“TIME hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
A great-sized monster of ingratitudes!”
Stephen Fry & Hugh Laurie collapsed in the rehearsal room for the 1981 Cambridge Footlights show, unfeasibly long legs asplayed, and groaned as one. The dark 24-year old English scholar and fair 22-year-old oarsman knew they were doomed, finished, fucked – the 1980s had arrived, kicking as well as screaming, and what kind of life form left standing on the face of the planet Earth gave the tiniest frig about the Cambridge Footlights' latest show? They were privileged throwbacks, suggested Hugh, lighting an outrageously high-tar cigarette. Outdated milksops, agreed Stephen, halfway through his twelfth of the afternoon. Pointless knobs, offered Hugh – which it was agreed seemed to be putting it a bit strong.
The pine-panelled dungeon which passed for a Footlights base under the Laurie regime was as far removed from the fishy opulence of the Petty Cury clubroom where Peter Cook, John Cleese, Graeme Garden et al played as this young bunch could fathom. “There were pictures of them on the wall in the clubroom,” Stephen recalls, “all in duffel coats, and that classic sort of sixties student look … It was very interesting, that whole sense of a connection, of the continuity of the Footlights all the way through. And of course, you believe when you’re there that it’s over.”
“Those were the glory days, and we’re just an embarrassment,” Fry & Laurie agreed, as fresh-faced Goodies and a sneering Wisty gazed down at them, obstinately monochromatic and unreachable. Of course, Emma was clearly destined for showbiz greatness from the second she was born, and young Tony Slattery might have a chance, but Britain did not need a couple of unnecessarily tall spindly public school boys to tickle its massed funny bones, no matter how base, how bizarre, how smart and how deliciously phrased their jokes may be. Nonetheless they would press on, and then flee to academia and the Hong Kong Police, as planned.
“Let’s press on, and go back to ‘TIME!’” suggested Jan Ravens, the director of the show that had already been written off as The Cellar Tapes. And so they pressed on.
A decade and a half later, David Mitchell & Robert Webb collapsed in the rehearsal room of their own Cambridge Footlights show, and groaned as one. They were doomed, finished, fucked. Charlotte was clearly destined for showbiz greatness from the second she was born, and young John Oliver might have a chance, but was the 21st century really going to give a couple of Footlighters like them a chance in comedy?
In the 1990s, the club had even poorer resources than ever, but there was one speck of its intimidatingly glorious past still showing: a torn old poster for The Cellar Tapes, the first and last Footlights show to win the Edinburgh Fringe award, the highest accolade in comedy.
“Those were the glory days, and we’re just an embarrassment,” the pair agreed. But they pressed on.
UNSEEN ABOF&L MATERIAL
STEPHEN AND HUGH ARE PART OF A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THEMSELVES.
STEPHEN: I remember when I met Hugh, I thought, "Wow! Like, this guy is seriously deranged. This is psychopathy taken to – what? – the nth like degree." He was really into this punting on the river and wearing blazers.
HUGH: See, like the thing about Stephen at Cambridge, was like, he was this animal, you know? I met him when he was writing an essay on George Eliot's Middlemarch and I thought, this is weird, like weird-weird, you see what I'm saying?
STEPHEN: I mean the way he like spread butter on crumpets and poured a glass of Pimms. It just said "freak". Who is this guy? I don't want him near me. This is like angst in your pangst. Like look out Brother Karamazov and look out Kafka, this guy – just in the way he pays for a May Ball ticket – it's dangerous. Too dangerous. Is he for real?
HUGH: There was this whole existential anti-karma about his anger, his like TOTAL rage when he was busted for stepping out of line. I remember the senior tutor fined him for leaving a champagne bottle on the steps outside his rooms and he like literally he turned, on a sixpence, into this screwed up ball of like street fury.
STEPHEN: So much frigging pain, you know?
VOICE: (OFF) Do you like him?
STEPHEN: Like him? He's an event. He's a system, a force, a pathological state. I hate the bastard.
HUGH: I love him. Love him like you love a pizza. Hate. I hate him.
STEPHEN: I was born in 1917 and my grandmother, whom I remember as clearly as if it were yesterday, was born in 1848. Wonderful lady she was. Her advice to me was, "Remember this Rose," she would say, "all men masturbate. All of them. Without exception." I've never forgotten that. And now when I look at the Cabinet or some of those weathermen, I don't feel so queasy.
HUGH: I was expelled from my school for bad behaviour. What kind of lesson is that for later life, eh? Then a couple of years ago, I was banged up in Parkhurst. They let me out of there for good behaviour. I mean, where's the consistency? Our schools are teaching kids that they can be let out of school for bad behaviour, our prisons are teaching something else. Crazy. Now, give us that camera or I'll slice your neck open.