Gyles Brandreth opens the door of his splendid Victorian villa in south-west London, looking agitated. ‘Just give me five minutes,’ he exclaims. ‘I’m on a deadline.’
You’d expect no less of Gyles, who – for the past five decades – has been a permanent contender for the busiest man in Britain prize. Now 73, he’s been a stalwart of radio and TV programmes such as Just a Minute and The One Show, with just a gap between 1992 and 1997 when he was a Conservative MP.
There have been numerous sidelines, including becoming president of the Oscar Wilde Society. He and his wife of 48 years, Michèle, founded a teddy bear museum. Close friends include Joanna Lumley and Maureen Lipman, with whom he appears on Celebrity Gogglebox.
Deadline completed, he joins me in the immaculate garden, where two of his seven grandchildren (he and Michèle have three grown-up children) are splashing in the swimming pool.
We’re here to talk about Odd Boy Out, an autobiography focusing principally on Gyles’s childhood. ‘When I told my wife I was writing it, she said, “Me, me, me again. Honestly, do people want to read about you, Gyles?” I said, “I think maybe some of my memories will chime with other people’s.” So she said, “Well, maybe pull back on the name-dropping – and try to discover why you are who you are.”’
Gyles obeyed, but that’s not to say Odd Boy Out is an intense read. After all, one of the wonderful lessons he learned about himself during the writing was how his loving, middle-class upbringing – his father was a solicitor, his mother a teacher – instilled him with boundless optimism.
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‘All my life has been enjoyed in the sunlit garden of my childhood. I’ve spent a lifetime playing games. I had three older sisters born before the war, then I came along after – the golden goose, the first boy and brought up like an only child. My parents didn’t give me swimming lessons because they assumed I’d be able to walk on water, to have a go at anything I wanted. I’ve landed Concorde in New York – of course I didn’t really, but the pilot let me think I did. I’ve milked a cow, which I found I was quite good at. Recently, I’ve taken up painting. Anybody else could do all this, but the big advantage I’ve had was the blessing of this self-assurance from when I was very young.’
He continues wryly, ‘This book has the disadvantage of not being a misery memoir because nothing very unpleasant has ever happened to me.’
Actually, that’s not true. Like most of us, Gyles has suffered traumas. Several loved ones have died; his youngest grandson, now five, had cancer and spent a year in and out of Great Ormond Street Hospital but is now well.
Then there’s the fact that – from the ages of 11 to 13 – at his boarding prep school, he was ‘groomed’ by a master in his thirties, who used to kiss and fondle him. Eventually, the school authorities (possibly, he thinks, tipped off by his parents) and the head questioned Gyles, who assured him nothing untoward had occurred. Still, when Gyles returned for his final term, he found the master in question had been summarily dismissed.
‘I knew what he did was wrong but interestingly, I didn’t feel emotionally engaged at all, it was a thing that was happening and I had to cope with it,’ he says. ‘I didn’t respond or reciprocate, I just accepted it. But I did collude – I lied and defended the guilty party.’
For many, this would be a life-destroying event, but Gyles seems to have suffered no lasting damage.
‘I don’t treat it lightly, but it didn’t ruin my life,’ he says. ‘One, for people of my generation it was not an uncommon experience, and two, I’m lucky enough to be a resilient person. I really loved the school and bad things happen. There’s light and shade in everybody’s life.’
Gyles’ perkiness can get on people’s nerves. ‘My great friend Sheila Hancock [despite his wife’s warnings, he simply can’t help the name-dropping], with whom I make [Channel 4 show] Great Canal Journeys, sometimes says, “Oh Gyles, you’re exhausting, you never stop being chirpy. Just shut up!” But I do feel an obligation to be cheerful.’
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Some find it galling that Gyles never seems to slow down. Even as a student at Oxford, he was simultaneously president of the Oxford Union (the debating society), editor of the university magazine and director of the Dramatic Society.
‘And I had my own TV show and I was appearing in the newspapers and on the radio. It did rub people up the wrong way.’
Others are irked by the whackier aspects of his personality – take his fondness for novelty jumpers.
‘My wife saw me putting on a jumper with daffodils sewn into it the other morning and she said, “Gyles, you are knocking 80 – if you could see yourself!” I looked in the mirror and I did look ridiculous. I’m the same today as I was as a child. I still love dressing up.’
While his bubbly persona may jar on telly, face-to-face, Gyles has the knack to get on with pretty much everyone. He even became close to the famously irascible Prince Philip, whom he got to know in the 1970s as chairman of the National Playing Fields Association (the Duke had been president since 1948). His authorised biography of the Duke is a perennial bestseller – and earlier this year he was all over our airwaves with knowledgeable testimonials.
So, what would Philip have made of Prince Harry’s pending four-book deal? ‘He hugely liked Harry, loved and admired him. He thought the world of things like his service in Afghanistan. But I know he would have thought being interviewed by somebody like Oprah and then writing a book would be madness. But he wouldn’t have interfered. He said to me more than once, “I try to keep out of these things”, and he did. He believed people must do things their way, but it certainly wouldn’t have been his way.’
You get the impression the Duke was one of the few who could intimidate Gyles. ‘It was terrifying because he was a stickler for accuracy. For example, I put that he’d served during the Second World War on HMS Ramillies and he said, “I did not serve on HMS Ramillies.” I said, “You did sir, you gave me the logbooks!” and he said, “I did not serve on HMS Ramillies, I served in HMS Ramillies. You don’t live on a house, you live in a house. Can’t you get anything right?” At the end of it, you’d feel exhilarated because he could be huge fun. But he could also be quite frightening.’
‘The Queen is, and Prince Philip was, outwardlooking. He taught me that introspection is a bad thing,’ he continues. ‘And when I next meet The Queen, I shall be able to say, “Ma’am, there’s going to be no self-indulgent introspection and looking backwards. We’re going to be talking about the old times and enjoy the pleasure of reminiscence.”’
Oh, to be a fly on the wall for that conversation.