Interview: Gyles Brandreth
By Susan Mansfield
GYLES BRANDRETH is a man who wears many hats. In time, we'll get on to the one that says "playwright", perhaps touching on "journalist" and "novelist" and "former Tory MP". But right now, I need to get to grips with the hat which he calls "born-again stand-up comic".
"Because what is the Fringe all about but stand-up comedy?" Brandreth says, brightly. "So I thought, well, I'd better give it a go." Granted, The One to One Show, daily at the Pleasance Courtyard, sounds more like a sit-down-and-have-a-cup-of-tea kind of show. But then Brandreth is 62. "It's an hour of me talking, I hope amusingly, about amazing people that I have met one-to-one. There's a lot of name-dropping."
He is a name-dropper par excellence. In this conversation alone, we've had Ian McKellen (they met in Edinburgh and talked about fishnet tights), John Gielgud (who had lunch with Brandreth at the Commons on his 90th birthday) and David Cameron ("I met him in 1993. He was an adviser to Norman Lamont, who'd just got sacked. I sent a memo to Ken Clarke and to the then Prime Minister saying: 'We must hang on to this man, he is such good news, he is our future'.").
He has spent his life making sure he is in the orbit of the more-famous-than-he-is: Barbara Cartland pledged to name a romantic hero after him; Johnny Rotten told him to "F*** off"; he threw up on Ted Heath's shoes. In a less charming man, this might be irritating, but Brandreth is refreshingly frank about turning these encounters into "material".
Brandreth discovered the Fringe late in life. God knows what took him so long, he's the kind of character the Fringe loves. Since the 1970s, he's been stitching together a career of writing, TV appearances, founding the National Scrabble Championships, wearing novelty sweaters and generally Being Gyles Brandreth. In 1992, he settled in to life as Tory MP for Chester, only to be ousted five years later in the Labour landslide. Undaunted, he reinvented himself, wrote Zipp! 100 Musicals in 100 Minutes, donned a pair of fishnet stockings and came to the Fringe.
The Fringe liked Brandreth almost as much as he liked the Fringe. Zipp! went on to a West End run and a national tour, and three years later he was back with Twelfth Night - The Musical. He loved the people, the parties, the "wonderful democracy among the performers". "You can meet people like Ian McKellen and Steven Berkoff, and at the same time you're meeting the two delightful gay girls who are doing the marionette version of Macbeth down at the local launderette."
I do wonder, though, if he isn't tempted back into politics. In 1997, he turned down the offer of a safe seat, partly because he didn't relish years in opposition. But Brandreth is surely a natural coalitionist. "I'm keen on the coalition. I loved that day in May in the rose garden, the two boys looking so dashing together with their co-ordinated ties and mirroring body language. It was like a big gay wedding, charming to see.
"But I'm not political now. I am now a reporter with The One Show, and I love doing that, but it means that I am now a non-political animal. It's quite a relief, actually. I think with politics you've either got to be right at the heart of things, or not in there. Now I'm a journalist and reporter, and an observer of the scene."
That gives him the freedom to be as political as he likes in The One to One Show, and he intends to take full advantage of the opportunity. "I'm going to spill the beans on life at Westminster. Revelation after revelation. No expenses spared. Because I don't think people know actually what it's like to be an MP. MPs are cowed, they don't stand up for themselves, they don't tell you what hell it is. All that finger food. Photocalls at the old folks homes. MPs don't kiss babies because they want to!"
Backbenchers are devalued, he says. Their role is diminished. No-one even knows who they are unless they turn up on the front page of a newspaper because the taxpayer has been footing the bill for their duck house. He is starting to sound quite serious, quite angry. Then his elastic face turns into a smile. "I'm hoping it's going to be candid and funny and revealing. But it's happy, it's a happy hour."
In fact, he says, he expects his Fringe to be "golden": doing his show, seeing his own play Wonderland at the Assembly Rooms with Michael Maloney in the role of Lewis Carroll, reporting for The One Show and, in his spare time, writing his fourth Victorian murder mystery inspired by the friendship of Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle. ("Have they moved that statue? It needs to go back.")
Brandreth has long had an interest in Lewis Carroll: he wrote a one-man show about him for Cyril Fletcher two decades ago, and scripted Through The Looking Glass for the BBC in the 1970s. He says the stage version of Through The Looking Glass, starring Frankie Howerd and Juliet Mills, was one of the first plays he ever saw. "I was about seven and she was the first great love of my life. And her sister Hayley Mills was second. I met her when I was in my twenties, we had lunch. But it's not a funny story, and therefore won't feature in The One to One Show." For a moment, he seems quite sombre.
Wonderland began life as a plan to write a musical version of Alice in Wonderland, and ended up as "Alice in Wonderland meets Lost in Translation" when he unearthed some surprising information about Lewis Carroll's life. The creator of Alice was a clergyman, a mathematician and pioneering photographer, but his reputation has laboured long under a dark cloud of rumour that he had an unhealthy interest in children.
"There's no evidence of any kind that he did," says Brandreth. "What people are only now beginning to see is that his enthusiasm was for young women in their twenties and thirties, most of whom were actresses." The most important of these was Isa Bowman (played in Wonderland by Flora Spencer-Longhurst), who played the original Alice on the London stage. She and Carroll had a relationship which lasted for five years, spending holidays in Eastbourne together. Carroll also supported her financially, as he did a number of other young actresses.
This would explain why Carroll's family destroyed part of his diaries and correspondence when he died, an act previously thought to be hiding evidence of paedophilia. Bowman unwittingly added to the rumours when she published a book about him shortly after he died, claiming that she was 12 when they met (she was 17) probably because she wanted to lie about her own age. "She presents herself as a little girl who is entertained by this amusing elderly gentleman, and she makes their holidays in Eastbourne seem like bucket and spade holidays by the seaside. Whereas in fact, she was an adult and their friendship was really a love affair.
"What is interesting is that we are looking at the 19th century with 21st century glasses on. In Victorian times what would have been scandalous would have been a clergyman going on holiday - or indeed having dinner with - an unchaperoned 25-year-old actress. We've actually been looking at it all in the wrong way round for 100 years."
Brandreth is keen to tell me how much fun the show is - "there are songs, puppets, magic, funny costumes. Michael Maloney as the Queen of Hearts and the Mad Hatter has got to be seen to be believed!" But it is also a "re-appraisal" of a sadly maligned figure.
"Lewis Carroll is somebody who wore different hats. He was a clergyman, a mathematician, a teacher. He wrote serious books, and amazing chidlren's books. He was a photographer. So like most people, he was many people in one skin. Creatively, he made a greater impact than almost any other Victorian, and yet we know next to nothing about him, we just fall back on the old cliché."
lWonderland is at Assembly @ George Street, 1:45pm, until 29 August. Gyles Brandreth - The One-to-One Show is at the Pleasance Courtyard, 4:30pm, until 30 August.