Tatty theatres and good com­pan­ions

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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

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