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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper


Or: The Gospel According to Stephen Fry

I want to be Stephan Fry when I grow up. Actor, author, erudite traveler, erudite educator, erudite quiz show host, premortem immortalized comedian, and practical philosopher, these are but a few of his titles and accomplishments. Fry has accumulated a lot of Worth in his time and, despite many misadventures, has by and the large cultivated a remarkably benign outlook on life and the human race. At least that’s how it appears on his three season series Kingdom, co-produced with Simon Wheeler.

Kingdom is a simple show, following the adventures of Peter Kingdom (Fry) a small town solicitor (note for Americans and other aliens, Solicitor=Lawyer) on west coast of England. Every episode (and this is just for season one, no spoilers), Peter tries to hash the complex and bizarre legal complaints of the villages residents whilst trying to manage his imbalanced sister Beatrice (Hermione Norris) and his wet-behind-the-ears-but-oh-so-passionate article clark Lyle (Karl Davies). At the same time as his case-of-the-week stories, Peter must also come to terms with the apparent suicide of his brother, Simon, and confront the dark details that lead to his walk into the sea.

The best way to describe the show is that its a kind of “good twin” to long running BBC dramady Doc Martin: levelheaded professional dealing with the village crazies with lots of gorgeous shots of the english coastline thrown in between scenes. Both eponymous protagonists even have an aunt-in-confidence (played in Kingdom by the racy Phylida Law). The difference is that while Martin is a brusque and anti-social doctor who must figure out medical secrets and find away to open his hidebound heart to the love of his life, Peter is a kind and understanding man who brings the poisonous secrets of his clients struggles into the open and must uncover the man his brother was.

The difference between the shows can really be traced down to a difference between Hobbes and Rousseau. On Doc Martin, life is an accident waiting to happen. Unregulated and unsupported it is “nasty brutish and short”. Not even true love can overcome the selfishness or stupidity of the individual. And this is bitterly, uproariously funny. On Kingdom, life is difficult and filled with unpleasant people who make harmful decisions and conduct themselves in the worst sort of way. However if given the opportunity to make the right choice even the bigots, blackmailers, and serial adulterers of the world will choose Right and Good path.

I keep coming back to Kingdom because, despite the moralistic message in each episode, it has such variety in its plot structures and scene vocabulary. Generally a television series has a certain layout or end result you can measure but Kingdom keeps throwing you curve balls (or since its more likely to be Cricket, “googlies”). You might have a case about a migrant worker or a disabled veteran struggling against a hard system, prompting a monologue from Peter or Lyle (flavored Despairing and Outraged, respectively) about how Britain Can Do Better, and in the same episode see Peter go through some sort of physical comedy straight out of Fry and Laurie. You might have a client with a awful secret thats destroying them from the inside and in the same episode see Lyle flirt unsuccessfully with an uninterested young lady. You might have a story of places Peter’s standing in the community in a compromising situation and in the same episode have Beatrice imprinting on or savaging Peter’s hapless secretary Gloria (Celia Imrie). Or sometimes you just have a straight up legal farce and then half way through, BAM!, there’s a Hit man in town and no one is safe.

Fry, witty and subtle as ever, has given Pete an extreme depth of feeling, perfect for the subject matter, as well as always having some delightful barb or witticism to toss off. Peter is a Perfect Creation like Hannah Jelks or Amy Dorrit : a protagonist who is always sympathetic and good and helpful to their fellows yet who is also human in their desires and expectations. Not a shallow angelic creature but a just really good person who’s story you want to hear and who you wish well with all your heart. Unfortunately no other character, main cast or guest, has quite met Fry’s level of clarity in performance. They’re all really good, this is the BBC after all, but most come off looking like detailed character sketches, when they ought to be three dimensional.

In truth, the moralizing and the humanizing make Kingdom somewhat syrupy sweet to taste. The dialogue is often soupy though sometimes it's heartwarming soup and sometimes it's just well, soupy. The overall message of Wheeler and Fry, that if you are open and honest and keep your chin up and hope for the best everything will turn out alright, sends one to a state of light depression. Such sentiments might be sustainable on television, but do not ring sound in normal life. Still, when Fry, squares himself for the episode changing argument, and Lyle or Beatrice do something selfless or, heck, at the start of every episode, when the camera soars along the Norfolk cost and the title appears accompanied by a full voiced angelic choir (one pooled, undisputedly, from the Anglican Quarter of Heaven) my crusty old cockles glow and I entertain the thought that, if this world contains such a one as Stephan Fry, then maybe it can contain enough happiness for everyone, too.

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