20 Questions With...Gyles Brandreth
Date: 2 February 2004
Ex-politician Gyles Brandreth - who created & performs in Zipp!, now on tour - reveals why he loves all his different jobs, that his big break was in Broadstairs & why being an actor is better than a Tory MP.
Gyles Brandreth has lead a number of different lives. A Lord Commissioner of the Treasury in John Major's Government and one time MP for Chester, he put politics behind him in 1997 and moved to the world of entertainment.
But Brandreth has a background in theatre, while President of the Oxford Union he was also artistic director of the Oxford Theatre Festival. He also co-produced three plays in the West End, and wrote a musical about A A Milne with Julian Slade (the creator of Salad Days) and scripted the TV series Dear Ladies with Hinge & Bracket.
Brandreth's TV appearances range from Countdown to Have I Got News for You. Whilst on Radio Four his recent credits include Broadcasting House, The Motion Show Whispers and Just A Minute. He is also a London correspondent for CBS News in the US.
Brandreth's has published his political diaries, Breaking the Code, and also written a number romantic mystery novels ( Who Is Nick Saint? and Venice Midnight) while his interviews with princes, prime ministers and stars of stage and screen are covered in Brief Encounters: Meetings with Remarkable People. His books about the theatre include biographies of Dan Leno and Harry Houdini, a history of pantomime and an acclaimed memoir of Sir John Gielgud.
Brandreth is the founder and artistic director of PMT (the Pocket Musical Theatre Co, the Ryanair of musical theatre), and author of Zipp!. At the 2002 Edinburgh Fringe, the show won the Strathmore Select Audience Award for best show. It transferred in February 2003 to the West End's Duchess Theatre, where it had a two-month run.
Zipp! is currently enjoying a three-month UK tour ahead of a New York production in October 2004. The tour opened at Darlington's Civic Theatre on 27 January 2004 and continues, until 1 May, to 33 further venues.
Date & place of birth
In a British Military hospital in Germany on the 8 March 1948 and - this is true - my first nanny was an unemployed German clown, which explains everything.
Lives now in...
I live in Barnes in London officially but it seems at the moment that I live in Darlington, Dartford, Winchester, Buxton, Llandudno, Guildford, you name it we are doing it - 33 dates in three months. I'm told that this tour is going to some places that even the ENSA didn't go to during the Second World War!
You were a Politician for many years, what made you want to get involved in the entertainment industry?
In fact I began my working life in the theatre in the 1970s. I was the artistic director of the Oxford Theatre Festival and co-produced three plays in the West End including an Evening Standard award winner called Dear Daddy. I worked with distinguished actors like Celia Johnson and John Gielgud and then I went into politics, so I'm really returning to my roots.
First big break
When I was 19 at Oxford University I presented a TV series for LWT called Child of the 60s which involved me sitting on a stool and quizzing the great and good about the 1960s. Actually my theatrical big break was appearing at the Pavilion on the Sands, Broadstairs on Novelty Night when I was seven years old, I did what was known as acrobatic dancing, I'm doing the same routine now almost 50 years later.
Career highlights to date
Zipp! in Darlington! I'm quite good at enjoying what I'm doing at the moment. It was also amazing to win the Most Popular Show award at Edinburgh with Zipp! because I'd been a Tory politician so I wasn't used to seeing cheering, happy people.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
In the 1970s I produced The Dame of Sark with Celia Johnson who was just the most lovely lady, that was fun. Failing to get Sir Ralph Richardson to appear in a play for me was great fun too, we kept having meetings that led nowhere. And I wrote a show with Julian Slade about AA Milne in which Aled Jones played Christopher Robin when he was a little boy, that was great. I did a lot with Hinge and Bracket and learnt a lot going out clubbing with them.
Andrew C Wadsworth, I'm looking at him right now, because he is a master at letting the audience relax and know that its going to be alright. So I've learnt a lot from working with him. When I was in my 20s I learnt quite a lot through working with Sir John Clements who was an actor and director of distinction, he taught me to never blame the audience.
I'm currently working with Carol Todd and the great thing about working for a woman director is she can do several things at once. There is a real joy in working for someone who is brilliantly organised - it all happens on time.
William Shakespeare and Ray Cooney.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I'm hoping to surprise myself, and possibly audiences, by returning to Shakespeare later this year... watch this space. I've missed it with Hamlet but my Leer needs to be seen to be believed!
What's the last stage production you saw that you really enjoyed?
Jumpers, with Simon Russell Beale. Tom Stoppard's way with words is mesmerising even if you don't really understand what's being said and Simon is my favourite actor of that generation.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Well I want to see less government not more, so on the whole I like to keep the government out of things. But I would certainly take the VAT off theatre tickets, that would be a good start.
You've worked in many different fields, as a Politician, on television and stage as a presenter, an actor, also a writer and interviewer which do you prefer and why?
The truth is I like doing what I'm doing on the day I'm doing it.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
I think Shakespeare, it would have been great to see some of those shows first time round and to have written them. Yes I'd be Shakespeare at the first night of Hamlet.
Favourite holiday destination
Well we're going to Swansea! Actually Zipp! is going to go to New York in the autumn, New York is pretty good. I'm also quite fond of the Isle of White.
At the moment because I'm touring in Zipp! probably The Good Companion by JB Priestley.
There's nothing to beat Whatsonstage.com
How do you feel about being nominated as London Newcomer of the Year in the Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers Choice Awards?
It's so exciting! I joined equity in about 1970 so I've waited almost 35 years for this. At least my mother is still alive to hear the good news - she's 90 this year.
Why did you want to write Zipp! what gave you the idea?
I wanted to be in a musical but I knew nobody would cast me so I thought I'd better put one on myself. Then I couldn't decide which one to do, so I decided to them all. I discovered there have been over 2000 musicals in Broadway and the West End during the twentieth century and so I had to settle for just doing 100 of them. In fact most night we touch base on about 130 different musicals.
It was a big gamble wasn't it? Writing, producing and performing in Zipp! What made you think it would be successful?
I had no idea that it would be and when we opened in Edinburgh last year and the audience stood up at the end of the show I wasn't sure what was happening. Andrew C Wadsworth, who was standing next to me, could see I was looking alarmed thinking the audience were going to storm the stage in disgust and said "Don't worry, this is a stand ovation, it means they like us!"
How do you feel about donning your suspenders again for your first tour?
As I speak to you I'm sitting in my suspenders, which is exciting for both of us! One the things I'm enjoy most is working with our new musical director Stefan Bednarczyk. You see he and I used to do a double act 20 years ago called The Unpronounceables and so its been fun to team up with him again.
Zipp! is going global - touring to Scandinavia, the US, Canada, Germany and Japan- will you be going too?
No, the Germans kindly offered to put me on an immersion course for three weeks to learn German and the German producer said "Herr Brandreth, you will take Berlin by storm!" but no. I shall hope to go to New York but in other countries there will be a local cast and I shall move on to something new.
What's your favourite number from Zipp!?
It's a love duet from Anyone Can Whistle by Stephen Sondheim. It's not a famous song, it's sung by Shona White and Andrew C Wadsworth and even though I've heard it 200 times now it still sends tingles up my spine.
What's the funniest thing that has happened during the run to date of Zipp!?
The night at the Duchess Theatre when the fire system went into overdrive and water rained onto the stage throughout the performance. There were five actors and six buckets on stage and we danced around the buckets - that night we put in "Singing in the Rain" and the audience thought it was part of the show.
Another night during the curtain call Michael Aspel came onto the stage - to do This is Your Life and I explained to the audience that this happened every night! I was totally shocked. They recorded the whole thing after the performance so we didn't finish until three am.
What are your plans for the future? More acting?
I've been asked to go back to Edinburgh, and I may, with a new show - watch this space... Whatsonstage will be the first to know! If anyone deserves an exclusive its my favourite theatrical website.
- Gyles Brandreth was speaking to Hannah Kennedy
Zipp! opened at Darlingon's Civic Theatre on 27 January 2004 and continues, until 1 May, to 33 further venues for a full schedule see listings.