The appeal came via a phone call from his agent.
'Stephen's at a loss as to what he can do,' explained the man of the expensive cigars and the rather generous 14.5%. 'It's not as though he's in a fit condition to make such a commitment. Flying home to appease them is just out of the question. You do know he has a spiral fracture of the right humerus?'
As it happened, I did know. Rarely has a spiral fracture of the right humerus caused so much discussion in the Madeley household. The framed x-rays on top of the television were evidence of that.
I shoved my hand deep into my pocket and felt the reassuring weight of the six fifty pence pieces I always keep there in case of trouble. We'd once had a chap from the SAS on the morning show and he'd told me that a handful of coins can disable even the most committed pursuer. Since that day, I've rarely gone anywhere without a few large coins with edges I'd filed down myself.
'Look,' I sighed, knowing when a duty calls, 'tell Stephen that I'll pop over and deal with the problem myself. I'm sure they'll see reason when I explain it to them.'
'You'll do that?' asked the agent. 'Oh, Richard. I can't thank you enough. The keys are under the large statue of Oscar Wilde. Stephen also wondered if you might be able to check on his goldfish.' And with that, the agent's voice became a dial tone.
This is how I found myself on my 'day off' driving up to Norfolk with a tub of fish food and a pocket of legally-minted shrapnel. You see, from what I'd been led to believe, Stephen's house was being picketed by protesters firmly of the belief that the tickling of manatees in bathtubs amounts to an insult to that noble creature more commonly known as the 'sea cow'.
To be perfectly honest, I thought it foolish of Stephen to make light of such a brutal practice and to do so in a public forum such as his Podcast had struck me as tantamount to recklessness, quite at odds with his reputation as a thinking man. I may be no great believer in animal rights but the very notion of tickling an animal who can neither laugh nor protest seemed very wrong, even to me, a man who once grabbed Jacqueline Bisset's knee when she least expected it.
And, let me add, the manatee belly is not a Bisset knee.
Such has been the outcry at Stephen's admission, even politicians have begun to question how many celebrities have been allowed to paw the helpless manatee. How many times have a manatee's scream sounded like laughter and encouraged even more brutal assaults in the name of infotainment? Is it any wonder that these normally placid creatures finally cracked and turned into the raging psychotic monsters that so deliberately attacked Stephen beneath the waterline, causing him to fall over and break the arm that has brought pleasure to so many?
That's why, however much as I disagreed with the practise of manatee tickling, I was more concerned with the unlawful protests outside my friend's home. It's also why I'd had the foresight to take a loaded Oddie with me. I really didn't know what to expect from a hostile audience of neophytes to the manatee cause. Bill can always talk to these animal loving freaks and he could act as an interpreter to convey my words to people who think that grass has feelings and turf has rights.
His presence gave me great peace of mind when we arrived at the estate of the Great Man around lunchtime. Given that Stephen owns most of rural Norfolk, there's always somebody able to direct you to his estate. On this occasion, however, the smell of onions and lentils would have been enough to lead me to the small camp of tents pitched outside the large iron gates with the large ornamental 'F' in scroll-work and filigree. Beyond them I could see the drive curving away towards to Stephen's old pile, beckoned me on in the certain knowledge that East Anglia's most extensive wine collection was within the reach of a man who knew just where the keys were hid under the statue of Oscar Wilde.
'Look here,' I said, approaching the lead protester who also looked to be the most frail and elderly, 'what exactly are you doing here?'
'Protect the manatee!' came a cry from a blue tent nearby.
I glared at the little woman who definitely looked up at me. He nose twisted as though broken at every nostril.
'We're here to stop the cruel and barbaric mockery of manatees by celebrities,' she said as though I too were guilty of that terrible crime. 'How would you like it if you were fingered by Stephen Fry?'
'Oh come on,' I laughed, 'it can't be that bad!'
She took a bony knuckle and rapped it against my midriff. 'What you see as the acceptable fondling of a manatees tummy is really the imposition of human values upon wild creatures. To them, it's nothing short of abuse!'
'Stop cruelty to manatees!' came another cry, this time from a green tent.
I waved my hand towards the tents in the hope of silencing them. 'But can't you accept that a poor man has already suffered enough?' I asked. 'And why picket outside an empty house when the owner is thousands of miles away finishing his counter-clockwise tour of America? Couldn't you go and annoy Jamie Oliver instead?'
'Has he ever tickled a manatee?' asked the woman, indignantly.
'He'd probably put a crust on one if you ask him right,' I replied. The woman looked at me with a new found contempt but I had no reason to feel ashamed. I owe Jamie nothing and this was Stephen's home I was defending.
'We are here to send a message to all celebrities who think it right to tickle innocent tummies,' continued the woman.
I told her that I knew of no celebrities currently pawing sea cows except for Lorraine Kelly to whom it's really less of a job and more of a hobby, but, by this time, a few of the other protesters had come and gathered around us. They listened with something less than understanding to my explanation.
'Oh, it's a fine message to send out,' I concluded. 'Who doesn't want to protect the world's endangered animals from the likes of Frank Skinner, Jeremy Kyle or Gloria Hunniford? But I can assure you that we “A” list celebrities are now boycotting the manatee because of what they've done to Stephen. Your protests are really quite futile.'
The crowd looked at me in silence.
'Oh, well, that's typical,' sniffed a tall man stood at the back of the crowd. His eyes shone with the gleam of fanaticism. 'Some defenceless animal defend themselves and you celebrities ostracise them because of it. You're no longer interested in the poor creatures. Not now they've turned on you. Send them to Coventry, you have... or whatever backwater in Brazil would be a Coventry equivalent.'
At this point, Bill Oddie stepped forward and the crowd grew silent. They hold a natural reverence for the little fellow that I can't wholly explain. 'Listen here,' said Bill, 'Richard simply wants you to move on but he isn't explaining himself that well. I can vouch for Stephen and tell you that there's no man in the world who cares more about manatees. Can't we show him some pity? He's got a spiral fracture of the right humerus.'
'If he really cares,' began the old woman with the bent nose, 'why did he laugh when he talked about tickling them?'
'He is naturally jovial man,' I answered. 'He's not unlike myself. I'm always laughing at other people's problems. Some say I'm cruel and heartless but it's just an unhealthy sense of humour. I mean nothing by it. I've been known to laugh myself senseless at a sparrow flying into a window.'
I don't know what I'd said that could have riled them so much but the crowd turned rather nasty at this point. I even reached into my pocket and was ready to hurl lose change there way, damning the consequences, but before I could act, Bill stepped in. He suggested that I go back to the car and leave him to speak to speak to the group. After ten minutes, the angry scene had been replaced by one of pure harmony. The camp was beginning to break up and Bill returned to the car looking quite pleased with himself.
'I think they're happy now I've explained things to them,' he said as he stroked his beard. 'They've agree to leave Stephen alone.'
I told him that it was indeed a miracle given their hardened stance. 'How on earth did you manage it?' I asked. 'What magic words did you whisper in their slightly grubby ears?'
'Oh,' blushed Bill. 'It was quite easy really. They have a natural reverence for me. And once I'd given them your home address, they couldn't wait to get moving.' He nodded towards the road. 'You might want to get a move on. Wouldn't want them to beat you to your house. They might not let you in, plus you might like to break this to Judy before the pickets begin...'
'Pickets?' I cried.
'You know,' he said, a look of fanaticism appearing in his own eyes, 'you really shouldn't have made that joke about sparrows... Some things simply aren't funny.'