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20 Questions with... Gyles Brandreth

Gyles Brandreth's 'play with music' Now We Are Sixty, about the life of Winnie the Pooh author AA Milne, is being revived at the King's Head Theatre in Islington, where it opens on Sunday (8 September)

Gyles Brandreth
Where and when were you born?
8 March, 1948, British Forces Hospital, Wuppertal. My father was serving in Germany as part of the Allied Control Commission after the Second World War.

What were you like as a child?
Alarmingly, much as I am now. My wife (who has known me for 45 years) says there has been disappointingly little development as the years have gone by. She thinks I am still locked in the world of Winnie-the-Pooh.

Back up career plan?
To be Prime Minister.

First big break?
Playing Rosalind in As You Like It in a school production, aged twelve. (Vanessa Redgrave was doing it at Stratford the same season. I remember sensing I had the edge on her.)

Career highlights to date?
Producing Celia Johnson in The Dame of Sark in the 1970s; creating Now We Are Sixty with Julian Slade in the 1980s (when Aled Jones played Christopher Robin); in the 1990s devising Zip-a-dee-doo-dah with Stewart Nicholls... The show transmogrified into Zipp! 100 Musicals in 100 Minutes or Your Money Back and my happiest night in the theatre was around 2002 when we were on tour at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and there was a moment in the wings when Andrew C Wadsworth (who starred in Zipp! and is playing A A Milne in Now We Are Sixty) and I looked at one another and thought, ‘Yes, tonight it's working.' It doesn't happen often, but when it does it makes the whole business worthwhile.

Any regrets?
Of course, but I don't want to remind myself – or you.

What was the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
Uncle Vanya at Chichester in 1962 with Michael Redgrave and Laurence Olivier. It remains for me the most wonderful production of any play I have seen. (And I have seen a lot.)

And the last?
Last month in Edinburgh I saw Helen Griffin in a remarkable and moving one-woman play, Who's Afraid of Rachel Roberts?

Why did you want to write a play about A A Milne?
I was reading the Pooh poems to my children and thought ‘These are fun – this man Milne writes amazing light verse. We could turn this stuff into a musical.' I met up with Julian Slade (a childhood hero of mine because I was brought up on Salad Days and still know every number by heart) and we began to write our happy musical. But almost as soon as I started to read around the subject I realized there was so much more to Milne than his children's books. He was a witty columnist (the Craig Brown of his day), a prolific and hugely successful playwright (in the Ayckbourn mould) and a fascinatingly complicated character.

What was the cause of his ‘darker nature'?
I think I'd call him ‘complex' rather than ‘dark', though there were dark moments in all his relationships – with his father, his brother, his wife (who was also his cousin) and with his only son, Christopher Robin – who came to resent his father for having, in Christopher's words, ‘built his reputation by standing on a small boy's shoulders'.

Did he regret writing the Pooh books?
I don't think he regretted writing the books, but he came to resent their success. What troubled Milne is that his four short children's books, written between 1926 and 1928, came to define him - completely. He resented the way everything else he had done and would do – the plays, the novels, the political writing - was overshadowed by them. He called his moving autobiography, It's Too Late Now.

Why do authors so often make fascinating dramatic subjects?
Perhaps it's because they have intriguing and complicated interior lives – and we can dig deep into those lives by reading their work. In our play, we use a lot of Milne's own words and that's wonderful for us because he is a brilliant writer – funny and poignant. I have written about the lives of J M Barrie and Enid Blyton among others, and I am working on a musical about Lewis Carroll and the actress who played Alice on stage, Isa Bowman. Writers who have a special access to childhood often seem to have difficulties living comfortably in the adult world – and that's fascinating. What I love about Now We Are Sixty is that it's both a period comedy about Milne's world (and style) and an exploration of Milne's own relationships with his son and wife and brother and father. We are so blessed in this production to have players of the calibre of Andrew C Wadsworth and Charlotte Page playing the Milnes – and a character actor of Russell Grant's glorious gifts playing some of Alan's interesting relations. (And given it's a play about the Milnes, I am intrigued that our director happens to be called Milnes too.)

What's your favourite London haunt?
At the moment, The King's Head in Islington. It's a space I really love. I think I first went there to see Simon Cadell and Joanna Lumley in Noel and Gertie about 35 years ago.

You're a well known after dinner speaker – do you have a favourite theatre anecdote?
I am fond of the story of the young actor playing Hamlet for the first time who goes to get advice from one of the older members of the company – now playing Polonius, but a noted Hamlet in his day. The young actor asks the old actor, ‘What do you think is the essence of the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia? How close are they? For example, does Hamlet sleep with Ophelia?' The old actor replies, ‘Well, I don't know about the West End, laddie, but we always did on tour.'

How do you unwind?
I go to see a play by Shakespeare. He has never let me down.

If you could swap places with anyone for a day, who would it be?
Barack Obama.

Who are your acting/writing idols?
When I was 20, I was befriended by Michael Redgrave who recited ‘To be or not to be for me' for me when we were alone together in the Oxford Union. His voice was quite extraordinary. Later I got to know Sir John Gielgud and wrote his biography. He was incomparable – and especially matchless in Shakespeare and Wilde, who are two of my many literary idols. I have spent the last few years having fun writing a series of Victorian murder mysteries, featuring Oscar Wilde as my detective and Arthur Conan Doyle (another idol) as his side-kick.

As a former Tory MP, what are your feelings on arts cuts?
I am against them and always have been – but I have never known a time when there weren't ‘cuts'. In 1972 my first job in the theatre was as artistic director of the Oxford Theatre Festival. I got the job at the Oxford Playhouse because the Arts Council cut the grant to Frank Hauser and the Meadow Players and I was the cheap alternative. It's an ill-wind etc... Change and challenge is what the theatre has been about ever since the Earl of Leicester's patronage of James Burbage hit the rocks in 1588.

Favourite book?
I keep a diary and love reading other people's diaries, from Pepys to Noel Coward and Virginia Woolf. My favourite diaries are probably those of the actor William Macready. Frank Barrie, rightly celebrated for his one-man Macready show, introduced me to them and they are both fascinating and beautifully written – and evidence that little has changed in the theatre in two hundred years.

What's next?
I am touring a new one-man show I've written called Looking for Happiness. It's an alarming number of dates all over the place between now and the spring, but it ends with a season at the Leicester Square Theatre in the West End, opening there on 29 April 2014. It will be 50 years to the week since, in the same street, I saw Sir Donald Wolfit perform ‘the death of Bill Sikes' at Fielding's Music Hall. I am very happy about that. I like to think I am as modern as tomorrow, with a lot of time for yesterday.

Now We Are Sixty is at the King's Head on 8, 9, 15, 16 and 22 September 2013