Interview: '˜The Fringe saved my life', says Gyles Brandreth

Gyles Brandreth lauds '˜egalitarian Edinburgh' and relates anecdotes about Laurence Olivier and Bernard Manning as he and his award-winning son Benet prepare to stage shows

Gyles and Benet Brandreth. The elder celebrates live theatre from the 1950s to the Kardashians, while the younger offers a bravura display of wordsmithery. Picture: Greg Macvean
Gyles and Benet Brandreth. The elder celebrates live theatre from the 1950s to the Kardashians, while the younger offers a bravura display of wordsmithery. Picture: Greg Macvean

We are in the chambers of Benet Brandreth QC, son of Gyles. Brandreths père et fils are surely the most accomplished and gilded of the genre since the Dumas duo. We are taking tea and Brandreth the Elder is recounting a tale of sharing a bath with Julian Fellowes – “he is the only Oscar winner with whom I have shared a bath” muses Gyles – as a small boy. I ask if, from that bath, he imagined things ending up the way they have.

“No,” he answers with admirable honesty, “I thought I would be Prime Minister. But people had different ideas – they thought, ‘No! He is going to do better upstairs at the Pleasance Courtyard’. Life has not turned out as I hoped it would.” But if anyone can take sour grapes and turn them into an excellent claret, Brandreth can. Arguably the most delightful PM we never had is unequivocal in his love of Edinburgh. “As you know, Edinburgh saved my life,” he says crisply.

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I suspect no-one except family will ever have seen quite how dark was Brandreth’s personal “dark night of the soul” after the 1997 election. “After I lost my seat, Michelle [his wife] said, ‘Come on, you know when one door closes… it is shut. What do you want to do now?’ And that is when I thought, I want to do a musical.” So he did 100 musicals.

In 90 minutes. Zipp! was ahuge Fringe success. “No-one seemed to be aware of what a Conservative MP was because they didn’t have any. So there was no hostility as there was in England. Mr Blair comes along and we were out… and there was quite a… legacy. But we arrived in Edinburgh and here was this extraordinary place where there were shows for six-year-olds and there was Nicholas Parsons… and they were all equal… students, seasoned professionals, world famous stars and nobodies. It is a proper egalitarian society.”

Huge as Zipp! was for the Fringe, it was even huger for Gyles. “ It completely changed my life. The tights, the make-up – there was a black market in the tickets ! I met Ian McKellen queueing for returns and he said, ‘Are you wearing your tights under your trousers?’ and I said, ‘How on earth did you guess that?’ and he said, ‘Because I’m wearing mine.’ He wore suspenders to the show secretly, to show support, he told me.”

Brandreth the Younger might not have persuaded theatrical aristocracy into cross dressing, but his 2011 Fringe debut, The Brandreth Papers, received not only five stars from The Scotsman, but also the prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award for the Act Most Likely To Make A Million Quid. “Sadly, not quite there yet,” he says.

Given his elevation to silk this year and a burgeoning intellectual law practice coupled with regular engagements to teach the art of rhetoric at the RSC and a new book out, one feels it is only a matter of time. “It has,” he says cheerily, “allowed me to describe myself as ‘the award-winning’ Benet Brandreth.” What drew him back to the Gilded Balloon after a seven-year hiatus? “Child care opportunity,” he replies, and Brandreth Snr’s brows shoot into a still luxuriant hairline.

“This is the first I am hearing about child care duties,” he says. “The Scotsman has a scoop! It is exhausting to be giving one’s all in the theatre, my first duty is to my paying public, of course! And I shall be spending my days handing out flyers,” – he sighs a grandfatherly sigh – “possibly with a couple of children in tow, if they are ready to hand out flyers, until the sold-out notices go up.” Benet seems to see no legal impediment to the use of his offspring as marketing tools, and Grandpa continues: “This year’s show is Brexit-free, Trump-free, and MeToo-free – a celebration of the magic of live theatre from the 1950s to the Kardashians.” I choke on my tea. “Oh yes, me and Kourtney Kardashian.”

I am treated to a few genuinely hilarious tales from the show involving Laurence Olivier, Vanessa Redgrave and Bernard Manning. Separately, of course. Brandreth does not drop names, he turns them into filigree baubles and launches them at you. I try to persuade him to include his personal MeToo moment involving a lot of alcohol, a hot tub and legendary entertainer Jimmy Edwards. We shall see.

Lest he does not include it for reasons of modesty, let me tell you of his Derek Jacobi moment, which occurred in the foyer of the Park Theatre, after Simon Evans and David Aula’s three-person, 90-minute Hamlet : Benet as the Dane, Gyles as Polonius, Ghost and Claudius and Benet’s wife, American actress Kosha Engler, as practically everything else. As the three left the theatre post-show, their path was blocked by Jacobi, who stood there applauding.

“I am making the image my phone wallpaper,” says Benet. The thinking person’s Hamlet had come, unannounced, with his partner, sat at the back and enjoyed the show so much he has been instrumental in getting it booked to play Elsinore itself. Should you be unable to get to Denmark for the performance, there is, Benet tells me, a virtual reality version of the production, in which, should you look over your shoulder, you can see Dame Eileen Atkins sitting behind you.

Benet’s own show promises another bravura display of wordsmithery. And metaphorical ramekins. It sounds very much like a deliciously intellectual Red Bastard. “We will agree with the most appalling things if some charismatic, stunningly good-looking man tells us to,” says the charismatic, stunningly good-looking Brandreth Jnr.

He continues, telling me that we, the audience, will become frogs in his figurative frying pan and putty in his hands. If he is half this persuasive in court, he could undoubtedly patent air should Monsanto ever decide so to do.

For now the pair are all about marketing. There is discussion of a reduction for anyone bringing their own (actual) ramekins to Benet’s show, a double bill discount, and special deals for fathers and sons coming along to the shows. But the Brandreths are a special deal all on their own. The Olivier anecdote might be the most you will laugh all month.

Gyles Brandreth: Break A Leg, Pleasance Courtyard until 26 August; Benet Brandreth: A Hero For Our Times, Gilded Balloon Teviot, until 27 August