. What I took from it was the idea - no, the delusion - that these days we all know so much about famous people that we feel we can get inside their heads.

I Love Stephen Fry is more about the difficulties of a 29-year marriage than it is about Stephen Fry. (Thank goodness, Lesley Sharp and Phil Davis were available to play Jackie and her husband.) Jackie looks to Stephen to solve the problems of her life and, this being a comedy, he sort of does. But does she know him? Does anyone know him? Does he know himself? Why are you asking me?

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