Oh golly gosh!
The night Britain's favourite celebrity got arrested in Swindon...
If you watched the 2013 BAFTA Awards ceremony hosted by Stephen Fry, you may have heard him jokingly allude to 'a magistrate that gave me one final chance' - well, it's a true story... and here it is.
It’s fair to say that the man who suffers from a bipolar disorder and presented a TV programme about his condition called The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive led a predictably tempestuous youth.
Expelled from two schools, he attempted suicide when he was 16, and after leaving Norfolk College of Arts and Technology went on a spending spree fuelled by credit cards stolen from a family friend.
As he later told The New York Times, on obtaining the credit cards “I said to myself, ‘What ho!’” and “for the next three months I went ape.”
Fry’s eventual arrest in Swindon is recalled in detail in his autobiographical 1997 book, Moab is My Washpot.
He used the stolen card to stay at a string of hotels, before the journey brought him to Wiltshire.
“There was a grand looking hotel in Swindon, calling itself, I think, The Wiltshire… Four stars I counted on its marque: four stars was not more than I expected as my due from life.”
He gave the porter a 50p tip after checking into his room, and then left to buy himself a pair of shoes, calling into a jeweller’s shop and running off with an Ingersoll watch before returning to his room.
Back at the hotel, he recalls: “I picked up my key from the reception desk and bounced cheerfully up the stairs. I may be 18, I conceded, but that did not mean I was in need of electric lifts. There was spring in me yet.
“I unlatched the door and was surprised to see that there was a man in my room.
“’It’s all right,’ I said, as I entered. ‘If you can come back and clean later? I’ll leave the room free for you in about an hour.’
“Another man appeared, stepping sideways out of the bathroom. Two men in my room. Both wearing grey suits.
“’Mrs Bridges?’ said the first.
“’Mr Edward Bridges?’
“God, how stupid can a man be? It never for a minute crossed my mind, until they revealed themselves, that they were anything other than strangely dressed and gendered chambermaids.
“’We are police officers, sir. We have reason to believe that you have been using a stolen credit card.’”
Fry was handcuffed but asked to put his hand in the policeman’s pocket to spare the hotel any embarrassment.
“The sight of a criminal youth being led away in handcuffs was no kind of happy advertisement for the Wlitshire Hotel, Swindon. Cuffed together then, each of us with a hand in his left pocket, the two of us, followed by the silent other who carried my suitcase, descended the stairs…
“I expected to be pushed into a waiting police car, but no, we walked on and soon I saw the reason why. Directly opposite the hotel doors, not 30 yards away, was a huge building with a blue sign. WILTSHIRE CONSTABULARY.
'I hope I get special consideration,’ I said, ‘for being easy on the legwork’…
'Special consideraton for being such a prannett as to commit a crime within sight of a police station?’ said the policeman.”
It turned out that the “tatty” shoes that Fry decided to replace had given him away, an alert receptionist thinking that they looked like “a tramp’s shoes”. She phoned the credit card company to discover the card was stolen, so phoned the police.
Fry’s humiliation was far from complete. During questioning at the police station, he was trying to conceal his identity, but fell to a sucker punch when a policeman popped his head around the door.
’Oh, Stephen, one thing I forgot to ask…
’Aha! So it is Stephen, then?'
Fry compared this with the classic scene from The Great Escape when Gordon Jackson gives away his identity at a railway station. And there was to be no escape for Fry, either.
He spent the night in the cells at Swindon police station and appeared before local magistrates the next morning, when he was remanded in custody and taken in a van to Pucklechurch near Bristol, a remand prison for young offenders.
He later returned to Swindon twice – once to plea and finally to stand trial, where he was put on probation, his time on remand having been deemed a sufficient custodial sentence.
Those three months at Pucklechurch must have provided him with time to think about his future, and his life turned around completely on release.
There he joined the Cambridge Footlights, a drama society that has produced many of Britain’s greatest comic actors, and even represented his college on University Challenge.
There has been no stopping the rise and rise of Stephen Fry since, with Swindon playing a key – if bizarre – role in his illustrious career.
|Stephen Fry - official website|