Sam Leith

Impossible to dislike

In 1968, when he was still a student at Oxford, Gyles Brandreth was interviewed in the Sun.

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Something Sensational to Read on the Train

Gyles Brandreth

John Murray, pp. 584, £

In 1968, when he was still a student at Oxford, Gyles Brandreth was interviewed in the Sun. The headline was a quote from him: ‘I’d like to be a sort of Danny Kaye and then Home Secretary.’ It’s about bang on. He achieved the first, rather than the second, and the fact that it never occurred to him that he couldn’t do both is what’s great about him.

He’s a very clever fellow and a colossal show-off. He is all over Isis, and the Oxford Union and the Oxford University Dramatic Society within weeks of starting university, not to mention selling fabricated diary stories about himself and arranging to be followed around by TV crews wherever he goes.

What marks him out from the usual publicity crazed Oxbridge overachiever is that he lacks pomposity to such an extent that he really can’t tell the difference between Home Secretary and Danny Kaye. This makes him, for my money, more appealing than the ones who are set with cold-eyed ambition on being either. He’s a warmer and more guileless version of Boris Johnson, a smarter and less crooked version of Jeffrey Archer, a cuddlier and less punk-rock version of Bungle from Rainbow.

I started making a list of cherishably ridiculous sentences I might include in this review, and going back to it I find there’s barely room for half of them. These are sentences where you laugh at Brandreth — of course — but laugh with him too:

The Nobel Prizes have been announced and I have been overlooked again. But, look on the bright side: this morning at TV-am I did my stuff as the Joke Correspondent on the Wide-Awake Club and then, as NFPA Appeals Chairman, I masterminded the World’s Biggest Cracker Chain Pull in Trafalgar Square.



Even his rage is comical. After a forcibly tied competition to deliver the longest after-dinner speech of all time, he reports: ‘I am going to have to share a world record with Nicholas Parsons. Of course I’m effing angry.’ Naturally, he subsequently makes a successful solo assault on the record.

He is so eager to please. Kenneth Tynan, at a party on a barge, offers girls money to take off their tops: ‘I want to see some young tits! I want to see something happening!’ None obliges, so Gyles throws himself fully clothed into the river. He stands on his head in front of paying audiences. He solves a contractual dispute with a publisher by touring the country dressed in a Snoopy costume. (‘My second ludicrous weekend in Butlins in Minehead playing Snoopy. The place is hateful — like a prisoner-of-war camp.’)

He advertises Bird’s Eye Waffles and Opal Fruits and narrowly misses, as a young man, being ‘the new face of milk’. He invents games to go on Rice Krispie packets, acquires boardgame rights to Korky the cat, and marks Shrove Tuesday ‘by tossing the world’s tiniest pancake “live” on the Today programme’.

He invents That’s Life! and starts the National Scrabble Championships; opens a teddy bear museum and a doomed theme park dedicated to the royal family; becomes famous for wearing eccentric jumpers and is a close associate of Roland Rat. In the final, Situationist move, he becomes a Conservative member of Parliament in the Major government.

The energy of him! My God. At the beginning of 1980, Brandreth is lunching publishers: ‘The aim is to sell at least a book a week.’ That ‘at least’ is the killer. He’s writing joke books, puzzle books, books of rude quotes with an introduction by Kenneth Williams, books of sarcastic quotes with an introduction by Leonard Rossiter — and this is all aside from the ‘diaries, calendars, games etc’ he’s flogging. In 1983, he takes on the job of writing a sitcom about Billy Bunter, recording that it’s the fifth sitcom he’s now supposed to be writing. Chronological accounts of his days often have him on his third daytime television appearance by the time most of us are getting out of bed.

He merits the backhanded compliment of ‘impossible to dislike’. But he does not merit the forehanded insult ‘smug’, the traditional epithet the idle and morose apply to the happy and successful. He is happy, and he is successful. He earned the latter. The former seems to be temperamental.

Thus, annoyingly, he lacks many of the qualities you look for in a diarist. He is minimally bitchy, apparently almost impossible to embitter, shows a discretion that the reader applauds but does not rejoice in, and doesn’t shag about. A promising youthful polyamorousness gives way very soon to an apparently blissful marriage. He has eyes only for his wife Michele, or ‘M’ — and not even the charms of Joanna Lumley (glimpsed in her pants) or Mary Kenny (braless in a see-through top) are enough to draw them astray.

If he has a dark side, it’s seldom in evidence here. He admits to not liking parties as much as his public persona suggests, to insomnia, and to having ‘very little feeling for anyone beyond M and the children’. Suggestively, he writes in a parenthesis: ‘I can’t relax. I don’t relax. I get through life by working.’ But mostly — at least for the purposes of these amusing diaries — he’s lost in vaudeville.

There’s a sort of running joke of Prince Philip — with whom Brandreth first comes in contact through his work at the National Playing Fields Association — thinking he’s a nincompoop. Introduced at a reception to ‘the President of Pakistan’, Brandreth is hopelessly tongue-tied. Prince Philip returns, and intuits what’s going on: ‘He’s the president of the Pakistan Playing Fields Association you idiot. He is not General Zia. Does he look like General Zia? Good God, man, do you know anything?’ When Brandreth boasts on another occasion of having had breakfast with ‘Blake Carrington from Dynasty’, the Duke responds: ‘I haven’t the first idea what you’re talking about. I had breakfast with the Queen.’ Finally, Prince Philip is visiting Chester with his wife in the early 1990s, and comes upon Brandreth among the dignitaries lined up to receive them.

‘What are you doing here?’

‘I’m the Member of Parliament.’

‘Good God, are you really?’

His reboundingness is amazing, and to be admired. As his father is dying, he writes:

Pa is very gaunt, weak and weary, and the hospice — though light and airy, with kindly, caring staff — is essentially grim. Of course it is. It is full of dying people. And some of them are very young. It’s heartbreaking. I left Pa to go to a meeting to discuss the new Tony Tiger promotion for Kellogg’s Frosties.

He’s proud of his place in history. He boasts at various times of having shaken the hand that shook the hand of Wilde, Brahms, Virginia Woolf, John Buchan, and Winnie-the-Pooh. He is thwarted in his hopes of physical contact with Nelson Mandela and Charles de Gaulle, but he personally throws up on Ted Heath’s shoes, watches Brendan Behan’s brother urinate on some valuable wallpaper, and declines the chance to give Frankie Howerd a handjob.

The death of Elvis puts Brandreth in elegiac mood: ‘I never met him!’ he laments, but adds by way of compensation:

I met Johnny Rotten in the lobby of the Midland Hotel, Manchester. ‘Oh, Mr Rotten,’ I cooed, ‘what an honour to meet you.’ ‘Fuck off, fuckface,’ he replied.

Well, quite. 

Written bySam Leith

Sam Leith is an English author, journalist and literary editor of The Spectator.

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