School for Scandal; for His Latest Role as a Headmaster, STEPHEN FRY Was Able to Draw on His Own Misspent Schooldays of Truancy, Canings, and Theft. He Tells FRANCES HARDY How He Left His Life of Crime Behind Him

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Stephen Fry has the genial condescension of an old-fashioned public school headmaster. His manner veers from didactic to twinklingly avuncular and his vocabulary is a lexical showcase of flamboyant and highly polished gems. Cast as Dr Thomas Arnold, the pioneering headmaster of Rugby School during Tom Brown's Schooldays, for an ITV remake of the classic 1857 Thomas Hughes novel, he is filming a scene set in the family dining room.

A posse of Arnold children - ranging in age from four to eight - is busily slurping soup.

Off camera, Fry addresses his onscreen brood with a polite but indecipherable request.

'Would it mortify you if I were to suggest a marginally less fortissimo ingestion of the pUtage?' he asks. When the children respond with blank stares he translates: 'That's very nice soup drinking. I've rarely heard better.

But would you mind awfully doing it a little more quietly?' What to make of the towering 47-year-old Fry? The famously capacious brain - a repository of abstruse literary allusions and very difficult words - tops an imposing 6ft 4in frame, today swathed in breeches, black stockings and Victorian frock coat. I expect to be floored by the sheer weight of his erudition. But Fry is in amiably discursive mode, chatting away about his own wayward schooldays and the numberless thrashings he endured for bad behaviour.

'I was beaten all the time,' he recalls. 'In my last year at prep school I was probably beaten every day because I was very bad. It's nothing.

It really isn't. It was being hit on the bottom with a stick. It's a big deal if you're being hit out of hatred, contempt or because a master takes a sadistic enjoyment from it. But that was never the case.

'If I had a choice of 300 lines of Virgil or three strokes, I'd say, "Strokes please". Three hundred lines were interminable as you had to copy out Roman poetry accurately and it takes forever. So I was quite happy to have the strokes. I'm not advocating flogging, but every generation has been beaten. Our age is the exception. For thousands of years all Western cultures have whipped children when they were bad. We now regard that as intolerable.

We might well be right...' he trails off, doubtfully.

Fry has drawn on his own memory of boarding school for the programme, basing his characterisation of Dr Arnold - the brilliant and innovative (if overbearingly authoritarian) teacher who reformed Rugby School in Warwickshire during his tenure as head between 1828 and 1842 - on Fry's own headmaster at Uppingham School, John Royds.

The real Arnold looms over Hughes' autobiographical novel about the fictional schoolboy Tom Brown; including his merciless torments at the hands of literature's most notorious bully, Flashman. When Arnold arrived at Rugby, the boys were left to their own devices out of school hours. The older pupils dressed as dandies in silk top hats, florid waistcoats and bow ties; smoked pipes, drank beer, distilled gin and kept beagle packs and guns. Whoring and gambling were popular extracurricular pastimes; fagging and bullying were rife. Fry's own schooldays were only marginally less colourful. An inveterate absentee, he was 'asked to leave' Uppingham, following a shoplifting spree and after absconding, aged 15, to London to watch X-rated films. His tenure at his next school - in Norfolk - was also abruptly curtailed. He spent more time truanting, playing pinball and smoking than he did in lessons. Then, during a deep depression, he stole two credit cards.

Three months on remand in Pucklechurch Remand Prison, Somerset, ensued.

'Prison is really just a working-class version of public school,' he says now.

'If you went to a public school or grew up on a council estate you thought nothing of being tortured. Life was like that for boys. It was only in the "nicer" bourgeois world of the middle class that people didn't do those things. …