Stephen Fry’s Hippopotamus

Fry is a comic genius, although his comedy is always tinged with darkness. Erudite, witty and (dare I say it) profound, this upper middle class Englishman certainly appeals to others who share his background.  But I would imagine his wit is appreciated by a far wider audience.

Few things in life bring me laughter these days but Fry’s work is a welcome exception. I watched the recent film of Hippopotamus last night and I laughed out loud.

Netflix is so full of dark, satanic crime and this gentle, humorous work made me realize (once again) that we are what we consume.  If alcohol brings depression we have only ourselves to blame.  No-one forces its pernicious influence on us.  Likewise, if Wallander makes you gloomy, switch over to the Hippopotamus.

Burnt out, louche poet and theater critic Ted Wallace visits friends at Swafford Hall, at the behest of his goddaughter, to verify the healing miracles apparently being performed there.

Ted is a bit of a pig, never mid hippo. Over the hill, irascible and drunk he serves as a sober reminder of what we could so easily become.  He is hilariously rude to all and sundry.  The original grumpy old man on a steep descent to the hereafter.

Swafford Hall and its inhabitants are all too familiar, it is all so quintessentially English.  Though I avoid such places like the plague these days, it took me back to a time long ago when I imagined such invitations were worth seeking.  Callow and foolish youth.

It’s mostly fun all the way through.  Filthy vulgar fun. Well that’s Stephen Fry for you, god bless him. A joy to watch or read.

And yet there are elements here which give one pause for thought. Pause for more serious reflection. Ted is a man who feels the cynicism so many of us come to share. Poetry is hard work, not joyful and creative inspiration. His foolish young nephew has yet to be disabused.

Ted has lost his way, his early promise. He has writers’ block; no poem has come from his pen in decades and he feels it. Life has caught up with him and he drinks to come to terms with it. He can’t stand humbug and crass fools.  He stands up in the theater in front of the entire audience and tells the cast their play is crap.

The miracle he is sent to investigate turns out to be spectacularly and hilariously un-supernatural.

The book humorously parodies one of our greatest failings, or perhaps weaknesses. The desire for miracles.  The desire for magic, for superhuman powers. For gods and prophets, for cures and mysticism. For salvation, if only from  mundanity  and the sheer boredom of base reality.

And yet, unlike with many of Fry’s works, there is redemption. The gut wrenching realization of the “cured” that they are not, is balanced by a beautiful poignancy.  The girl who sent Ted on his mission dies from her leukemia and yet her very demise seems to have saved our Ted.  Her death is sad; so is the denial of the miraculous.

But Ted’s muse has returned. He takes up his pen and writes the first poem in decades.  Life is sad – if you let it be. But death is only death and those of us who are not there yet may as well rejoice in our creativity while we still have the chance.

Perhaps the miracle is that we ever lived.

 

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