Tatty theatres and good companions
It must be 40 years or more since I first promised my wife, Michele, that we’d start taking Sundays off. I do mean to get around to it, it just hasn’t quite happened yet.
My perfect weekend wouldn’t necessarily involve time off, however. On the whole, I think Noël Coward was right in saying “Work is more fun than fun”. And the work I do at weekends is very varied.
I’m based in Barnes, south-west London, and I am currently spending all my weekends in a pub theatre in Islington, The King’s Head. They are putting on the London premiere of a play I wrote 26 years ago about AA Milne, who created Winnie the Pooh. He was a fascinating and complicated man who had a difficult relationship with his son, Christopher Robin, who I knew a little and liked a lot. The current cast are extraordinarily funny and poignant, and I sit there with tears in my eyes watching them. I think a rehearsal room is the happiest place I know.
When I leave them I am off on a tour of my new one-man show, Looking for Happiness, which is showing most Friday nights, Saturday and Sunday afternoons and evenings for the next six months. I’ll be appearing in theatres all over the UK, from Durham to Great Yarmouth. Some will be beautiful like the Jersey Opera House or the theatre in Richmond, designed by the great Victorian architect Frank Matcham; others rather more municipal. The Bruce Forsyth Auditorium in Edmonton, north London, is a collector’s item in its own way.
I like all theatres, even the tatty ones. In some ways, I particularly like the tatty ones, with the cracked basin in the dressing room and the single light bulb – I can pretend I am a character in JB Priestley’s The Good Companions.
After the show, I’ll be signing copies of my accompanying book, The 7 Secrets of Happiness. It’s fun to meet my audience: sometimes I’ll say as they shake my hand “you are shaking the hand that shook the hand that held the paw of Winnie the Pooh”, just to give them something extra. The book is based on my conversations with the late Professor Anthony Clare [medical director of St Patrick’s Hospital in Dublin and presenter of the Radio 4 show, In The Psychiatrist’s Chair] about who gets to be happy and why, and how. Clare was a remarkable man who’d made quite a study of what makes people happy at heart and he taught me a lot. The show is more larky than the book but happiness is clearly a subject that resonates with people: a lot of them have said they find my show an uplifting experience. That’s very rewarding. I am not used to a happy audience – I was a politician, after all [he was the Conservative MP for Chester from 1992-97].
I don’t miss politics at all. I have friends who are politicians and I admire them, but I no longer envy them. Occasionally the Prime Minister asks me for a joke for one of his speeches and I do my best to oblige, but that’s the extent of my political involvement nowadays.
I have done a variety of things in my time but I hope I am not a dilettante. I do try to do what I do properly and now, I’m happy with my lot. Outside my weekend show, I’ll spend a couple of days a week filming for The One Show – I have been a reporter on the programme since it began – and I am often away speaking at dinners or hosting awards ceremonies. I go to literally scores of these in a year but I still find them engaging.
Herbal tea or stiff drink? Green tea at breakfast, then coffee, then bitter lemon, then water. I don’t drink alcohol.
Best car you’ve ever owned? A yellow Noddy pedal car, when I was about four.
What era would you like to have been born in? Late-Victorian London.
What are you listening to? Frank Sinatra. Being rolled up in a brown rug on the floor for rest-time at the jardin d’enfants, at the French Lycée in London, when I was about three. I visited Archbishop Desmond Tutu at his home in Cape Town. He is a bundle of joy, a human ray of sunshine.
A button from Sir Donald Wolfit’s King Lear costume
The autographed letters of Henry Irving…
… and those of Winston Churchill
The ministerial box I got when I became a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury
Fozzie Bear from The Muppets, given to me by Jim Henson When I worked as an interviewer for The Sunday Telegraph I once interviewed the Queen of Denmark, who passed on some good advice from her father. He’d told her she would have to attend an awful lot of dinners and speeches in her lifetime and she could either sit back and be bored, or sit forward and be interested. So I try and sit forward, and I think I have a pretty good finger on the pulse of British business as a result. I’ve gone everywhere, from the British Veterinary Awards to the British Funeral Awards, and it’s not unusual for me to be in Frankfurt, Harrogate, Belfast, Cardiff, Aberdeen, Lincoln and Leeds in the space of a week, in that order.
Michele often comes with me on my travels. If I’m touring she sits backstage and takes notes, counting the laughs and timing it all. Then after a show we tend to go for a late Chinese or Indian meal and she tells me where I went wrong that night. I like that, because I want to get it right. Little things like a different word or inflection, or a misplaced pause, make a big difference.
We’ll stay at a b& b near the theatre and on Sunday morning we’ll go to the local cathedral for the eight o’clock service. I prefer the Book of Common Prayer but I am learning to accept change (not resisting change is one of the seven secrets of happiness, I’ve found). And then it’s on to the next venue. We do 5pm shows on a Sunday and follow that with another Indian or Chinese meal or a panino in a motorway service station. We are good companions.
I met Michele at Oxford, 45 years ago, when she auditioned to play Cinderella in a play I was directing. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t cast her as the lead, but I did offer her a Chinese meal and here we are, 45 years later, still having sweet and sour chicken together. Our children are all
is a role model. He turns 90 next month and he still works all the time. I’m not really anticipating spending weekends with the pipe and slippers around the fire any time soon but I do occasionally enjoy a roast Sunday lunch: I’m only human.
Look for the bear necessities: Gyles Brandreth at rehearsals for his play about AA Milne, with the bear playing the original Winnie the Pooh, in The King’s Head pub theatre, London