facebook play-alt chevron-thin-right chevron-thin-left cancel location info chevron-thin-down star-full help-with-circle calendar images mail whatsapp directions_car directions_bike train directions_walk directions_bus close spinner11
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.


Sign up

gyles brandreth

Related articles

Due to the current pandemic various venues and productions are making announcements for their individual shows. Please bear with us as we try to keep this page as up to date as possible. If you find a mistake, please let us know by emailing enquiries@soltukt.co.uk. If you click through to seat selection (where you'll see either best available or a seating plan), you will be seeing the most up-to-date prices. If this differs from what we've written on the calendar, please bear with us, as those prices will update soon.

We now sell our famous TKTS Booth discounts online here at Official London Theatre.

We are now cancelling all performances up until and including 31 May 2020 to help us process existing bookings whilst we wait for further clarity from the government in terms of when we will be able to reopen.

We are so sorry that in these testing and difficult times you are not able to enjoy the show you have booked for and hope the following helps clarify next steps in respect of your tickets .

There is nothing that you need to do if your performance has been cancelled, but we do ask for your patience.

If you have booked directly with the theatre or show website for an affected performance, please be assured that they will contact you directly to arrange an exchange for a later date, a credit note/voucher or a refund. If you have booked via a ticket agent they will also be in contact with you directly.

We are processing in strict date order of performance, so you are likely to be contacted after the date you were due to go to the theatre. However, we want to reassure you that you will be contacted, and your order will be processed, but please do bear with us.

We’d like to thank everyone who has been patient and kind in dealing with their ticket providers so far and we are sorry that we cannot process your order as quickly as we would like.

Please do not contact your credit card company as that will slow the process down and put an additional burden on our box office and ticket agent teams.

In order for us to serve our audiences the best we can, please do not get in touch with your point of sale if you have booked for performances after 31 May. Please be reassured that if we have to cancel future performances you will be directly contacted by your theatre or ticket provider. Our producers continue to plan for all eventualities dependent on the individual needs of their shows and we will provide further updates on specific shows as and when they become available.

We look forward to welcoming you back into our theatres as soon as we are allowed to resume performances. In the meantime stay safe and healthy.

For more than 40 years, TKTS was our on-the-day theatre ticket box office in Leicester Square. Currently closed due to the current situation, we are now selling our great last minute seats and prices online. Click here to learn more.

While theatres are currently closed, various venues and productions are making announcements for their individual shows, including cancellations and rescheduled performances. Please check with the individual shows for details.