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Gyles Brandreth

Gyles Brandreth

An extract from Gyles Brandreth’s new book of theatrical anecdotes

Kitty Underwood

By Kitty Underwood Published 13 November 2020

Gyles Brandreth’s new book is described as “the ultimate anthology for theatre-lovers”. Jam-packed with stories of theatrical life spanning more than four-hundred years, The Oxford Book Of Theatrical Anecdotes is a riotous journey through the history of theatre.

We’ve got a sneak peek of the prologue to Gyles’ new book and we’ve picked out some of our favourite anecdotes, for you to read below:


“What is an anecdote? According to my favourite dictionary – the Concise Oxford, fourth edition, given to me for my twelfth birthday in 1960, but still a valued companion nearly sixty years on – an anecdote is a ‘narrative of detached incident’, the story of a stand-alone moment.

For that same birthday, in 1960, I was taken to the Old Vic theatre in London to see my first Romeo and Juliet. It was directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starred a young Judi Dench as Juliet. I went with my parents.  It turned out that Judi Dench’s parents were there, too. When Juliet came on and said to the Nurse (played by Peggy Mount), ‘Where are my father and my mother, Nurse?’ a reassuring voice called out from the stalls, ‘Here we are, darling, in Row H.’ I have been collecting theatrical anecdotes ever since.

Indeed, when I go to the theatre, which is often, I am almost willing the unexpected to happen. I was at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1974 when the late, great Nicol Williamson, in the middle of a schools’ matinée of Macbeth, kicked a wooden stool across the stage in a fury and bellowed at the noisy children in the stalls to ‘belt up or get out’. My wife was at the Criterion Theatre in London, some years later, to see Williamson leave the stage six minutes after starting a performance of his one-man show about the actor, John Barrymore, remarking to the audience as he departed, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ In fact, he was back on stage the following night, explaining that the part was ‘overwhelming’ and he didn’t want to play it if he was feeling under par.  On another occasion, in New York, Williamson punched a fellow actor at the curtain call, apparently because he had misheard the actor who he had whispered as the curtain fell, ‘That’s a wrap.’

I was there at Cyrano de Bergerac at the Bristol Old Vic when the dashing matinée idol Peter Wyngarde’s wig was set alight by a candle and the actor hopped frantically around the stage before eventually yanking off his flaming head of hair to reveal to his aghast admirers that, actually, he was bald. More traumatically, I was at the Mermaid Theatre in London on the first night of William Trevor’s The Old Boys starring the mighty Sir Michael Redgrave, who had a lifelong terror of first nights. Halfway through the play the earpiece that was feeding him his lines slipped its moorings and clattered to the floor, leaving the great actor bereft and speechless.

[In the 1970s] Sir John Gielgud, came to Oxford for me to recreate some golden moments from his celebrated Richard II. When I marvelled at how he managed to cry at exactly the same point each time he performed a particular speech, he murmured apologetically, ‘Bladder too near my eyes, I’m afraid.’ Sir John was a walking encyclopaedia of theatre lore. He told me that as a boy he had been there when his great-aunt, Ellen Terry, delivered the immortal line, ‘Let us find a nosy cook.’ On his last first night in the West End, Gielgud, aged 80, briefly forgot his lines, stamped his foot impatiently until the prompt came and then carried on.  Gielgud’s whole life revolved around the theatre and he continued working almost until his death, aged 96, in 2000. As I learnt when I wrote his biography, work to him was everything and, even in his nineties, he would become anxious and impatient if his partner spent too long on the telephone. ‘Get off the line, Martin,’ he’d plead.  ‘My agent may be trying to get through.’

In my book, theatre is often best when the unexpected occurs. If you want to see something flawless, buy a box-set. In the movies, no one ‘dries’, no one ‘corpses’, no one enters late or drunk or in the middle of the wrong scene. No one fluffs their lines and you only get to see what the director wants you to see. It is a film, a fixed record of something pre-packaged and polished to perfection. The theatre is different. The theatre is live and electric: it is happening before your very eyes in the here and now, that’s the essence of it.  And when something goes awry, it’s a powerful reminder of just that.”


For even more funny anecdotes, both on-stage and off, you’ll have to read The Oxford Book Of Theatrical Anecdotes. You can find out more about Gyles Brandreth’s brand new book and where to get your hands on a copy on the Oxford University Press website.


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