Thursday, June 13, 2024

‘Stephen Fry’s a disgrace. He enjoyed the perks then bit the hand that fed.’ As comedian apologises for calling cricket club members ‘beetroot-coloured’, BARBARA DAVIES reveals they’re being begged to accept his apology – but are in no mood to forgive…

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On an English summer’s day, there are few more pleasant places to be than Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, listening to the gentle thwack of leather on willow.

‘There is nowhere else on the surface of the planet that is better to be than here, now, today,’ declared actor, writer and cricket devotee Stephen Fry. He was speaking in 2013, just two years after securing himself a coveted membership of Marylebone Cricket Club.

Fast forward a decade and the 66-year-old former QI host appeared rather less enamoured with the world’s most famous cricket club when he spoke to crowds at Hay Literature Festival last month, claiming that the 237-year-old MCC ‘has a public face that is deeply disturbing, sort of, beetroot-coloured gentlemen in yellow and orange blazers’ and ‘looking as if they’d come out of an Edwardian cartoon’.

Privately-educated Cambridge graduate Fry went on to criticise the club for ‘stinking of privilege and classism’, a somewhat incongruous outburst given his own background, not to mention his year-long tenure as MCC president which only ended last autumn.

Stephen Fry at Lord’s Cricket Ground in 222, when he had just become president of the Marylebone Cricket Club

Cue a collective howl of outrage from the club’s hallowed grounds in St John’s Wood, not to mention demands from some aghast members the actor must be disciplined for bringing into disrepute their beloved institution, which was founded in 1787 and to this day is the arbiter of cricketing rules around the world.

For while Fry has been furiously back-pedalling last week, asking for forgiveness for being a ‘complete clot’ and failing to keep ‘my big mouth shut’, this ungentlemanly row at the ‘home of cricket’, dubbed ‘Frygate’ within club circles, is growing apace.

Rule 6.1 of the club’s constitution states that members must respect and support each other. Failure to do so or inappropriate behaviour or language is considered a breach of the rules and renders a member liable to suspension or expulsion. 

Stephen Fry, when he was MCC President, in June last year, during a test match at Lord's

Stephen Fry, when he was MCC President, in June last year, during a test match at Lord’s

The comedian and actor greets Prince William and George during day four of the second Ashes test match at Lord's last year

The comedian and actor greets Prince William and George during day four of the second Ashes test match at Lord’s last year

Stephen Fry, the Prince of Wales and Prince George watch the action during the test match

Stephen Fry, the Prince of Wales and Prince George watch the action during the test match

But MCC members who have formally complained about Fry’s behaviour have been contacted by chief executive, Guy Lavender, and asked, via an email shown to the Daily Mail, to accept Fry’s apology.

‘It is clear to me that Stephen regrets his comments and in particular the negative press coverage that MCC has received as a result,’ wrote former army officer Mr Lavender, who spent 18 years in the Parachute Regiment and left as a Lieutenant Colonel.

‘I have accepted his apology personally. I hope that you may find yourself able to do so too.’

As one disgruntled member told me: ‘They’re trying to avoid a nasty disciplinary process by getting people to withdraw their complaints. It’s outrageous, particularly given that complaints are meant to be anonymous.

‘Stephen Fry is a disgrace and should be suspended if he doesn’t do the honourable thing and resign. How two-faced can you be? He became MCC president and enjoyed all the perks and honours of that job and then goes and bites the hand that fed him so well for a year. Members are sick of his hypocrisy. The club’s online message boards are on fire with outrage.’

Apologising profusely by email this week ‘for my stupidity’, Fry said that what had come across as criticism of the club was meant to be ‘the exact opposite’ and that ‘I didn’t really get time to make the case for the club as clearly as I should have’.

He added: ‘Please be assured that I love, honour, value, respect and admire this wonderful club of ours. I am proud to think of all it does for cricket and I curse myself for the recent flurry of attention I have caused.’

One who knows him told me: ‘He’s fundamentally a very good person but he is very self-conscious about his privileged background and sometimes doesn’t think before speaking. He’s very sorry about what he said at Hay.’

An MCC member in the club's traditional yellow and red stripes (pictured at Lord's in August 2022)

An MCC member in the club’s traditional yellow and red stripes (pictured at Lord’s in August 2022)

Legendary cricket commentator Henry Blofeld, who has been an MCC member for 60 years, added his well-known voice to the melee this week, saying: ‘I am very unhappy that last year’s president wants to virtue signal in this way. Is this bit about “beetroot complexion” what he really believes or is just about him? 

‘He must be careful when the the port decanter next lands in front of him. I always thought it was the job of the president, past, present and future, to bring the club together, not to drive a wedge into the membership.’

But even before he was handed the year-long presidency in 2022, Fry was trying out his chosen leitmotif on members of the £667-a-year club which currently has a waiting list of 29 years for full membership.

Invited in 2021 to deliver MCC’s annual Spirit of Cricket lecture, held in honour of late Kent and England cricketer Colin Cowdrey, Fry opened his hour-long speech by asking: ‘Do we need another ageing white male from the heart of the establishment to lecture us in plummy tones on the spirit of cricket? I very seriously considered, despite the honour and the already printed invitations, recusing myself from this gig and dashing this poisoned chalice from my lips.’

The ‘awkward truth’, he added, was that ‘I come from exactly the cultural and social pool whose embarrassing legacy cricket, especially cricket in this country, most needs to shake off’.

He said that ‘while it would be grotesquely slimy for me to apologise for the circumstances of my birth, ethnicity and education, it is just as slimy and grotesque not to recognise how relatively easy it has been for people like me to acquire and afford membership of this club.’

Given this verbal self-flagellation, the wonder is that Fry later accepted the ‘truly humbling’ offer to become MCC president.

Stephen Fry speaks before the start of day two of the second Ashes test match at Lord's in June last year, wearing a bow and tie in the traditional MCC colours

Stephen Fry speaks before the start of day two of the second Ashes test match at Lord’s in June last year, wearing a bow and tie in the traditional MCC colours

The former president has come under fire for his controversial comments made at the Hay Literary Festival

The former president has come under fire for his controversial comments made at the Hay Literary Festival

But his appointment, as successor to Claire Connor, the former England cricket captain who was the club’s first ever female president, came amid the ongoing fall-out of the racism scandal at Yorkshire County Cricket Club in 2020.

‘There are plenty of boils on the body of cricket,’ he declared during his Cowdrey Lecture back in November 2021. ‘And when, as in the Yorkshire case, they erupt and burst their noxious matter over the front pages it behoves us all to make a huge effort to understand what is going on, what it means and how it can be addressed.’

Fry’s celebrity status, along with his message that ‘meaningful structural change can happen’ clearly made him appear an ideal choice for the presidential role.

Announcing his appointment six months later, in May 2022, Connor, who is now deputy chief executive of England and Wales Cricket Board, said his lecture had ‘showed the extent to which he understands the challenges and opportunities that both MCC and cricket face’.

She added: ‘He has a deep love and care for cricket and will be a wonderful ambassador for MCC.’

Fry, who took up the presidential reins in October 2023, clearly had enthusiasm for the job.

Despite having a ‘loathing for sport’ since childhood, his love of cricket was born on the genteel Buckinghamshire lawn of Sir Oliver Popplewell, former judge and ex-MCC president, where Fry used to play the game as a child.

Lady Popplewell gave Fry his first P. G. Wodehouse novel which further engendered his love of the game.

A flag flies above the home dressing room in the MCC pavillion before a test match between England and Ireland at Lord's Cricket Ground

A flag flies above the home dressing room in the MCC pavillion before a test match between England and Ireland at Lord’s Cricket Ground

Lord's Cricket Ground in London is owned by the Marylebone Cricket Club and known as the 'Home of Cricket'

Lord’s Cricket Ground in London is owned by the Marylebone Cricket Club and known as the ‘Home of Cricket’

His first hero was South African Mike Procter ‘because my prep school was in Gloucestershire and so we’d go and see him playing’.

At Uppingham, the public school he later attended in Rutland, his love of the game burgeoned despite the fact that he was, by his own admission, ‘a talentless non-player’.

Membership of the MCC is notoriously hard to come by. Those on the never-ending wait list are said to eagerly scan newspaper obituary pages for news of lately departed members.

Members pay an ‘entrance fee’ of around £1,250 when they first become members. In 2020, to help make up £30m in lost revenue due to Covid, the MCC offered life membership packages enabling those on the waiting list to jump the queue. Among those who took advantage of the offer was then Home Secretary Priti Patel who paid £45,000 for hers. 

Past luminaries include Prince Philip, billionaire philanthropist Sir Paul Getty and playwright Sir Harold Pinter. Current members include the King who has been a member since 1975, Mick Jagger, former PMs Sir John Major and Theresa May and lyricist Sir Tim Rice.

Membership brings the guarantee of a seat at matches and access to the Pavilion, affectionally known as the ‘Pavvy’ and its historic Long Room, which is furnished with paintings, artefacts and memorabilia.

Once Fry became president, it wasn’t long before he was getting his traditional ‘egg and bacon’ striped club tie in a twist.

In February last year, the club was urged to take disciplinary action against the star after he allegedly made offensive jokes at a formal MCC dinner, referring to ‘shagging’ – some of those present said he was mocking the club for its under-representation of women – as well as to the ‘Allahakberries’, an amateur cricket team founded by Peter Pan author J M Barrie.

Fry allegedly joked that when used today, the phrase ‘Allahu akbar’ is usually ‘followed by a loud bang’.

However, the club reportedly insisted the accusation was ‘incorrect’ and some guests said the comedian was misheard.

Once Fry became president, it wasn’t long before he was getting his traditional ‘egg and bacon’ striped club tie in a twist

Once Fry became president, it wasn’t long before he was getting his traditional ‘egg and bacon’ striped club tie in a twist

Chris Waterman, an MCC member since 1988, complained that the jokes were ‘egregious’ but was handed an 18-month suspension after committee members claimed he, and not Fry, had brought the MCC into disrepute for making his allegations public.

When contacted by the Mail this week, Mr Waterman said that it would be ‘outrageous’ if Fry wasn’t now disciplined for his remarks about the MCC.

‘He’s gone on about the club being full of old duffers but he is one of them. He was showboating in front of an audience,’ said Mr Waterman, who has called for more openness within the MCC and a more democratic system of electing committee members.

Currently those who wish to stand are first vetted by a ‘nominations committee’ which Mr Waterman claims ‘rejects any member who doesn’t fit the MCC mould’.

‘Stephen Fry should be suspended, if not expelled, from the MCC for his comments,’ Mr Waterman added. ‘Instead he is grovelling for forgiveness to try and make these complaints go away, with the support of the chief executive which is shameful. Members will not be leaned on like this. They’ve had enough.’

Fry was joined on the stage at Hay Literature Festival in Powys at the end of last month by Azeem Rafiq, the former Yorkshire cricketer who sent shockwaves through English cricket in 2020 when he spoke out about racism in the sport.

His campaign prompted the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket to launch an investigation. It found last year that the sport was racist, sexist and elitist.

In recent years the MCC, which has admitted women members since 1998, has spear-headed key changes to make the sport more inclusive.

It has ditched the term ‘batsman’ for the more gender-neutral ‘batter’ and launched a ‘Young Female Broadcaster of the Year’ competition with Sky Sports. Last month, it announced it had become the first cricket club to become fully accessible to deaf fans thanks to a sign reading video relay service.

The club’s own charitable arm, the MCC Foundation, of which Stephen Fry is patron, also runs a network of 126 ‘Cricket Hubs’ across the UK, providing free training and match play to more than 4,700 state school children in a bid to open up and diversify the game.

It has set up outreach projects in Lebanon, Nepal, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya.

Ironically, in recent weeks, the Foundation has been promoting ‘An Evening With Stephen Fry’ at the Royal Albert Hall in September, the proceeds of which will be donated to the charity’s projects.

The former MCC president rings the five-minute bell ahead of a test match between England and India in 2022

The former MCC president rings the five-minute bell ahead of a test match between England and India in 2022

How the MCC ultimately responds to ‘Fry-gate’ remains to be seen.

In the past, the committee has not shied away from suspending those who fall foul of the rules. In July last year, one member was expelled and two were suspended for bringing ‘shame’ on the club following an altercation in the Long Room with Australia’s cricket team during the Ashes Test match against England.

Two years ago, MCC chairman Bruce Carnegie-Brown was handed a six-month suspension – suspended for two years – after joking that members were ‘taking an age to empty their colostomy bags’ during a break at a Lord’s meeting, not realising that his microphone was on.

A contrite Carnegie-Brown also made a ‘significant personal’ donation to the charity Colostomy UK.

Back in 2002, best-selling author and Conservative politician Lord Archer, who spent thousands on buying turf from Lord’s to transport to his Cambridgeshire garden, was suspended for seven years after he was sent to prison for committing perjury – three years longer than the four-year jail sentence he received.

And yet, another member who spoke to the the Mail this week, is adamant that MCC executives will want to avoid any further negative publicity by suspending Fry.

‘They’ll probably drop him a line and say, “Look, old boy, could you do us a favour and just shut up about the club unless you want to say something nice about it.” I think that’s as far as it’s going to go.’

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