Gyles Brandreth: Top of the Popinjays

He's a man of many talents and a leader in many fields, though in some (jumper-wearing, record-breaking after-dinner speeches, teddy bears) there may not be much competition. Why does Gyles Brandreth have to be so relentlessly entertaining?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Gyles Brandreth. And his many, stunning accomplishments. No, not enough room. Some of them, then. The Top 10, say. As voted for entirely by me. But a few at a time, because – trust me on this – it might be rather too much otherwise. OK, here goes:

1. One-time world Monopoly champion. Actually, he was runner-up, but at the World Championships the winner ("whose trousers were too short and who had terrible dandruff") declared: "This is too big for me", locked himself in his hotel room and "wouldn't come out until his mother had been flown in from Dayton, Ohio." Gyles took his place on the American tour, much to the game-maker's delight. "I was much more marketable."

2. Former holder of the record for the longest uninterrupted after-dinner speech. He did 121/2 hours, even though, mid-way through, his urine-extraction device – "a sort of huge plastic sausage that went down your trouser leg and could hold pints and pints" – unravelled itself and "snaked out the bottom of my trouser leg, across the stage".

We meet at the Ritz, in London, where, from the off, his enthusiastic affability is almost frightening. "How gorgeous to meet you. How lovely. Shall we have coffee? And biccies? Do you want biccies? Yes, let's have biccies. Let's. Mmmm. Biccies. How lovely." I think Gyles may be something of a popinjay. It's not a word used much any more, I know, but then Gyles himself is rather a throwback to another era. He may even be Top of the Popinjays. I don't mean this unkindly. I think I may even like him for it.

3. Wearer of silly jumpers, most notably on "TV-am". "I haven't worn one for 12 years, but still, when I'm on the Underground, I can see people looking at me and thinking: 'Oh, look, there's the tosser in the silly jumpers.' " Do you mind? "Not really. From the outside, I can see I am the tosser in the silly jumpers."

4. Conservative MP for Chester, 1992–97, and government whip. He'd always wanted to be a politician. "When I was at Oxford, I was interviewed by 'The Sun', who asked me what I wanted to be. 'Danny Kaye,' I said, 'and then Home Secretary.' Actually, I wanted to be Olivier and then Prime Minister, but I had to curb my ambitions so as not to appear ridiculous." Some might say appearing ridiculous hasn't bothered him greatly since.

He is wearing, today, a sharp, grey, pin-striped suit. "When I arrived at Westminster, I bought the appropriate kit. I got rid of around 1,000 jumpers and bought 10 suits in grey, charcoal grey, light charcoal grey, dark charcoal grey..."

His conversation, rather like his career, dances happily and erratically all over the shop. "I didn't mean to be Monopoly champion. I was sitting at home, aged 22, 23, with my wife... this is when I lived in Clarence Gate Gardens, in a flat once owned by T S Eliot, although the Irish hall porter thought it was G H Elliot, a great entertainer in the 1920s and 'the original chocolate-coloured coon'. American tourists would come and say: 'Is this the flat where T S Eliot lived?' To which the porter would say, 'Oh, to be sure, to be sure. The original chocolate-coloured coon. Come this way and I'll show you the flat.' Anyway, the phone rang one day, and it was a public relations firm in Blackpool, asking me if I could make the Monopoly championships the next day. I said I wasn't into Monopoly, actually. I said Scrabble was more my game. They said: 'There's a fee.' So I said: 'Oh, Monopoly. I love Monopoly.'"

5. Founder of the national Scrabble championships. His favourite Scrabble word is "yex", which is "a kind of hiccup". He was once on the board of Spears, the company that manufactures Scrabble. He has yet to use "brandreth", "a substrate of piles".

6. Author of – wait for it – 250 books. (Dickens, by the way, wrote 16.) I'm not quite sure where Gyles's books stop on their way from publisher to car-boot sale (or even if they do), as the titles include: "Joy of Lex", "Games for Trains", "The Bumper Joke Book", "The Puzzle Party Fun Book", "The Bumper Book of Indoor Games", "The Bedside Book of Great Sexual Disasters" and "Knitability", which promises "over thirty hand-knitted designs ranging from the witty and amusing – a family of pigs with tails you can tweak – to the truly beautiful – a magnificent stained-glass window".

We order coffee. And biccies. Because biccies, after all, are "mmmm". We are meeting, ostensibly, to celebrate the publication of what, I guess, must be his 251st book, Brief Encounters, a collection of his "meetings with remarkable people" written, originally, as interviews for The Sunday Telegraph. He has always been fixated by the famous. Aged 13, he was dispatched to Bedales, a progressive school in Hampshire, "where I thought I had gone to heaven, so many of the parents were household names. Once, I stood outside the school library with Robert Graves, Cecil Day-Lewis, Lawrence Durrell and Eve Arnold." He started as an autograph-collector. Vivien Leigh, Winston Churchill, Terry Thomas... but not Johnny Rotten. "I said: 'Lovely to meet you, Mr Rotten.' He said: 'Eff off eff-face.'"

In this collection, he recounts meetings with everyone from Lord Longford and Celia Johnson through to William Hague, Ann Widdecombe (marvellously described as "Danny DeVito meets Margaret Rutherford") and, yes, Jeffrey Archer, who was also the athletics coach at prep school. He came to the Ritz once with Jeffrey. "We were walking back from lunch at Caprice, when he suggested we pop in to see the restaurant. 'Isn't it the prettiest room in London?' he said. He then gave the maître d' £50, even though we hadn't eaten there! He does think of himself as a character from one of his novels."

His big hero, it turns out, is Ken Clarke, with whom he worked at the Treasury. "Other ministers, before Question Time, couldn't eat. They'd shake. Even Heseltine's hands shook during Question Time. But not Ken. We had wonderful picnics in the treasury before Question Time. Claret, cigars, and then he'd send out for Indian sweets. Once, he leant back on his chair so expansively, three shirt buttons popped off. Two hit the Treasury chandeliers, and one winged past Portillo's ear." Ken liked to tease Portillo horribly. Indeed, when Portillo was around, "Ken always lit his cigar with an EU book of matches."

7. Founder of the National Teddy Bear Museum. Enough said, except that Dame Judi Dench once held a "Shakesbear" master class there. "We put on 'Romeo and Paddington', to appeal to the pink pound."

8. Patron of Lesbians for a Conservative Victory in the last election. "They initially wanted Virginia Bottomley, but she demurred."

I wonder why Gyles Brandreth does the things he does. Why, for example, did he want to hold the record for longest after-dinner speech? "I did it for charity, initially. The record was three hours, and I did seven. But Nicholas Parsons was in the audience. Nicholas is very competitive. Nicholas then went out and broke my record. So I then had to break his. It's bad enough being known as the fellow in the ridiculous jumpers, but to be beaten by Nicholas Parsons?" What motivates you generally, Gyles? "I don't know. I don't know. My wife says: 'If you like Scrabble, why don't you just play it now and then? Why do you have to end up on the board of the company that makes it?'" Why do you? "I don't know, I don't know." I must say, I like the sound of his wife, Michele, mother of their three children, whom he married in 1973. They first met when, at Oxford, he was putting on a production of Cinderella and she auditioned for the leading role. She didn't get it. "But I did offer her a part in the chorus and a Chinese meal. She accepted the Chinese meal, and told me what I could do with the part in the chorus." I think she's been keeping him properly in check ever since. Indeed, when he told her he'd accepted the position as patron of Lesbians for a Conservative Victory, she said: "Well, Gyles, you are probably a lesbian's idea of a real man."

9. Gyles has just finished starring in "Zippertydoodah!", a show of his own devising, which condensed 100 musicals into 100 minutes. It was his first stage appearance "since I did pantomime with Bonnie Langford 10 years ago". He still loves Danny Kaye. "I loved him, particularly, in 'The Court Jester'. You know: 'The vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true!' "

Fittingly, Gyles owes his existence to Monopoly. "My father, Charles, came to London in 1936 as a young lawyer, and he lived in digs in Gower Street. At Christmas he went to Selfridges, where he saw a sign which said: 'On sale today for the first time, the game that is sweeping America, Monopoly.' He bought it and asked his landlady if she would like to play; the woman said, 'I don't want to play, but on the ground floor there is a girl who might be interested.' So he and my mother, whom he had never met before, played Monopoly. They were married the following April."

"Tell me," I ask, "are the stations a worthwhile purchase or not?"

"I don't know. I can't pretend to be that interested in Monopoly any more. Scrabble was always more my thing. The game was introduced in Britain in 1953, and I think my family must have got one of the first sets. We played it endlessly."

After Bedales, it was Oxford, where he was, indeed, a very bright young thing. He edited Isis. He directed the Oxford University Dramatic Society. He became president of the Union. In fact, in 1970, Magnus Linklater wrote in the New Statesman: "Surveying this year's Oxford graduates, only the most myopic talent-spotter could fail to pick Gyles Brandreth as The Man Most Likely To Succeed." He then went on to tip him as "the inevitable successor to David Paradine Frost". I wonder if Gyles thinks he's ever squandered his intellect.

"No. Because the truth is, I don't know that there is a great intellect to squander."

"You once said: 'I'm better at being shallow than anyone I know.' Is that truly how you feel?"

"Did I say that? I usually say, 'Deep down, I'm shallow.' I'm just being clever."

"What are you deep down, then, if you are not shallow?"

"Oh, good question. What would Ken Clarke say? He'd say: 'I'm not into introspection.' And that's true for me, too. I'm not into introspection. Just get on with life. I'm always busy, busy, busy. My wife says: 'We're the busy fool, are we?' "

"Do you regret not being more focused on your political career, say?"

"It might have been interesting to sustain more of a political career, but I should have started much earlier and pursued it in a much more single-minded way. But if I'd done that, I wouldn't have done the things I wanted to do. I wanted to write novels, and did. I wanted to do fun things on telly, and did."

"But would you unwear your jumpers if you could?"

"No. I don't think so. I can see now much more clearly the way to succeed. Truly successful people go from A to B. To leave here, they'd go straight to the door. Archer would go straight to the door. But I think: 'Ooh, the people at that table look amusing; I'll just stop there.' "

What does bother him? How about the current state of the Conservative Party? Does that break your heart, Gyles? "It gives me cause for concern but doesn't break my heart. I don't take life seriously enough for it to break my heart."

He is a genuinely happy fellow, I think, in his popinjay-ish sort of way. "And why shouldn't I be? The truth is, I live a supremely spoilt life. Sitting here, in this pretty room, then it's off to have lunch with Diana Rigg for The Sunday Telegraph. Aghh! Look at the time! Must run. It's been lovely to meet you. Gorgeous..."

10.This isn't a No 10 as such, but something to think about. How do you knit a magnificent stained-glass window? I try to get hold of "Knitability", but, sadly, it is now out of print. "Really?" gasps Gyles. "Would you believe it?"

'Brief Encounters' is published by Politico's Publishing, £14.99