Gyles Brandreth on the Brontës, Roger Moore and his huge teddy bear collection
He was in Haworth making a documentary for Channel 5 about authors in their landscapes. “We’re beginning with the Brontë sisters and it’s a wonderful subject for me because I love Yorkshire and I’m fascinated by the Brontës.”
Brandreth is a man of many talents – he’s a writer, broadcaster, actor, comedian and a former Tory MP. He’s also something of a raconteur (a dying breed these days), following on from the likes of Noel Coward and Peter Ustinov, and it turns out (perhaps not surprisingly) that he has a family story about the Brontës.
“My great-grandfather on my mother’s side was a man called John Leech who was the keeper of the poor house in Bradford and I have a portrait painting of him in my study. It was painted by a man called J H Thompson – he was a Bradford artist of note and a good friend of Branwell Brontë, and J H Thompson painted the only known solo picture of Charlotte Brontë.”
Stories are at the heart of his latest one-man stage show – Break a Leg – which is due to come to Harrogate and Leeds next year. “Ever since I was a little boy I’ve had a love of the theatre and this show is a celebration of live theatre, which I think people will be ready for. There will be stories about the greats like Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, people I was lucky enough to meet when I was young, through to Judi Dench and Maggie Smith who are still going strong today.”
Cue a story about the late Roger Moore. “Roger Moore had been in the Army with my Latin teacher and they were good friends. At the time Roger was in The Saint and I met him when I was a boy. We stayed in touch and when he heard I wanted to be an actor he thought it was an amusing idea. I told him he made it seem so easy and that he was always so self-deprecating.
"He used to say he only offered the director two looks – one was left eyebrow up and the other was right eyebrow up – and I said: ‘Can you teach me?’ So Roger Moore gave me this masterclass in how to raise my eyebrows and I did quite well, I managed to get the left eyebrow up but I couldn’t get the right one up.
“Eventually I said ‘Roger, I can get one eyebrow up but not the other, what’s going wrong?’ And he said: ‘It’s very simple, it seems you’re half the actor I am.”
As well as amusing theatrical stories and gossip, his show involves a poignant duet with his friend June Whitfield. “I first heard her on the radio in a show called Take It From Here, when I was very young. We became friends many years later and I used to go and visit her and we’d record songs together, and as part of the show I have a wireless set on the stage and I sing a duet which she recorded just before she died.”
Brandreth has been able to concentrate on his writing during lockdown, and as well as The Oxford Book of Theatrical Anecdotes, which came out last month, he has recently finished a children’s joke book. His love of jokes stems, he says, from his father. “He was a great practical joker, and I still have the dribble glass we bought at a joke shop. A dribble glass is one that looks like a wine glass that has little cuts in it that you can’t see and when you drink from it you dribble. It’s not very kind, but it’s fun.”
He was a performer from an early age, appearing in school plays and later becoming president of the Oxford Union during his student days. “I’m doing now what I’ve always done. I first did a television programme while I was still at university in 1969 called Child of the Sixties. It was ITV prime time on a Saturday night, so I began at the top and have been working my way down ever since.”
On that he interviewed the great and good of the day. “I was interested in politics and I was very lucky to meet a lot of interesting people. I met Harold Macmillan, although I can’t tell you much about my meeting with him because he slept through most of it. He was an old gentleman by then. I arrived and introduced myself and he said ‘hello’ and I sat down and opened my mouth to speak and he nodded straight off. Harold Macmillan had the measure of me.”
Over the years others have made more of an impression. “I loved interviewing archbishop Desmond Tutu because he’s full of warmth and it’s like being with a ray of sunshine. And one of the most charismatic people I’ve spent time with is Bill Clinton, who is as charismatic as everyone says.”
It’s easy to forget that Brandreth has also been a politician – he was MP for Chester for five years before losing his seat in the Tory drubbing in the 1997 election. “My claim to fame is that I introduced the 1994 Marriage Act, the private member’s bill. That’s the legislation that allows people to get married in venues other than a registry office. That’s one of my two legacies, the other is my collection of teddy bears.”
The latter is a vast collection of old bears, gathered over a lifetime – including the original Fozzie, Harry Corbett’s original Sooty and Paddington Bear – which is housed at Newby Hall, near Ripon.
“I was making a film there for The One Show about the Royal family, because in the event of the Germans landing and invading London during the Second World War they would have fled to Yorkshire. It underlines the fact that everyone thinks of it as God’s own country. So the King and Queen and their two daughters would have come to Yorkshire and they’d have gone to Newby Hall because it’s like a miniature Buckingham Palace. So I thought if it’s good enough for royalty it’s good enough for my teddy bears.”
Newby Hall has been their den since 2016 when he handed them over on permanent loan. “I love the world of children’s literature, it’s a nice world and I don’t think I’ve ever left it.”
Brandreth has proven to be a show business all-rounder so is there a burning ambition still in him? “No, there isn’t. But I will try and get on with things because we only pass this way once and I think the essence of that is to give it a go.
“When I lost my seat as an MP my wife asked me what I wanted to do and I said I want to be in a musical. Then I thought I’d put on a show of all the musicals ever written in one evening, but it turned out there were thousands so I did a show where we did a hundred musicals in a hundred minutes, and we did it at the Edinburgh Fringe and took it on tour and ended up in the West End. So you never know what’s going to happen next…”
Break a Leg is on at Leeds City Varieties on May 29, next year and Harrogate Theatre on June 28.
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