Giles Brandreth, Member Of Parliament, television presenter, jumper-wearer, raconteur, world-record holder, author and actor is best described as a Giles-of-all-trades. Tonight he ticks off another box on his list of a-million-and-one-things to do before you die when he stars in Zipp! The Musical at The Duchess Theatre. He invited Tom Bowtell up to his dressing room to admire his dresses and have a chat.
"Zipp! is perfect for those who hate musicals"
As soon as the Dictaphone is switiched on, Gyles launches into a finely-honed (and totally unprompted) Zipp! monologue: “the essence of Zipp is that it’s a comedy. It’s a comedy about musicals and with musicals and it’s for people who love musical theatre, but it’s just as much for people who hate musical theatre. Those that love it have the night of their lives because they see 100 of their favourite shows in quick succession, for those who hate musical theatre it’s perfect as they get through the whole repertoire in one fell swoop. ”
Brandreth has been developing Zipp! for much of the last two years: “During the 2001 general election, my wife said to me ‘You’re not going back into politics, even if you’re tempted. Do something else, whatever you most want to do, but not that.’ I decided that I most wanted to do was a musical, and started thinking about which one. I thought ‘well, I’d like to do My Fair Lady, but then I’d quite like to do Jesus Christ Superstar, also I wouldn’t mind playing Elvis, then I thought there’s a bit of Barbara Streisand in us all and what about Hello Dolly?' So then I decided we’d do all the musicals, and so the idea of Zipp! was born. “We describe ourselves as the Ryan Air of musical theatre, no frills, bring your own sandwiches, there may be turbulence, but boy, do we represent value for money.” There is even a money-back offer attached to the show: if the cast don’t get through the promised 100 shows in 90 minutes the audience are entitled to claim a full refund. This has happened only once, in Lincoln, and is unlikely to happen again “they’ve changed the contract to stipulate that I have to give my fee back as well – which tends to sharpen the mind…”
Jesus Christ Superstar does his uncanny Gyles Brandreth impression. Brandreth has, he confesses, wanted to be involved with a musical for approximately 29 years, and first thought of the pocket musical while he was running the Oxford Theatre Festival in the 1970’s. “My first idea was to do Waiting For Godot the musical, so I wrote to Samuel Beckett in Paris to ask him. He wrote back a postcard. It was a very short postcard and it only contained one word, and the word was NO”.
I must be the first Conservative to win a poll in Scotland since Disraeli!
Does Brandreth, a man who has basically done everything, consider Zipp! to be his greatest triumph? “Well the success of it has been a great and lovely surprise. As a Conservative MP, I wasn’t used to seeing row upon row of happy smiling faces! When we first got a standing ovation, I thought it was because people were going to throw things!” Brandreth was even more chuffed when Zipp! won the public poll for the most popular show at last year’s Edinburgh Festival “a former chairman of the Conservative party in Scotland phoned me and said that I must be the first Conservative to top a poll in Scotland since Mr Disraeli’s death!” Brandreth delivers these jokes with the impeccable timing of a practised after-dinner speaker. Modestly, (for he devised and wrote the piece), Brandreth doesn’t take the credit for its successes so far. “On our side we’ve got Cole Porter, The Gershwins, Roger and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber. You know, the truth is that we’ve got the adrenalin rush that comes from the greatest show tunes from the 20th Century.”
As well as playing the pantomime dame role (his Hello Dolly moment would surely be illegal outside of a theatrical context) Brandreth briefly appears as Jesus Christ himself and also actually sings on numerous occasions. He denies taking any voice training for his part, relying instead on his experiences as a child performer. “As a child I did two sorts of singing, I was a choirboy for many years and – this is an exclusive, by the way – at the Pavilion On The Sands, Broadstairs, I was a summer seaside treat for three nights a week. I did what was known as eccentric singing and novelty dancing.” And what did this novelty dancing entail? “Well, let’s just say my dancing technique has changed little over the years,” he twinkles, “it involved a lot of throwing of legs in random directions while occasionally standing on my head.” He pauses, before adding, with triumph, “And I can still stand on my head today, in fact, I do it in the show – and even do a little dance while I’m on it.”
"I was a summer seaside treat for three nights a week"
Gyles and his co-stars stand five abreast durning the Flora Dora sequence. Throughout school, University and most of the 1970s, Brandreth seemed destined for a theatrical career until, in the 1980s, he “got distracted" and moved into television presenting. In the 1990s he changed tack again and took up politics, serving as MP for Chester for five years and as Lord Commissioner for John Major's Government. "Some people say that having been in a farce at Westminister, I’m now in one in the West End” he chirrups. Does he have any yearnings to return to politics? “None at all. I’m not planning to return… ten years from now who knows, the nation may need me.” While he may not covet a return to politics, Brandreth has some sound advice for his ailing former colleagues in the Conservative party: “Well I topped a popularity poll in Edinburgh, so maybe what Iain Duncan Smith needs is suspenders, stockings and a golden posing pouch.” But can Duncan Smith stand on his head? “Every politician can stand on their head.”
Eventually, as always it must in situations such as these, conversation turns to novelty jumpers. Throughout his television career, Brandreth’s spectacularly coloured woollens served to ensure that TVAM viewers were well and truly awake by the time they left the house. Brandreth reveals that, unlike many fashions statements in the 1980s, his jumpers were not hideous errors, but were actually a shrewd piece of self-promotion: “I read somewhere that 83% of what people remember on television is what they see and only 17% is what they hear. I thought that, unfortunately for me, I don’t look like Ulrika, so they won’t remember my face, so I’ll have to something eye-catching with my torso, and the novelty jumpers came out of that. At one stage I had over 1000.” The jumpers have gone on to achieve a notoriety most garments can only ever dream of and the Victoria And Albert Museum has even asked for a sample to display in its permanent collection. But does Brandreth get tired of being known as ‘that jolly-plonker-in-the-jumpers-from-the-telly’? “I’m very grateful to it. But there are no jumpers in Zipp! and I’m hoping that people on the tube will start pointing at me and saying, “you’re the one who wears dresses in Zipp!, and move on from the jumpers.”
"Every Politician can stand on their head"
Gyles Brandreth and CJ Johnson get Phant(om)asmagorical Brandreth’s conscious assault on viewers with gaudy knitwear betrays the informed wiliness which has allowed him to succeed in so many areas. Zipp! itself has been shrewdly marketed and he admits that, despite the eclectic nature of his career, he meticulously plans every project he becomes involved with. “Because I do a variety of things, people say that I must be a dilettante, but I always try to do everything properly. When I was a Member Of Parliament, I tried to be a very conscientious one. And when we came to creating Zipp! I wanted to create the fastest, funniest, most successful musical revue in the history of the world! My approach is to do fun things, but doing them properly. I don’t regard feel-good as necessarily lightweight. Creating comedy is quite a serious business.” Brandreth even takes his novelty world records seriously, and clearly recalls specific details: “I hold the record for the longest sustained screen kiss on television. This happened on Valentine’s Day 1984 when Cheryl Baker from Bucks Fizz and I kissed for four and a half minutes. She had a filthy cold at the time and I’m still recovering.”
As this insight into how he plans his apparently random career reveals, Brandreth is a consummate professional. He is also extremely statesman-like: providing smooth, entertaining answers to every question without ever deviating from his assumed persona of affable English eccentric. His political background is also evident in the manner in which, by means of genial sophistry, he is able to turn personal questions into advertisements for Zipp! – when asked “does anything depress you?” he responds: “there is a distinguished American theatre critic named Eric Bentley who said ‘when we get up tomorrow morning, we may well be able to do without our tragic awareness for an hour or two, but shall desperately need our sense of the comic.’ And in troubled times, when we may be on the edge of war, when the stockmarkets are failing and the economy may be moving into recession, what do we need? We need a break! We need a laugh! We need Zipp!” Brandreth makes a brave bid to finally get arrested Brandreth’s skill at keeping his private life just that was reflected in the fact that, unusually for a Tory MP, his political career was utterly devoid of scandal or sleeze. “I’ve never been arrested, so that’s probably why I won’t be an MP again – I don’t have the right credentials. I’m without conviction!” Being arrested is just about the only thing he hasn’t done: he confirms that he has flown a jet, driven a racing car (“very slowly”), played pro-celebrity bowls (winning, naturally) and made friends with a Nell, an Inuit living in Greenland. He doesn't say if he ever finds time to sleep.
Gyles’ porcelain-smooth mask slips only once during the entire interview. When asked “have you ever failed?” he pauses for a long time, clears his throat, makes a few abortive attempts at a reply and pauses again for fully 16 seconds before saying: “one of the things I’m most successful at doing is banishing negative thoughts. Each new embarrassment in my life wipes out the last one. Of course I have failed. I failed to be re-elected as an MP in 1997. That wasn’t just a failure, 60,000 people came together for one day to with a common purpose, get Brandreth out of Parliament. So I’m totally familiar with failure… which is why I have been surprised and delighted by the success of Zipp!” With that he returns to his ebullient best, façade firmly back in place.
"60,000 people said 'get Brandreth out of parliament' so I'm familiar with failure"
So what is next for Gyles Brandreth? The first man ever to ride a bike into space? An attempt on Imelda Marcos’ shoe-buying record? Or perhaps he could invent a jumper based religion? “The next 10 years are going to be my movie and musical theatre years. Obviously I hope to be Zipping! along for a good while yet, but one of my novels, called Who Is Nick Saint is currently being developed into a major feature film, which is quite exciting. They’ve got Brad Pitt lined up for the main role, but I’d certainly like to do some film acting as well.” So watch out, Hugh Grant, Gyles Brandreth is coming, and this time he won’t be in drag…