In the first extract from his hilarious new memoir, author and broadcaster GYLES BRANDRETH described a bizarre visit to Copenhagen’s red-light district as a member of Lord Longford’s Pornography Commission. Today, in the second of a three-part series, he recalls some hair-raising encounters that will make you laugh out loud…
According to Philip Larkin’s celebrated poem Annus Mirabilis, ‘Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three … between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban and the Beatles’ first LP.’
I don’t believe there was much of it at Bedales School in 1963, even though it was a co-educational boarding school. But while I was there, I did fall in love quite often.
One of my greatest triumphs was with Chrissie, who was 18 when our relationship began. I was four years her junior.
All that I have been ever since, I started being at Bedales. My wife finds this a bit depressing. Gyles Brandreth at New College, Oxford, 1968
The elder sister of a girl in my year, she’d come back to the school to see a production of Murder In The Cathedral in which I played the Messenger and had a small walk-on part as one of the monks.
I had no idea she was in the audience, until two or three days after the performance, when I received a ten-page letter from her that began: ‘My dearest darling Gyles, I saw you in the play on Friday and I have to tell you that I am now in love. Don’t laugh. This is real. This is true. This is beautiful.’
This is odd, I thought, but not unpleasant. She enclosed a photograph, and an invitation to me to write back and share my hopes and dreams and ‘innermost, innermost, INNERMOST’ thoughts with her.
I wrote back. I have no idea what I said, but I have kept every one of the 100 and more increasingly intimate letters she sent to me over the next two years. Some included line drawings of her sitting up in bed, topless, smiling at me.
There is a coda to this story. One day, when I was 16, I was lying on my bed, reading a book, when a boy popped his head around the door and said, ‘Your friend Chrissie is in the quad. She wants to see you.’
I marvel I had any friends at all. I imagine the only reason a girl ever kissed me was to shut me up. Pictured, Gyles Brandreth in 1954
When widdy got the willies
In my second year at Oxford, I stood for the Union presidency and won. My immediate contemporaries included four future ministers (William Waldegrave, Robert Jackson, Ann Widdecombe and Edwina Currie).
Ann was a tad unusual, even at 20. She had a boyfriend called Colin and they walked about like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, rather stiffly holding hands. Her faith was important to her.
As an MP later, when she travelled around the country giving speeches she took with her copies of a book, On Christian Principles, to distribute after the meeting.
Once, she left the books in her car and shortly before the meeting was seen running frantically through the streets of Maidenhead calling out to bewildered passers-by: ‘I’ve lost my Christian Principles!’
Chrissie and I had never met. I didn’t want to meet her now. Not meeting her is what had made her special. I stayed where I was.
Another message came: ‘Chrissie’s here. She’s waiting for you.’
I got up, I combed my hair, I went down to the quadrangle. I recognised her at once. She looked amazing — even sexier than her photograph.
She didn’t recognise me at all. Within three minutes, we had worked out that the boy she had wanted to correspond with had been another of the monks in Murder In The Cathedral.
Her sister had identified me by mistake. I never heard from Chrissie again.
All that I have been ever since, I started being at Bedales. My wife finds this a bit depressing. ‘There’s been no development in your life at all,’ she says.
For five years without pause, I was busy-busy-busy, running from one project to the next.
Some people at school called me ‘Supercilious Simpson’. Was I supercilious? I don’t think I was (well, no more than a bit), but I can see now that I sounded it.
The other day I came across a clip of me on TV in the 1960s. My fluting voice is embarrassing: a hideous conflation of Little Lord Fauntleroy, Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter and Leslie Howard as the Scarlet Pimpernel. And I used 100 words when ten would do.
I marvel I had any friends at all. I imagine the only reason a girl ever kissed me was to shut me up.
Every term, I produced plays and cabarets and I was in the school play every year. When I played Malvolio in Twelfth Night, the actor Michael Hordern’s daughter, Joanna, played Olivia.
Unfortunately, at the opening performance my parents were seated in front of Joanna’s parents, and every time I came on, Sir Michael — as he became — couldn’t contain himself: ‘Oh God, that boy is so dreadful. The overacting — it’s embarrassing, it’s unbearable.’ (What did he know?)
I began my life in politics at Bedales. In 1964 I was the Conservative candidate in the school’s mock general election. I collected my campaign material from the home of Lady Ashcombe who lived not far from the school.
That’s where I first caught sight of her granddaughter Camilla Shand, aged 17, in her jodhpurs, hiding in the bushes, smoking a Woodbine. Fifty-five years on, the Duchess of Cornwall doesn’t deny she was smoking, but she’s adamant it wasn’t a Woodbine.
I also edited the school magazine — and wrote most of it (of course). My first interview was with the local vicar. My second was with the President of Switzerland, whom I’d met by chance while teaching English one summer to the son of a Swiss brigadier.
President Paul Chaudet, an old friend of his, had come to dinner one night. He was 60 and looked like a friendly version of Adolf Hitler: he had warm eyes, but Hitler’s toothbrush moustache and unfortunate hairstyle. He kindly agreed to give me an interview.
Over the years, I have been lucky enough to interview an assortment of presidents, princes and prime ministers, but I don’t think any one of them has ever given me such straightforward answers as Monsieur Chaudet did for the Bedales Chronicle.
In Switzerland, women did not get the vote in federal elections until 1971. This was 1966, so I asked the President why it was that women weren’t enfranchised.
‘Because men and women are not equal,’ he said simply.
‘Do you mean that?’ I asked.
‘Yes, I do. The sexes may be complementary, but they are certainly not equal. Man is absorbed in his professional, political, social and military life, while the woman’s place is in the home.’
‘When there was last a national referendum on the matter and the referendum was open to all, how did your own wife vote?’ I asked.
That’s where I first caught sight of her granddaughter Camilla Shand, aged 17, in her jodhpurs, hiding in the bushes, smoking a Woodbine. Pictured, Gyles Brandreth and Camilla Duchess of Cornwall
‘Oh, she didn’t,’ he said amiably. ‘She couldn’t. I locked her in the bathroom for the day.’
In 1967, I arrived at Oxford, where I met everybody. Everybody. Even my wife-to-be. I certainly lived life at a crazy pace. I started writing for Isis, then sent a note to the first female president in the history of the Oxford University Dramatic Society. She suggested we meet for a drink, so we did.
Diana Quick was 21, dark, beautiful, pouting — and wearing a leather miniskirt. I’d never seen or met anyone like her. She crackled with energy and intelligence: she was exciting to be with and a bit alarming. I sensed she could eat a minnow like me for breakfast.
With student revolution running rife across the world, I’d thought it might be fun to do something counter-intuitive, like an old-fashioned family pantomime. To my surprise, she seemed amused by my idea.
She said: ‘And why not?’, but explained I would have to audition with a scene from Shakespeare.
A few days later, I did just that —and Diana played Juliet for me. I think it was asking her to suggest desire by putting her top teeth gently over her lower lip that clinched it.
After securing the gig, I put up notices in colleges across Oxford advertising the auditions: ‘If you have what it takes to be a fairy-tale princess, please come to the Music Room in New College Cloisters . . .’
Fifty-five years on, the Duchess of Cornwall doesn’t deny she was smoking, but she’s adamant it wasn’t a Woodbine
And they did — in droves, each one, it seemed, lovelier than the last. And to one of them, mid-afternoon, on the fourth day of the auditions, I heard myself saying: ‘Would you mind waiting outside for half an hour or so until we’ve finished? There’s something I want to say to you.’
There was a history lecture she didn’t mind missing, so she waited. And 53 years on, she’s still here. (She is as surprised about that as you are.)
Michèle Brown was 21 when I met her, dark-haired, bright-eyed and absurdly beautiful. When I had rattled through the rest of that afternoon’s auditions and found her sitting on a wall waiting for me, I may have said, ‘I love you’ right away.
I certainly asked her out for dinner. I was completely bowled over. But Michèle was no pushover. She played hard to get. She was wary of men in general, I think, and me in particular — with my fluting voice and fruity manner, my non-stop talking and my immediate, over-the-top declarations of love.
I presented her with a book of love poems on our first date and sent her telegrams full of drama and romance. That’s the way it worked in the days before texting. I can’t say she responded in kind.
She spent a lot of time looking at me with a gently raised left eyebrow. But I didn’t mind: at least she was looking at me.
She declined my offer of a starring part in Cinderella. Thankfully her replacement was excellent, though not quite as beautiful, and I was especially happy with my Fairy Queen.
Eliza Manningham-Buller was a jolly girl in the St Trinian’s tradition, the daughter of a former Lord Chancellor, who came trailing Benenden and breeding while laughing a lot and not taking herself too seriously.
After Oxford, I didn’t see her until I was an MP and she sidled up to me at a Foreign Office party. She was still laughing. She had joined MI5 in 1974 and was on her way to becoming its Director-General.
Cinderella was just a student production, of course, but I wanted it to have ‘that little extra something’. And I’m proud to say that Sir Michael Redgrave, then 60, agreed to perform the show’s prologue on the first night.
How did I manage that? I simply found his address in Who’s Who and wrote to him.
I went to the station to meet him. The passengers poured out of the carriages and surged past the ticket barrier. No sign of the great man. The Oxford Playhouse curtain was due to go up within the hour, but where was my star?
Then I saw him on the platform in the far distance, a huge frame in a dishevelled raincoat, carrying a little battered suitcase and looking about him with a puzzled, vacant air. I ran towards him.
‘Sir Michael?’ His large face broke into a sweet smile. He wasn’t at all well, he told me. He felt unsteady, ‘strange’, and his voice had gone, ‘completely gone’.
At the stage door, he murmured: ‘A little port might help.’ Michèle, bless her, ran into the pub next door and bought a bottle.
Standing in the wings, he took a glass of port, then another. And another. And one more.
There was something dark about clement
I first met Nicholas Parsons in 1969, when I was 21, at a Christmas party given by the TV cook Fanny Cradock. We were friends for 50 years.
With his affability, versatility, consummate professionalism and lifelong appetite for work, he was certainly a role model.
In his 96th year, Nicholas (below) was still hosting my favourite radio panel game Just A Minute and, to the very last, at the top of his game.
When it was first broadcast in 1967, Clement Freud was on the original panel. He was famous in those days as a television chef, with a lugubrious manner, best known for appearing in commercials promoting dog food.
When he was older, he had a favourite line: ‘I used to ask women to come upstairs and have sex, but now it has to be one or the other.’
That joke does not seem so amusing today. In 2016, seven years after his death, three women accused him of child sexual abuse and rape, accusations which led to a police investigation and a public apology from his widow.
I knew nothing of the allegations, but I knew him for over 40 years.
Certainly, he made you laugh, but he also, always, made you feel a bit uneasy, and seemed to relish doing so. When I was an aspiring Conservative MP and he was an established Liberal one, he invited me to lunch a few times.
At the end of the meal, when the bill arrived, although he was nominally the host, he would suggest a little gambling game. It involved making a calculated guess relating to the bill.
Whoever lost would pick up the tab. Needless to say, I always fell for it, and Clement always won.
He needed to win. He played to win. And never more so than when taking part in Just A Minute. His principal tactic was to carefully watch the clock and then interrupt when there was only a second or so to go, and thus claim the prize at the finishing line.
And once, when I was about to move ahead of him in the game, he deliberately knocked my glass of water into my lap. I am reasonably competitive myself, but I was certainly outclassed.
As the years went by, I noticed he kept less company with the rest of us before and after the show. He often ate alone.
We were uncomfortable with him and he was uncomfortable with us. I always thought he was an odd one. It seems that he was darker than we realised.
‘How are you feeling now, Sir Michael?’ I asked. ‘A great deal worse,’ he replied.
The orchestra had finished the overture. An expectant hush had fallen over the auditorium. ‘You’re on now, Sir Michael,’ I whispered.
‘I don’t think I can do it,’ he said.
‘You’re on!’ Firmly, almost roughly, I pushed him from the darkened wings on to the stage.
As the stooped, shambling figure stepped into the spotlight he was transformed, suddenly tall, erect, formidable, smiling.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, good evening!’ the mellow voice boomed. The audience cheered, the magic happened.
That night he found the energy — and the courage. Over the next 15 years, as Parkinson’s disease took a firmer grip of him and I came to know him better, finding either became increasingly difficult.
When we met in Oxford, in London, off and on, over about ten years, his mind would come and go. He would talk of the early days, of his wife Rachel Kempson (‘Dear Rachel, she puts up with such a lot’) and of Edith Evans. ‘If you are going to play Orlando, you must love your Rosalind! You know, I made love to Edith on the night [my daughter] Vanessa was born . . .’
Michael was what my friend Barbara Windsor used to call ‘Tommy Two-Ways’. All his adult life he had affairs, occasionally with women, principally with men.
Once, in the deserted debating chamber of the Oxford Union, he recited ‘To be or not to be’ just for me. It was our fifth or sixth meeting. Perhaps it was flirtation-by-Shakespeare-soliloquy. If so, there are worse kinds.
While still a student, I managed to get a literary agent in London. Irene Josephy had written to me out of the blue, having read about me, and through her I met an interestingly louche crowd.
Among them was the writer Molly Parkin, who told me she had just ‘pleasured an entire Welsh rugby team’, but added, with a theatrical wink from her over-mascaraed eyelashes, that she was ‘always ready for more’.
I also remember Francis Bacon, the artist, sitting at the bar in the Colony Room, simply staring at me. Whenever anyone spoke to him, he’d say: ‘Piss off, you c*** — I’m looking at the boy.’
In 1969, I got my own television show: Saturday night, prime time, on ITV. It was called A Child Of The Sixties and featured me — at age 21 — on a stool looking back at the 1960s, quizzing the great and the good of the day.
I have never had a show in that slot since. Soon afterwards, I did my first book signing — having written a book about prisons, an interest at the time.
It was at Selfridges and the line of shoppers stretched from the book department, through the food department, out into Baker Street and around the corner into Oxford Street.
There was a reason for that. I was sharing the table with another first-time author: the actress Sophia Loren. She sold more than 1,000 copies of her autobiography that day.
I sold 11 copies of my book about prisons: four to my mother, four to my father, two to the deputy manager of the Selfridges’ book department for customers who, apparently, had asked him to put them by. And, yes, one to Sophia Loren.
Adapted by Corinna Honan from Odd Boy Out by Gyles Brandreth, published on September 16 by Michael Joseph at £20. © Gyles Brandreth 2021. To order a copy for £18 (offer valid until September 25, 2021; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.