Gyles Brandreth’s Diary
It will double my panto fee but destroy my credibility, my wife says
If I am asked again next year, should I consider appearing on Strictly Come Dancing?
I have said no to rumbling in the jungle with Ant and Dec, despite the invitation email mentioning a fee of £140,000. (I don’t like creepy-crawlies and I’m scared of heights.) I have said no to The Real Marigold Hotel, though it worked wonders for Miriam Margolyes. (The money wasn’t enough to make up for the weeks away from home.) I have done Celebrity Mastermind, Celebrity Pointless and Celebrity The Chase because I enjoy a good quiz show (and they are three of the best), and Celebrity Antiques Road Trip was fun because I was teamed up with my old friend Nicholas Parsons, 94, who insisted on doing all the driving.
My agent is keen for me to do Strictly. He says it will double my money for panto. It’s a wonderful show, no question, but my fear is that I am not equal to the challenge. I have no sense of rhythm, no ear for music and I am the wrong shape. The older, novelty contestants who have done well on Strictly have all been on the spherical side: John Sergeant, Ann Widdecombe, Russell Grant, Ed Balls. I’d be out in week three and I’m frightened of failure.
I’m also frightened of my wife who reminds me on a regular basis that every time I appear on anything that has the faintest whiff of ‘celebrity’ about it, I am putting another nail in the coffin of whatever credibility I might once have had. She does not need to remind me. This morning, at the bus stop, a stranger stared at me for a while and then said, ‘I don’t know who you are, but you’re a celebrity, aren’t you?’
I must have been an odd young man. At Oxford in the late 1960s, I remember being preoccupied with the question of which of our generation would be the first to join the Order of the Garter.
I assumed it would be William Waldegrave because, when he was President of the Oxford Union, he handled a visit from the Queen with such ease that he seemed the obvious eventual shoo-in for Her Majesty’s oldest order of chivalry.
Subsequently, the boy done well, gliding through the Cabinet to the House of Lords and ending up as Provost of Eton, but he was beaten to the Garter by someone who wasn’t even on my list. And a woman, too.
Eliza Manningham-buller was appointed to the Order of the Garter in 2014. At Oxford, she starred as the Fairy Queen in my undergraduate production of Cinderella. She was sensational but, after Oxford and her moment in the limelight, she disappeared into the shadows. We discovered why, in 2002, when it was revealed that she had become the head of MI5.
I was working for the Sunday Telegraph at the time and the only photograph of her we could find was a still from our student Cinderella. The editor ran it on the front page, under the headline, ‘At last, MI5 has a real fairy in charge.’
For that 1968 Cinderella, I invited assorted stars of stage and screen to come to Oxford to perform a prologue.
One of them was the great James Robertson Justice, best remembered as Sir Lancelot Spratt in Doctor in the House and its sequels. Half an hour before he was due on stage, I went to the Randolph Hotel to collect him. I knocked on his bedroom door. The familiar voice boomed, ‘Enter!’ I did. And there I found him, a mountain of a man, stark naked, lying flat on his back, spreadeagled on the double bed.
What do I remember most about his appearance on that occasion? His whole body was covered with a forest of curly, silver hair and nestling in it, on his chest, was a silver hip flask, open and now empty. I helped him to his feet. I helped him into his clothes. I helped him to the theatre. He took the stage, unhelped, and by storm.
Jimmy Edwards was the next performer I saw starkers. I was a young writer in my twenties and he was in his sixties, with the glory days of Whack-o! and Take It From Here behind him. I was helping him with his war memoirs (he had earned his DFC). He provided me with a fine liquid lunch at his cottage in the country but, just before throwing the steaks into the pan and opening the second bottle of wine, he took of all his clothes and suggested I might like to join him in his hot tub.
I didn’t, but I did spend many hours with him, talking mainly, I recall, of his woes and his money worries. At the time I had money worries (my first mortgage), and felt for him.
If you have money worries now, I feel for you, too. There’s nothing worse. Chatting recently with my friend Jeffrey Archer, he told me that of all the troubles in his life – a prison sentence included – nothing had been worse than money worries.
I interviewed the late, great stage director Peter Hall when he turned seventy and while I wanted to talk about Shakespeare and Beckett, he talked mostly about the problem he had paying the school fees. He resented the fact that he had never hit the jackpot as some of his contemporaries had done. ‘Trevor Nunn made a fortune out of Cats. The nearest I’ve come to making anything was with Amadeus.’ Hall had six children by four wives. ‘Why do you keep on getting married?’ I asked.
‘Because I’m a perfectionist,’ he said. ‘When it isn’t all right, it’s all wrong’.