The Week in Radio: Brandreth's Tory stories are starting to show their age


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The Independent Culture

Consider, for a moment, the title of Radio 4's Five More Ages of Brandreth.

Should anyone be wondering what was going through the minds of commissioning editors when they gave the series the green light, the clue is surely in the word "more". It is, first and foremost, a nod to last year's series The Five Ages of Brandreth, of which this is a sequel of sorts, though it also suggests a man who is indestructible, and who will very possibly be babbling on television and radio when our great-grandchildren reach middle age.

It conveys a bafflement and strange admiration for the self-styled "celebrity ex-MP" with an unquenchable thirst for attention and who, just when you think he's run out of career options, magically reappears, as persistent as a cold sore. How, it seems to ask wearily, can one person make so little go so far? But then again, maybe I'm reading too much into it.

Anyway, this second series, broadcast daily this week, saw Gyles Brandreth leafing through his clearly extensive diaries and reliving encounters with assorted luminaries. The first episode focused on politicians such as John Major, with whom he once shared 20 painful minutes of small talk as the then Prime Minister waited to hear the outcome of a Conservative coup, and Margaret Thatcher with whom he once very nearly stood in the same room. There was a more memorable meeting with Edward Heath, then leader of the opposition, at a "sherry party" at New College, Oxford in 1969, during which Brandreth had been feeling unwell. "As (Heath) shook my hand and heaved his shoulders," he recalled, "I heaved mine and threw up all over his brown suede shoes."

Later programmes were devoted to the actors and comedians whom Brandreth worked with, befriended or just thrust himself in front of in the Seventies and Eighties. We heard about our host squeezing Marlene Dietrich's left thigh outside the stage door at Golders Green Hippodrome, attending a party at the Old Vic with Sir John Gielgud, clambering into Larry Grayson's chauffeur-driven white Rolls-Royce and taking tea with Donald Sinden who, aged 76, smoked nine cigarettes in the space of an hour. All of which revealed that, not only is Brandreth a world-class hanger-on, but given the amount of time he spends lunching in expensive restaurants, he should be three foot wide and living in stretch pants, not a grinning little shrimp with an array of silly jumpers leaping from one micro-career to the next.

It struck me, listening to Brandreth revelling in the caustic asides delivered by Kenneth Williams, Larry Grayson, Les Dawson et al, that he was essentially an early incarnation of the Daily Mirror's 3am Girls, loitering in fashionable night-spots, a notebook stuffed in his underpants, in the hope of hoovering up some juicy but ultimately harmless goss for future detonation. He was, in his own strangely self-deprecating way, happy to remind us of his own lowly working status at these various junctures, whether flogging Birds Eye Waffles on television or trying to break the record for longest-on-screen kiss with Cheryl Baker, as he did once on TV-am.

There's no doubting Brandreth's aptitude for storytelling, or indeed the breadth of his contacts book. Rather than making me wallow delightedly in the glamour and glitz of days gone by, Five More Ages… made me feel sad for a man destined to spend his career dropping names like H-bombs, and basking in the glow of those more successful than him while behaving like the star turn in a pantomime. It's difficult to know exactly what to do with Gyles Brandreth in any context, but this isn't it.