What the dickens! It's Shakespeare's birthday

Or is it?  We know he was baptised on 26 April in 1564, so we reckon he could have been born on 23 April.  We know for sure he died on 23 April in 1616.  

What's your favourite line of Shakespeare?  Mine's: 'I was adored once too' - from Twelfth Night.  My wife's is: 'The rest is silence' - from Hamlet.  When I was a student at Oxford, I met the brilliant Times columnist Bernard Levin, whose admiration of Shakespeare rivalled mine and whose knowledge of the Complete Works far exceeded it.  Levin loved to quote Shakespeare and wrote a dazzling piece to prove that we all quote the Bard much more often than we realise.  Here it is:

If you cannot understand my argument, and declare ‘It's Greek to me’, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger; if your wish is farther to the thought; if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool's paradise -why, be that as it may, the more fool you , for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then - to give the devil his due - if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then - by Jove! O Lord! Tut tut! For goodness' sake! What the dickens! But me no buts! - it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.

Isn’t that a surprise?  ‘What the dickens!’ has nothing to do with the great English novelist, author of Great Expectations, David Copperfield and Oliver Twist.  ‘Dickens’ was once a euphemism for the devil and the expression is first found in print in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor: ‘I cannot tell what the dickens his name is.’

Happily, Charles Dickens (1812-70) has managed to make his way into the dictionary in his own right:

Dickensian: adj; of or reminiscent of the novels of Charles Dickens especially in suggesting the poor social conditions or comically repulsive characters they portray.

In the Oxford English Dictionary, Dickens is credited in with coining 258 new words and has 1,586 first-citations for giving a new sense to a word.  Of the 258, my favourite is:  


which first appeared in The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, more commonly known as The Pickwick Papers, in 1836:  

At every bad attempt at a catch, and every failure to stop the ball, he launched his personal displeasure at the head of the devoted individual in such denunciations as 'Ah, ah!—stupid'—'Now, butter-fingers'—'Muff'— 'Humbug'—and so forth.

Dickens did not originate ‘muff’, an old word with a variety of meanings, nor ‘humbug’, though he popularized the expression ‘Bah!  Humbug!’ by giving it to Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol

Words and phases Dickens did give the language include:

doormat, when used to describe someone who gets walked all over by other people;






the creeps, as in to give someone the creeps

clap eyes

slow coach


casualty ward

fairy story

 egg box

devil may care

For more words by Shakespeare, scroll back to the blog for 23 March 2018.  Shakespeare inspired us all.  P G Wodehouse got some of his best ideas from the Bard.  'What ho, Jeeves!' is just an echo of Shakespeare's 'What ho, Malvolio!' 


Gyles Brandreth
The Queen & George Formby - the truth

A few years ago, when I was writing a biography of the Queen and Prince Philip, I found myself discussing Her Majesty's taste in cake with her then private secretary.  'Please don't include that in your book,' he pleaded.  'Why not?' I asked.  'Because once people know what cake she likes, wherever she goes that's all she'll be offered.'

I thought about that last night during the concert at the Royal Albert Hall celebrating the Queen's 92nd birthday.  After Sir Tom Jones, Sting and Shaggy had strutted their stuff, the birthday girl was offered a special treat: 'the George Formby Fan Club' (led by Frank Skinner, Harry Hill and Ed Balls) singing 'When I'm cleaning windows'.  Why?  Because . . .

Yes, I am responsible.  In 2003, I interviewed Deborah Bean, Her Majesty's long-serving Correspondence Secretary, and during our conversation Mrs Bean revealed to me that the Queen had once told her that she loved the songs of George Formby, knew all of them, could sing them - and frequently did.  What Mrs Bean told me I then told the world - and as a consequence George Formby has now become the go-to repertoire when people want to play the kind of music they think Her Majesty will enjoy.  

I'm sure the Queen does enjoy George Formby, but I am not sure he's her 'one and only'.  That will make no difference.  Once it's in print there's no escape.  From now on in, whenever the Queen and music are mentioned together, George Formby wlll  be part of the story.   She will have ukulele music wherever she goes.

Since I first met Mrs Bean we've become friends.  She's huge fun - as I think you'll agree if you read on.  This is the original interview - my world exclusive: the day I broke 'The George & George Formby' story.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace and, high up in the building, immediately above the state apartments, in a small, hot, low-ceilinged room, overlooking the Mall, I am taking tea with a larky, sparky, classy lady who could easily feature as an up-market nanny, or a Kensington mother, in a verse by A A Milne.  She is beautifully groomed and spoken (small pearls at the neck, tiny plums in the mouth) and looks much younger than her sixty years.  I think she is rather sexy.  She is friendly and fun and mad about horses.

She is Deborah Bean, Correspondence Secretary to Her Majesty The Queen.  This weekend she retires, after almost forty years of royal service, and she has kindly agreed to give me a world exclusive: her one and only, once-in-a-lifetime, newspaper interview.   First things first: what does she like to be called?

‘Debs or Debbie,’ she says, with a smile, smoothing out her skirt.

‘Ma’am,’ banters the attendant Palace Press Officer.

We all laugh, but I see where the press officer is coming from.  There is something pleasingly regal about Mrs Bean.  (By happy chance, her maiden name was King.)   ‘And what does your job involve?’ I ask, looking around her cluttered office.  The desk is dominated by her computer, but there are reference books, folders, papers piled high, on every surface.

‘Researching, drafting, signing, and sending replies to everyone and anyone who writes to Her Majesty,’ she explains, sitting forward, intently, on her swivel chair.  As we talk, she glances regularly at the notes she has prepared for the interview.  Discretion is her watchword.  She is not going to put a foot wrong, but she is clearly a little nervous.  Twice she refers to Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as Rowan Atkinson.  (Perhaps that’s easily done if you are called Mrs Bean.)

‘Does the Queen get much correspondence?’ I ask.

‘About three hundred letters a day,’ reveals Mrs Bean.  ‘260 came in today.  The biggest postbag is usually on a Monday.  Last year, with the Golden Jubilee and the deaths of Princess Margaret and The Queen Mother, we had a record, just over 122,000 in all, including fourteen thousand from the Commonwealth and nearly 22,000 from foreign countries.’  She checks her notes.  ‘Her Majesty received 4,495 letters of condolence on the death of Princess Margaret and 13,631 on the death of The Queen Mother.’

‘And how much of this does The Queen see?’

‘All of it,’ says Mrs Bean.  ‘If it’s addressed to The Queen, it’s seen by The Queen.’

‘What?’ I splutter.  This I can’t believe.   Mrs Bean gazes at me steadily and nods her head.

‘Yes,’ murmurs the Press Officer, earnestly.  ‘The Queen sees the lot.’

‘The Queen is amazing,’ smiles Mrs Bean, evidently amused by my incredulity. 

I am still not wholly convinced.  ‘How does the system work?’ I ask.  ‘What’s the process?’

‘The letters arrive,’ explains Mrs Bean, ‘they are screened for security, then put in a bag and taken up to Her Majesty by her page.  He leaves them on the desk in her office.’

‘Still in their envelopes?’

Mrs Bean nods.  ‘How can The Queen tell which ones are personal?’ I ask.

‘Friends and family put their initials on the envelope, but almost all the correspondence The Queen receives comes from strangers.’

I am open-mouthed, marvelling at the thought of the sovereign snowed under by unsolicited mail.  What are the letters about?

‘Requests for autographs, invitations to tea, cries for help, all sorts,’ says Mrs Bean.  ‘At the moment Her Majesty is receiving hundreds of letters from people about the war in Iraq.   Europe always provokes a lot of correspondence.  She has had over 3,000 letters on the Treaty of Nice and 114 on the matter of the European Arrest Warrant.’  Mrs Bean consults her notes.  ‘She got ninety-three objecting to the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster’s visit to Sandringham and twenty-five objecting to Lucian Freud’s portrait of her.

‘A number of those who write are hoping The Queen will intervene on their behalf, sort out the disagreement in the local Scout pack, get a by-pass diverted, strip Lord Archer of his peerage.   There was quite a correspondence about the future of the Niagara Women’s Institute.  It really can be anything.  Someone recently sent in a delightful recording of a budgerigar singing the national anthem.’

And what happens to the letters once The Queen has seen the‘They come up here, and, if there’s an address, they get a reply.  The ladies-in-waiting answer the straightforward ones, but if it’s controversial I handle it.  I’ll consult with the Foreign Office, or the Home Office, or whoever, and try to come up with an appropriate response.’

‘Does The Queen ever let you know what she thinks about a particular issue?’

‘No,’ says Mrs Bean, firmly.  ‘The Queen doesn’t express views as such, but she will sometimes put a comment on the envelope.  When the George Formby Society wrote asking if The Queen remembered their hero, she wrote, “I still remember all his songs and sing them!” ‘

My mind is now boggling as I picture Her Majesty leafing through assorted begging letters, petitions, requests for recipes (or asylum), while gaily humming snatches of “When I’m cleaning windows”.

Her Majesty does not send out signed photographs.  ‘It is not her custom,’ says Mrs Bean, head tilted to one side.  ‘As a rule, The Queen only signs photographs for people known to her personally or to mark an official visit of some kind.  We say “as a rule” just in case the rule ever needs to be broken.  And Her Majesty doesn’t express preferences because that could lead to all sorts of complications.  If she said she liked lemon sponge, she’d never be offered anything else.  She does say she won’t eat shell-fish, but that’s just being sensible.’

Clearly, Mrs Bean and The Queen are on the same commonsensical wavelength.  ‘If it’s a letter about horses,’ she admits, ‘I might send a note to Her Majesty via her page asking for further particulars.  I simply try to give the response The Queen would want.  A rector from Suffolk wrote recently about a scarecrow competition designed to unite scattered communities in a single activity.  By way of reply, he was told it was an original idea and would, in any case, make 2002 an excellent year for the soft fruit and vegetable crops.’

‘I try to be diplomatic’ says Mrs Bean.  Her aim is to keep her boss in the swim, but out of trouble.  When the organisers of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras wrote to The Queen asking for a message of support, Mrs Bean replied, explaining that Her Majesty “is currently visiting Australia”, adding, “but I am sure she would wish me to thank you for telling her about the Mardi Gras Festival.”  She described the news of the Gay Pride March as “interesting” and concluded, with an ingenious shift into the impersonal: “It is very much hoped that the celebrations . . . will be enjoyable.”

Around the Palace this effortless diplomatic circumlocution is known as “Bean-speak”.  ‘I really learnt it all from Martin Charteris, who was Assistant Private Secretary to The Queen when I arrived here in the mid 1960s.  He interviewed me and gave me my first job here.  He had a wonderful way with words.  When he thought someone was utterly useless, completely hopeless, all he’d say was: “I think his talents lie in another direction.”’

Deborah Bean is an exemplar of her class and time.  A child of the 1940s and 50s, she belongs, she admits, to the “Daniel Neal/Peter Jones generation”: ‘We took tea at Dickins & Jones and stood up automatically when the National Anthem was played on television.’  Her father was Master of Hounds at Eggesford in Devon, her mother was a housewife.  Her grandmother painted lampshades for Liberty’s and bought a shop selling needlework and wool.  Debs went to Croydon High School (a Girls Public Day School Trust) and, aged eighteen, enrolled at Mrs Hoster’s Secretarial College in the Cromwell Road. 

‘In those days,’ she reminds me, ‘girls didn’t all go to university.  It was nursing or teaching or shorthand and typing.  I really took to secretarial work.  I could do 160 words per minute.  Mrs Hoster said, “My dear, the world is your oyster.”  And that’s how it felt.  The College supplied “gels” for the establishment and, before I came here, my first job was working under Lord Hunt at the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme.’

She arrived at the Palace – ‘”The big house at the end of the Mall” is how Mrs Hoster described it’ - in 1965, on Battle of Britain Day, starting out as Lady Clerk to the Assistant Private Secretary.  ‘”You will wear a hat” I was told: we all wore hats to work in those days.  And the men all wore bowlers.’  Efficient, jolly, and what once was called PLU [standing for ‘People Like Us’], Debs gradually, and inevitably, moved up the hierarchy of the Palace secretariat.

It has been a happy and fulfilling professional life.  Has fraternising with The Queen been one of the perks?

She looks amazed.  ‘Goodness me, no.  I hardly ever see The Queen, except at a distance.  At Balmoral, it’s different, because The Queen uses the corridor where the office is and she very sweetly allows me to ride her highland pony.’  Suddenly she waves her hands at me frantically: ‘I shouldn’t have said “sweetly”.  I meant to say “graciously”.’

It is clear that Deborah Bean is wholly in sympathy with Her Majesty.  ‘Yes, we got a bumper crop of letters at the time of Diana’s death.  Some of them were so arrogant, so abusive.  It was not a comfortable time.  But The Queen received some wonderfully supportive letters too, telling her not to believe everything she reads in the newspapers.  I provide her with a monthly summary of the letters received and views expressed, so The Queen knows exactly what people think.   Constructively critical letters are always welcome and always receive a reply.  I do try to set the record straight.  I do write back and say, “Actually, The Queen does see her grandchildren.  She had tea with Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie at Wood Farm just this weekend.”’

Deborah Bean’s manner – like The Queen’s – is cheerful and humorous, but I imagine there has been darkness in her life too.  During her childhood, she tells me, her father “didn’t really figure”.   She has no children herself and her own marriage failed.  She has been separated from her husband for ten years, but is not yet divorced.   When I raise an enquiring eyebrow, she gives a little grimace: ‘Complicated,’ she says, simply.  She belongs to the school where these things don’t need to be discussed or dwelt on.  ‘Let’s get on with life,’ is her philosophy.   She is looking forward to her retirement.  She is moving to a cottage on the Sandringham Estate – “paying rent, of course”.  She sings in a choir, she rides, she beats with a small shoot, she has a labrador puppy.  ‘Aren’t I lucky?’ she says, beaming.  ‘And if ever I have a problem, I can always write to The Queen.’ 

Gyles Brandreth
Diaries: something sensational to read in the train

I keep a diary.  I do it, in part, I think because time flies by so fast that if I didn't stop to record some of what's been happening I'd forget it ever happened.  I do it, too, because I'm very lucky: I meet a lot of remarkable and interesting people - often by chance - and I like to try to record the essence of the encounter.  Last week, for example, I was in the Chapter House at Canterbury Cathedral and who should come up to say hello but the Archbishop of Canterbury himself.  (Well, it was Canterbury Cathedral, so I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was.)  I liked him.  I tend to like people.  (My diaries may not be spiky enough for some.)  The next day, in Oxford, I met some of the world's leading oncologists - scientists and clinicians who are doing work exploring ways in which viruses may be able to cure cancer.  Extraordinary people exploring ways in which the herpes virus (and the measles virus and others) may hold the key to combatting cancer.  Yes, it seems there may be benefits to herpes after all!  This week my chance encounters have included a charming Italian called Andrea Bonomi, scion of one of Italy's great industrial families and now a prince of private equity himself.  He told me that in Italy in his grandparents' day the collecting of taxes was outsourced to private enterprise . . .  Only in Italy!  And last night I met General Sir Barney White Spunner, a soldier of extraordinary distinction, and a historian.  He gave a gripping talk about the Battle of Waterloo in aid of a charity which helps damaged ex-service people recover through working in archaeology.  You can find out more about them at www.waterloouncovered.com

Some of my own diaries are in print.  Breaking the Code: Westminster Diaries 1990-2007 is about politics; Something Sensational to Read in the Train: The Diary of a Lifetime is stuff from my diary going from 1959 to 2000.  People often ask me to name my favourite diaries. I don't know where to begin, because dipping in to other people's diaries is probably my favourite form of bedtime reading.  Because of the anniversary of his death, I'm re-reading Kenneth Williams' diaries right now.  I love Noel Coward's diaries and because I'm off to see the whole of his Tonight at 8.30 plays on Sunday at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London I'm dipping in to them again.  For five "favourites" today I'll pick these.  Tomorrow, I might choose a different five.   You can't go wrong with any of them.

I'm off to Doncaster now.  Yes, I'll be taking my diary with me.  Doncaster could surprise me.  You never know.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys.   I have been keeping a daily diary since 1959, inspired by Pepys’ great example.   For my eleventh birthday I was given a one-volume edition ‘suitably edited’ for family reading.  I now have the magisterial ten-volume unexpurgated edition produced by Latham and Matthews in the 1970s and I regard Pepys – flawed and endlessly fascinating – as one of my most enduring friends.

A Moment’s Liberty: The Shorter Diary of Virginia Woolf.  The actress Eileen Atkins introduced me to Woolf’s diaries saying ‘you will find a gem on every page’.  She proved her point by opening the book at random and putting her finger on the entry for 18 May 1930: ‘The thing is now to live with energy and mastery, desperately.  To despatch each day high handedly.  So not to dawdle and dwindle, contemplating this and that.  No more regrets and indecisions.  That is the right way to deal with life now that I am forty-eight and to make it more and more important and vivid as one grows old.’

Arnold Bennett: The Journals.   Virginia Woolf and her set were snobbish about Arnold Bennett, author of one of the great novels of the twentieth century, The Old Wives’ Tale.  Hugely successful in his day, hard-working, generous, prickly, vulnerable, this is a portrait of an unjustly neglected literary giant.

Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon.   From the abdication of Edward VIII to the coronation of Elizabeth II, ‘Chips’ Channon MP knew everybody and wrote about them fearlessly, maliciously and with huge style.

With Nails: The Film Diaries of Richard E Grant.  Where American-born Channon, politician and social gadfly, is caustic and cynical, Swaziland-born actor Richard E Grant (star of Withnail and I) is teetotal, exuberant, life-enhancing and ridiculous in the best luvvie tradition.

The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith.   Simply the most painfully touching comic novel ever written.

Gyles Brandreth
Neil Shand, Martin Sorrell & The Queen of Denmark

Over the years I have been privileged to meet a lot of interesting people.  I first met the scriptwriter Neil Shand, who has just died, aged 84, at the end of the 1960s when I was still a student.  He was writing jokes for David Frost at the time - and didn't always find it easy.  He knew I hoped to go into television and advised me to aim to earn £ 3,000 a year and settle for that.  'That's more than enough for anyone,' he said.  'Try to earn £ 5,000 and it will kill you.  Look at David.'  He was a nice man, kind to me, and delightfully self-deprecating.  'I don't really write jokes,' he said.  'I just try to "punch up" the material that's there.'  I last saw him at Ned Sherrin's funeral ten years ago.  That's the one thing to be said for funerals: you do get to meet up with old chums.

It was in 1981 that I first met Sir Martin Sorrell, the advertising colossus who is in the news today because he has just resigned from WPP, the agency he created and turned into the world's largest ad agency.   In 1981 he was finance director for Saatchi & Saatchi and we met up because I was trying to persuade them to help me buy a London theatre.  I failed.  (He was no fool.)

Today is the 78th birthday of The Queen of Denmark.  I first met her sixteen years ago at her palace in Copenhagen.  We talked about her life, about our Queen, and about what it takes to be a successful sovereign.  We also talked about her marriage and her difficult husband, Prince Henrik, who died in February this year, aged 83.  I think her Rules on How to be a Queen have stood the test of time, so here is my account of the time I spent with her.

I am having a master-class on monarchy from one who knows.  I am in Copenhagen, on the first floor of the beautiful Rococo palace of Amalienborg, sitting on a comfy sofa in a cosy sitting-room with Her Majesty The Queen of Denmark.  Margrethe II (Denmark’s first female monarch since Margrethe I in 1412) is 62, tall, slim, chic, bird-like, and, according to Danish opinion polls that have given her an approval rating of more than ninety per cent, year in, year out, for the thirty years of her reign, the world’s most consistently popular head of state.

Queen Margrethe’s court is more formal than I had expected.  Everything here – from the guardsman in bearskins in the courtyard to the Queen’s pages hovering in the palace corridors – is much as you would find it at Buckingham Palace.  But Margrethe herself is very different from her cousin and friend, Elizabeth II.  ‘I am more extrovert than your Queen,’ she tells me, ‘But Elizabeth II is a remarkable woman with a wonderful sense of humour.  I don’t believe the British people realise what a sense of humour she has.  I am sure it is what has helped her survive.’

Given that Margrethe chain-smokes (during our two hours together she gets through fourteen cigarettes, taking them alternately from a packet in her handbag and a dainty silver cigarette box on the table) her voice is surprisingly light and musical.  She speaks near-perfect English: she had a year at school near Basingstoke and a year doing a diploma in archaeology at Cambridge.  Like our own Queen, she is evidently intelligent, informed, interested, articulate, and she laughs a lot, and easily.   But with strangers she is much less watchful, less wary than our Queen.

For example, I ask Margrethe (in a way I would never dream of asking our Queen) to talk to me about marriage.  She looks surprised, but doesn’t hesitate.  ‘What is probably wrong today,’ she says, ‘is that we expect a marriage or a relationship to be happy and successful all the time.  We forget that people who have lived together for fifty years cannot have been happy every single day.  Marriage is like the weather: it changes.  Today I am not very happy, something has annoyed me, or made me sad.  I may think, “He could have spared me this!”  Or, “You know, you have been a fool.”  But this is no tragedy.  It does not mean that your marriage is not working.  It works again afterwards.  People find one another again, without great difficulty.’

Margrethe has been married for thirty-five years.  She met her husband, a young French diplomat (Henri-Marie-Jean-Andre, Comte de Laborde de Monpezet) in London in the mid-1960s, when he was Third Secretary at the French Embassy.  ‘We were madly in love,’ she says.   ‘Has the marriage worked?’ I ask.   ‘Yes,’ she says, simply, ‘because we have given each other latitude, we have given each other space.  We are frequently apart.  Every moment is not perfect.  There are ups and downs.  It has not always been easy for my husband being Prince Consort.’

They have two sons: Crown Prince Frederick, 34, and Prince Joachim, 32.  Last year, when the Queen broke a rib, and the Crown Prince took her place at an official function, the Prince Consort took umbrage.  ‘I have been number two for many years,’ he said, ‘I don’t suddenly want to become number three and some kind of wearisome attachment.’    Overnight, he left the court and retreated to his family vineyards in France.  Margrethe followed him and persuaded him to come home.

It is clear that the poor man, aged 67, had some kind of breakdown.  ‘Is he okay now?’ I ask.  ‘Yes, thank you.’  She smiles and nods and blows away the cigarette smoke.  ‘He’s got over all that.  It’s the sort of thing that happens to you occasionally when you really don’t feel happy.  He went through a very difficult period, but he’s very well again now.’

An unexpected silence falls and I fill it, inanely, by saying, ‘Well, he’s going to get a good write-up from me.’

Her Majesty laughs: ‘I jolly well hope so,’ she says.  ‘He has done a lot for Denmark.’  She lights up once more.  ‘He writes poetry, you know.  It’s rather on the fantastic side, surrealist in tone.  His poems are funny and musical.  He used to play the piano very beautifully.  We are very lucky, my husband and I.  We both do different things in the arts.  We see one side of ourselves as artists.’

Queen Margrethe paints.  She has illustrated an edition of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  She has designed a ballet.  Proudly, she shows me a stylish tissue-box container she has made: ‘I cut out bits from Sotheby’s and Christies’ catalogues and stick them onto boxes and varnish them.  It’s a complete joke, but it keeps me out of mischief.’

The Danish press give the Prince Consort mixed notices, but the Queen is universally admired.  Even the local republicans concede that, during her lifetime, the throne is unassailable.  How has she managed it?

‘I don’t really know,’ she says, laughing, but, when I press her, it is clear that she does know.  The Danish Royal House can be traced back to Gorm the Old (buried 958).  Margrethe is related to all the royal families of Europe.  She is a direct descendant of Queen Victoria; her grandfathers were the kings of Denmark and Sweden; her youngest sister, Anne-Marie, is married to ex-King Constantine of Greece, and his sister is married to King Juan Carlos of Spain. 

Margrethe has seen royalty succeed – and fail – across Europe over more than half-a-century.  I want her to give me the seven secrets of being a successful monarch.  Courteously, with a little diffidence, but managing to look gently amused by my presumption, Her Majesty obliges.

‘Accept your destiny.’  She says this is in a very matter-of-fact way. ‘I did not know that I might be Queen until 1953.  That was when a new law of succession was introduced in Denmark, enabling a daughter to succeed to the throne if the king had no son.  I was thirteen then and very much a child.  I was frightened by the whole thing.  I didn’t know what it meant, except that one day my father would be dead and I hated to think of that.  At school I got really upset if somebody said, “You are going to be Queen one day”, and there was one mistress in particular who kept harping on about it.  It was dreadful.  I was a late developer and very insecure during my adolescence.  I was being prepared for my future role by my parents, but it wasn’t easy.  And I wasn’t easy.  I see now that my insecurity and my malaise were probably an equal mixture of constitutional law and hormones.’  She laughs, quite loudly, and taps the ash from her latest cigarette into a little silver funnel that is part of her ashtray.  She is a very clean smoker.

‘Gradually, I became accustomed to the idea, and two things pleased me.  First, I realised I would never have to leave Denmark.  Traditionally, princesses marry princes from other countries and have to live abroad.  That must be hard and I knew I would not have to do that.  And, second, knowing that one day I would be Queen simplified my life.  My contemporaries had to find what they wanted to do in life.  I didn’t.  I knew exactly what I had to do.’

Rule number two?  Again, she doesn’t hesitate.   ‘Go to your people.  In Denmark, the only person who comes of age on their eighteenth birthday is the heir to the throne and, on my eighteenth birthday, I learnt an important lesson.  My father [Frederick IX, King of Denmark, 1947-72] presented me to the people, here on the palace balcony.  He took me out and showed me to the crowd.  I remember he said to me, “You must receive their applause.  You mustn’t just stand there.  You must show them you care.”  My father had a great sense of theatre.  He didn’t clown about, but he would go out onto the balcony and throw out his arms and show the people he was pleased that they liked to cheer him and that he was touched by their loyalty and affection.  He taught me not to be shy.  Of course, he taught me not to be conceited either.’

I ask Her Majesty to tell me about her weaknesses.  She won’t.  She resolutely refuses to say anything negative about herself, or anybody else.  Being positive is her third rule and it leads directly to her fourth: ‘Be wholly engaged in what you are doing.’  ‘Being Queen,’ she explains, ‘involves a lot of repetition – the same ceremonies, the same functions, the same routine, every year.  Sometimes you think, “Here we go again!”, but my parents taught me something useful that I have tried to pass on to my two boys.  Whatever you are doing, be aware of it and stay involved.  For example, I have to listen to a lot of boring speeches, but I have discovered there is nothing so boring as not listening to a boring speech. If you listen carefully, the speech is very rarely as boring as you thought it was going to be.  You can disagree with the speech in your head.  You can think, “He’s saying it very badly,” but don’t switch off.  Somehow listen.  It is much better that way.’

The closest Margrethe comes to a negative thought is when she turns to rule number five and the matter of the modern media.  ‘Be philosophical about the press.  It is the only answer.  On the whole, I have been fortunate with the press.  With my husband and my sons, at times, it has been different.  For example, Frederick [the Crown Prince, still unmarried] has had a lot of girlfriends over the years and they have all been talked about, all of them.  He was very bothered about it in the early years, but now, he is thirty-four, he’s not a baby any more, and there’s been so much prying over the years, he’s used to it -  he just takes it flying.’

Queen Margrethe comes to Britain regularly.  What does she make of the British press?  She smiles a diplomatic smile.  I raise my eyebrows.  She says quietly, ‘I see a very wide spectrum and some of it is not very edifying.  I have to say that our tabloids in Denmark are not nearly anything like as extreme as your tabloids.’

She smiles and flicks her lighter.  ‘European royalty like coming to England, of course, because no one knows who we are.  We can be anonymous.  And then when people discover who we are, they are always very helpful, so we get the best of both worlds.  Our bread is definitely buttered on both sides.  That is an advantage to being a queen.  People always behave very nicely towards me.’

Margrethe II believes that it is her horses, her dogs and her sense of humour that have helped maintain the sanity of Elizabeth II.   What – other than her dachshunds: they scurry around her feet in exactly the manner of our Queen’s beloved corgis -  keeps the Queen of Denmark on an even keel?  ‘Being yourself, being true to yourself, giving yourself time for yourself,’ she says.  This is rule number six.   ‘My painting is important to me.  I have a studio here in the palace, but I also go out to a studio where I was taught when I was younger.  I decide, “I am going to paint on Thursday at two o’clock” and off I go.  And when I’m in the studio, nothing else matters.  And people know that.  And if they want to talk to me, they can do so beforehand or afterwards or on another day, but not on Thursday between two and six.’

Margrethe has little time for political correctness.  It is known that she smokes and, consequently, the press and the medical establishment criticise her  - fairly relentlessly -  for being a poor role model.  She ignores them.  ‘I really don’t think about it very much,’ she says, a little testily.  And like our Queen, Margrethe has fur coats and is happy to be seen wearing them.  ‘Wearing fur is not so politically incorrect in Denmark,’ she explains.  ‘It is cold here and we breed a lot of mink.’

Denmark likes to see itself as socially liberal and politically progressive.  Why does the Queen think that, in 2003, the monarchy continues to thrive?  ‘Because it is part of our roots, part of our national identity.  In a globalised world, in a world where things change a lot, and where people move around a lot, the fact that you know what Denmark looks like – or what Britain looks like – is in large part due to the monarchy.  It stresses the continuity of a country in a tangible and visible way.’

She is 62.  Might she abdicate one day?  ‘No.  In Denmark that is not part of the story.’  And, in Denmark, will the monarchy continue for centuries to come?  ‘It has a reasonable possibility of doing so.  You don’t have the hoo-ha of choosing the next head of state.  It follows in a natural way.’

And that brings her to the final secret of her success.  She believes in what she is doing.  Absolutely.  ‘It is what I do,’ she says.  ‘It is what I am.  It is what my life has been about.  I am the Queen of Denmark.  It is as simple as that.’

Gyles Brandreth
Remembering Kenneth Williams

I was a friend of  Kenneth Williams - not a best friend, but what he called ‘a good chum’ and, over several years, quite a close one: we collaborated on the books he wrote, spent hundreds of hours in one another’s company, shared countless meals, train journeys, trips to the cinema - so when, thirty years ago now, on the night of 14 April 1988, he took his own life, I felt a sense of real loss and sadness.  But I wasn’t surprised.

Kenneth had told me that his father had committed suicide.  ‘When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.  If you can.  Charlie couldn’t.’

Charlie Williams was a hairdresser, with a shop in Marchmont Street, Bloomsbury.  According to Kenneth, the service Charlie offered his customers was unique.  He did their hair his way or not at all.  ‘I’m not dyeing your hair.  D’you want to look like a tart?  Stick to your own colour.  You can’t improve on nature.  You ought to know that.  You’re old enough and ugly enough.’   Perhaps not surprisingly, Charlie’s business didn’t prosper.  In time he ran out of customers and money, and when the Inland Revenue came down on him for years’ of back taxes, he went bust.   The shop went, the house went, and Charlie drifted into desultory retirement.  He lasted a year or two and then, one night in October 1962, ‘took a concoction of cleaning fluid - carbon tetrachloride - and that was that.’  The inquest returned a verdict of death by misadventure.

When Kenneth died from an overdose of barbiturates (‘my hoard of poison’) washed down with alcohol, the coroner brought in an open verdict.  But the truth is that Kenneth Williams, at 62, was at the end of his tether.  The final words in the journal he kept so conscientiously for more than forty years summed it up: ‘ - oh - what’s the bloody point?’

He was in pain (‘oh, this bloody ulcer and spastic colon’), he had given up smoking (a lifelong recreation), and he was waiting to go into hospital (‘how I HATE those places’) for an operation he dreaded.  He was frightened.  And he was fed up.   He knew he had painted himself into a corner.  Professionally and personally, he had nowhere left to go.

That he died a burden and a disappointment to himself is both sad and wrong, because here we are, thirty years after his death, and for many he seems as potent a presence as ever.   The books, the tapes, the Carry Ons, we buy, we listen, we watch them still.  That extraordinary voice continues to resonate, one of the most distinctive English sounds of our time.  If you can do it (and it’s a  tough one to imitate: Frankie Howerd is so much easier), there’s money to be earned in the voice-over market as a Kenneth Williams sound-alike.  Ever since he died, actors (most of whom never knew him) have been appearing in stage shows and TV dramas impersonating him.  ‘I’m a cult,’ he used to scream, ‘a cult, d’you hear?’ eyes narrowed, nostrils flaring.  Well, yes, he sort of is.

John Gielgud - one of the pantheon of Kenneth’s heroes, along with Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward, Orson Welles and Kenneth Horne - defined the attributes necessary to a star performer as ‘energy, an athletic voice, a well-graced manner, some unusually fascinating originality of temperament;  vitality, certainly, and an ability to convey an impression of beauty or ugliness as the part demands, as well as authority and a sense of style.’  Kenneth had all the qualifications then, yet as the years went by the offers of work on stage and screen grew fewer and less interesting.  By the end they had virtually dried up.   The problem, of course, was that gradually the versatile character actor and consummate revue artiste of the 1950s and 1960s became a coarsened caricature of himself.  He was frightened of failure (who isn’t?) and often would say ‘oh, I can’t be bothered, I can’t be fagged’ when really he meant ‘I don’t want to, it might not work’.  Increasingly, he fell back on the mannerisms and gags and routines he knew he could rely on, running round in ever-decreasing circles.  He got less work because there was less he could do.  He knew it.  He knew, too, that he wasn’t an easy ride.   Some found him quite impossible.

We never fell out, but then I never crossed him.  And he did me many favours, introducing me to Just a Minute and Countdown, giving me good advice, making a great success of the three books we worked on together and giving me a generous share of the proceeds.  He even allowed me to visit his flat (spare and spartan) and use his loo - a privilege not granted to many.  He could be sweet and sour, but when we met up he was only sweet.  He liked  my wife: he was good with my children.  (He enjoyed entertaining children: he was proud of his appearances on Jackanory.) Yes, he was outrageous, waspish, wickedly funny, and often wicked simply to be funny.  He would say terrible things about people, dreadful, hurtful, calumnious things, without necessarily meaning them, or, if meaning them, meaning them for the moment, or, if really meaning them, not meaning them to hurt.  He would go as far as he needed - and frequently far beyond - to create an effect, to provoke a reaction, if necessary of shock, preferably of hysteria.  One evening after dinner, when he already had the table in a roar, he got to his feet, spun round, dropped his trousers and his pants and cried, ‘Look!  Look!  The bum - it’s hanging down in pleats!’

He was funny and kind (when my father died he wrote me a wonderful letter of consolation, careful and caring) and, contrary to reputation, in my experience not in the least bit mean.  He was careful with his money, but until the 1980s, his earnings had never been spectacular.  The Carry Ons were regular, but they didn’t pay a fortune.  ‘I never got more than £ 5,000 for any of them.  None of us did.’   In 1983, when London Weekend Television offered him £ 10,000 for An Audience with Kenneth Williams, he was amazed, and thrilled.  ‘Ten thou for one evening of my old tat!’ he gasped.  I said, ‘Remember Whistler’s line when asked how he dared demand two hundred guineas for a painting that hadn’t taken more than a day to complete?’   ‘Oh, yes,’ purred Kenneth, ‘ “I don’t ask it for a day’s work, I ask it for the experience of a lifetime!”   Yes.  Yes, that’s it exactly.’   With Kenneth, references to Whistler or Ruskin always went down well.  He liked to talk about art and music and philosophy.  He was self-taught and widely and well-read, he had reams of poetry by heart, and enjoyed showing off his  erudition.   When he was writing his autobiography, he read it to me in draft, out loud, paragraph by paragraph, for approval, and the only time we nearly came to blows was when I forced him to to leave out great chunks - pages and pages, thousands of words - about Hegel, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer.  ‘Oh, all right, have it your own way.   If you think they want the same old rubbish, they can have it.  I don’t care.’

He did care, of course.  When people he respected suggested he wasn’t fulfilling his potential or upbraided him for excessive vulgarity, he snapped back defensively.  ‘Have you read Twelfth Night?   “These be her very Cs, her Us, and her Ts, and thus does she make her great Ps.”  And that’s the greatest poet the world has ever known.  Don’t talk to me about vulgarity!’

Kenneth knew he went too far too often.  Once we had him to supper with the head of an Oxford college, a woman he professed himself eager to meet.  He liked the idea of conversation with academics.  First he charmed her, then, as the drink and the devil got to him, he appalled her with a stream of the crudest obscenities.   He recognised that this outlandish behaviour drove friends away, but somehow he couldn’t stop himself.   One of his oldest chums was the film director John Schlesinger, who had been with Kenneth, and Stanley Baxter and Peter Nichols, in Combined Services Entertainments in the Far East in the 1940s, putting on those concert parties so brilliantly evoked in Nichols’s Privates on Parade.  John hadn’t seen Kenneth for some years, so we invited them for a meal.  John was apprehensive, fearing an evening of self-indulgent self-centred queeniness.  In the event, Kenneth was on his best behaviour, twinkling, nostalgic, affectionate, fun.  John suggested a rematch at his house and, when it came, Kenneth was at his worst.  He started loud and funny, but as the night wore on grew ever louder, more raucous and less amusing.   The problem, I sensed, was that, at John’s, Alan Bennett was part of the party and was so delightful, so gently droll, that Kenneth couldn’t cope with the competition and couldn’t bear himself for seeing it as competition.   The evening was a flop and John and Kenneth, once such friends, never saw each other again.

His very brilliance as a raconteur added to his self-loathing.  ‘Most good talkers, when they have run down, are miserable,’ said Cyril Connolly, ‘they know that they have betrayed themselves, that they have taken material which should have a life of its own to dispense it in noises upon the air.’

Kenneth, full of contradictions, was angry with himself for letting his career be reduced to the chat-show circuit, yet recognised - and relished - his own skill in the genre.  After recording one of his appearances on Parkinson early in the evening he would come on to our house to view the transmission, providing a running commentary on his own performance.  ‘That’s good, that’s very good.  Don’t I look a dish?  Lovely tag to that story.’

Kenneth, of course, was a natural performer, but as a person I think he was probably happiest without at audience, one to one with one of the two or three amiable, tolerant, intelligent chums (usually not from the world of entertainment) who gave him time and uncomplaining, uncomplicated companionship.  (I am thinking particularly of his friend Michael Whittaker who would take him on drives from London to Lichfield, where Michael had once been a chorister, and where Kenneth could hold forth on the subject of another of his great heroes: Dr Johnson.)  Kenneth liked to be what he called ‘ordinary’, to spend time with ‘normal families’.  He loved to be with the Scottish actor Gordon Jackson and his wife Rona and their children.  With the Jacksons, probably more than anywhere, he felt secure.

Contrary to several opinions, I don’t believe he was tortured by his sexuality.  He was born in 1926, forty-one years before the legalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults.  He belonged to a more discreet generation, as he said, ‘before the love that dare not speak its name started shouting the odds from the rooftops.’  Was he homosexual?  ‘Mentally yes, spiritually yes, physically no,’ was his sober answer.  In his cups, he would tell the tale of his exciting encounter with a young Sikh in Ceylon, in a coconut grove in Kurunegala.   ‘It was only fumbling, just the Barclays Bank.’   Customarily, when ladies were present, he eschewed the rhyming slang and put on his Noel Coward voice to roll the word ‘masturbatory’ round his tongue.

He was ready to lend tacit support to the Campaign for Homosexual Equality - he told me he had been to a couple of their meetings - but he wasn’t interested in ‘gay rights’, just ‘the allieviation of suffering’.  ‘The sex urge is just an animal instinct,’ he used to say, ‘the bit left over in us from the apes.  It is the human heart we should be concerned with, and its intense vulnerability.’

Kenneth was brilliant, gifted, and vulnerable.  I felt guilty about his death because I knew that I was one (of several) of his friends who had given up on him.  He was very demanding and we didn’t have the time or the patience for our old chum.

Not long before he died I got a postcard from him, featuring what looked like a still from a Carry On, a picture of Kenneth peering into a periscope.  On the card he had written:  ‘Are you still there?’  I wasn’t.  And now I miss him.  




Gyles Brandreth
Talking gnomes, wives, mothers, virtues and vices with Alan Ayckbourn

Sir Alan Ayckbourn is 79 today.  I saw him a few weeks ago when I was hosting The Oldie magazine's Oldie of the Year Awards and Sir Alan was honoured as the most prolific - and popular - dramatist of our time.  He has 82 full-length plays to his credit, and more in the pipeline.  At the Oldie bash, he gave a wonderful acceptance speech – wry and self-deprecating – but told me afterwards that he had inadvertently forgotten to mention that his new play, due to open Scarborough in September is entitled 'Better Off Dead'!  ‘On second thoughts,’ he added, ‘in view of the occasion, that might been have inappropriate.’

It was a privilege to meet him again - and to meet his wife, Heather.  I had met him before,  sixteen years ago this week, as it happens.  It was the week of his 63rd birthday and of the Queen Mother's funeral.  If you're interested in theatre and the remarkable life of one of our most remarkable playwrights, you might enjoy this account of that encounter.  

April 2002. 

On Tuesday last, after the Queen Mother’s funeral, I went to the Aldwych Theatre off the Strand and had a good laugh.  Queen Elizabeth would have approved.  The play was a revival of Bedroom Farce, starring two of Her Majesty’s favourite comic actors (Richard Briers and June Whitfield) and written by the Queen Mother’s favourite living playwright, Sir Alan Ayckbourn.  ‘Well, yes,’ says Sir Alan, beaming at me like a benevolent gargoyle, ‘she did come to a lot of my plays and, of course, she had the garden gnome from Time and Time Again up at the Castle of Mey.’

Queen Elizabeth saw one of Ayckbourn’s comedies of suburban life at the local repertory theatre in Windsor and took a fancy to the gnome that was a central feature of the set.  At the end of the run, by royal command, the gnome was transported to the grounds of Her Majesty’s Scottish castle.

Richard Briers, Ali G, garden gnomes, Alan Ayckbourn – when it came to popular culture, Queen Elizabeth had the common touch.   With sixty-two plays to his credit (and two more on their way to the West End this autumn), and, per annum, as many revivals as Shakespeare, Ayckbourn, 63 last Friday, is, by a margin, Britain’s most popular, most prolific, most performed, playwright. 

He rarely gives interviews and does not come to London more than he has to.  He is based in Scarborough, the Yorkshire seaside town where he runs (and helps subsidise) the local theatre (specialising in new writing: his own and other people’s) and lives, in some style, in a converted Victorian terrace that was once three houses and a primary school.  He dresses down (canvas shoes, beige slacks, white tee-shirt, slack paunch to the fore), but entertains royally.   He treats me to a four-course dinner in his spacious, gracious candle-lit dining room (polished wood, polished silver, crisp linen, fresh flowers), served by Mary, the housekeeper, and John, the butler (who doubles as an electrical maintenance man at the theatre by day).

Sir Alan (‘I was the first playwright to be knighted since Terence Rattigan.  Tom Stoppard says it was him, but it was me’) has been entertained by The Queen several times.  He has even stayed overnight at Windsor.  Given that family angst is at the heart of much of his drama, I wonder whether he has considered writing a play based on the Royal Family.

‘No,’ he says firmly (he speaks softly, with quiet authority, in a neutral accent, occasionally lapsing into a well-observed funny voice when telling a story), ‘I don’t write about real people.  I might borrow so-and-so’s nose, but all the experiences and feelings in my plays belong to me.  I don’t need to look outside.  I am still mining my own life.’

There is much to mine, starting with Ayckbourn’s ambivalent feelings about his mother, Lolly Worley, a popular novelist, daughter of a Shakespearean actor, a lively lady with a fondness for drink, cigarettes and men.   In the address he wrote for her funeral (she died in 1999, aged 93) her only son concluded, ‘She gave me far more complexes, hang-ups, phobias, prejudices, inspirations and self-insights than any writer has a right to expect from a parent.’   Over dinner, he says to me, more starkly, ‘My mother was a liar,’ and then, waving a hand towards my notebook, checks himself: ‘That sounds too harsh.  She’s dead, poor soul.  My mother was a pathological inventor.  She told me more untruths than truths.’

She told him she had married his father, Horace Ayckbourn, violinist, sometime deputy leader of the London Symphony Orchestra, and ladies’ man, at Marylebone Register Office in 1938.  In fact, she never married him at all.   Alan was fifty-one when he discovered (via his stepfather) that he was illegitimate.  ‘Rather romantic, really,’ he says now.

Lolly had a life-long interest in men: two husbands (as well as Alan’s father), sundry lovers (including the publisher, Michael Joseph), the occasional passing sailor.  ‘Being admired by men is what kept her going,’ says Ayckbourn.  ‘It took her a long time to accept that men weren’t after her any more.  In the nursing home, aged 85, she still thought the twenty-five year old medical orderly had an eye for her.  He hadn’t.  The realisation killed her.  People who haven’t got something to live for no longer live.’

Ayckbourn’s plays are set in Middle England.  Ayckbourn’s parents were raffish middle-class.  Alan was sent to Haileybury.  He says, ‘I have been in Scarborough for forty years, but I haven’t written a Northern play.  Why ?  Because everything of me was formed when I lived in London and Sussex between the ages of four and seventeen.  It was a rich childhood for a writer.  The rows going on around me were instructive.’

He recalls his mother hitting his stepfather (a local bank manager) over the head with a spoonful of mashed potato.  He remembers how Lolly threw his father’s framed photograph at him in fury, ‘telling me all men were bastards’.   He is not sure how his parents came to part.  ‘My father may have had one affair too many  He was at the front of the strings section.  He just had to turn around and there was another curvaceous second violinist, and off he went.’  Horace died of cancer, aged sixty, when Alan was seventeen.  ‘I only saw him for odd weeks here and there in the school holidays, but we had a similar sense of humour.’  Ayckbourn talks about his parents dispassionately, as though they were characters in a play.  Lolly used to complain of her son’s failure to show emotion and Ayckbourn acknowledges that when a trauma occurs, such as the death of his father, he appears not to react.  He says to me, ‘I think I spread the emotion out over several years.’   

Ayckbourn describes his childhood as ‘lonely rather than miserable’.   His abiding memory is of listening to his mother and her friends.  ‘As a child, I heard a lot of women’s talk,’ he says.

Ayckbourn left school (with two A Levels), became an actor (Worthing, Leatherhead, Sir Donald Wolfit’s company), and then found himself in Scarborough, where he came under the influence of the artistic director of the local theatre, a champion of new writing, Stephen Joseph (son of Michael Joseph and Hermione Gingold).   Encouraged by Joseph, Ayckbourn turned from acting to writing and, from the outset, his plays revealed a special sympathy with women.  ‘I realised when I was quite young that girls were getting less of a shout than men,’ he says.  ‘In many ways things have got better for women over the past forty years.  The progress for women has meant correspondingly increased confusion for men.  That’s what I have chronicled in my plays.’

What, I ask him, since’s he’s the master, is the essential difference between men and women ?

‘Men don’t listen.  They like to be listened to.  A bloke sees himself as Mr Fixit.  Tell him your problem and he says at once, “What you should do is . . .”  Women understand instinctively that there is a time to listen.  They know men are good for taking the tops off bottles, but they need their girlfriends to listen to them.  If you want to kill a woman, take away her girlfriends.’

On the night of my visit to Scarborough, Ayckbourn’s wife, actress Heather Stoney, is away, visiting her sister.   Ayckbourn and Stoney have lived together for thirty years, but only married in 1997.   How come ?  ‘Inertia, really,’ he says, with a shrug.  ‘My first wife, Chris [another actress, Christina Roland], and I married very young, had the boys [two sons, now aged 43 and 41] and separated quite early.  We didn’t get round to a divorce.  I settled with Heather, and then the “K” came up, and I knew that Heather would like to be Lady Ayckbourn, so I said, “Would you like to be married?”   She said, “It might ruin everything.”  It hasn’t, I don’t think.  And the way the timing of the divorce happened, Chris got to be Lady Ayckbourn as well.  She uses it occasionally.  I think she quite likes it.’

Ayckbourn is an odd mix.    He plays the relaxed, easy-going, egalitarian but, at the same time, he is clearly keen on his K (‘Though people singularly fail to cope with it .  The milkman said, “Congratulations on your knighthood, Mr Ayckbourn”’)  and I reckon his six honorary degrees and two honorary fellowships are important to his sense of self-esteem.

Within the theatre, he plays the shy-yet-affable, senior-yet-accessible company man, but I imagine he is single-minded in the pursuit of his goals and doesn’t let old affections get in the way of what he wants.  In recent days I have spoken with four actors who know him well and like him a lot: each, unprompted, used the word ‘ruthless’ with regard to him.

Ayckbourn is a self-proclaimed hands-on man of the theatre (‘I’m up at the front end, I’m at the helm’), and famously the man who understands women, but when it comes to all the tedious tasks – running the house, doing the VAT - he lets Heather take the strain.   His plays have been translated into thirty languages and are performed around the world.   How many millions has he made ?  ‘I don’t know what the money is,’ he says, ‘Honest.  Heather sorts out the paperwork.  She is my conscience.’  

She is also, I imagine, the person who enables him to do precisely what he wants.  He wants to eat, drink, swim a few lengths in his pool, direct plays, write plays, run his theatre.  That’s all.   When the going gets unpleasant, he can slip quietly into the rehearsal room or close the study door.  For his mother’s funeral, he wrote the eulogy, but he got Heather to deliver it.  When his mother was in the nursing home, Alan mostly stayed away.  His wives did the visiting for him.

We spend five hours together.   He is funny, easy, gracious throughout.  When I ask him to summarise the virtues and vices of the English, he obliges at once:

‘Vices?  The ability to isolate ourselves from each other; the delight men take in not understanding women; the way we mistrust art.  Overseas, you get respect from being a playwright.  Not here.  And then there’s class.   Put three Englishmen on a desert island and within an hour they’ll have invented a class system.   Virtues?  We have a sense of humour; we are basically well-intentioned; we love animals and we never complain.  You go down to the beach and they’re all sitting there, in a Force 9 gale, with a light sleet coming in, doggedly determined to make the best of it.  It’s very impressive.’

When I ask him about himself, he is less forthcoming.  ‘I don’t like being criticised,’ he says, slowly, after a pause.  ‘I get depressed, just for a couple of days, when a new play has opened.  I lose all confidence.  On first nights I give super parties, but I never stay to the end.  I have to leave before I get maudlin.  It’s the same as the end of a love affair.

Throughout dinner he maintains good eye contact, but keeps his distance.  He looks open, but he feels tight shut.   He gossips, but gives little away.  We have a number of friends in common.  They really seem to love him: he talks about them with much less feeling. 

I don’t think being unreachable is a pose.  It’s a protective habit.  It’s just the way he is, wrapped up in himself and, mostly, content to be so.  He is a writer, after all, a professional observer.  He admits to me, ‘Even when I’m doing something spontaneously, I think, as I’m doing it, “I’ll use that”.’  

‘So’, I say, as we drain the last of the Rully, ‘if I’m after the real Alan Ayckbourn . . . ‘   ‘Yes,’ he replies, ‘go see one of the plays.  There are plenty to choose from.’  He grins at me, mirthlessly, with beady eyes.  He is the Cheshire Cat.  Just as you think you’ve pinned him down, he disappears.

Gyles Brandreth
Word Play: the longest words

Next week I'm in Oxford doing a bit of filming for The One Show with my friend Susie Dent, the genius lexicographer who presides over Dictionary Corner on Countdown on Channel 4.  I've been a guest in Dictionary Corner many times - more times, I think, than anyone else.  In the early days of the programme, in the 1980s, other Dictionary Corner regulars included Ted Moult, Kenneth Williams, Derek Nimmo, Ned Sherrin and Russell Harty.  I've stories to tell about each of them, which I must get round to one day.   Meanwhile, here's a bit of word play to amuse you on your way to work - or to sleep.  

The shortest English word that contains all the vowels is eunoia. It means beautiful thinking, and I think it is a rather beautiful word.   In a recent survey, the word voted the ‘most liked’ in the language was lullaby.  Here's what I know about long words.  If I've got any of this wrong, Susie can put me right when I see her.


29 Letters


This is the longest non-technical word in The Oxford English Dictionary. It means ‘the act of estimating as worthless’ and dates from 1741.

34 Letters


This is a nonsense word invented for the movie Mary Poppins (1964).  In the whole history of language, no word of more than 30 letters has ever been so widely known.

37 Letters


An adverb used in Mark McShane’s novel Untimely Ripped (1963)

45 Letters


The longest word in The Oxford English Dictionary. It is the name of a miner’s lung disease and was deliberately coined to be the longest word in the dictionary.

100 letters


From the third paragraph of James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake (1939)


At 15 letters each, these are the two longest words with unique letters (i.e. no letter is repeated):

uncopyrightable and dermatoglyphics



Euouae, is a medieval mnemonic used to recall the musical tones required when chanting the Gloria Patri.

It also takes the title as the English word with the most consecutive vowels.  Words with five consecutive vowels include cooeeing and queueing.


Archchroniclercatchphraseeschscholtzia (sea snails of a sort), latchstringlengthsman and the medical term postphthisic each have six consonants in a row. 

Borschts has six consonants in a row in just one syllable.  

Words with five consecutive consonants include:




At 27 letters it means ‘with honorableness’.  It is also the longest word that appears in the complete works of William Shakespeare.

The longest everyday word with this unusual property is unimaginatively, with 15 letters.



Strengths is nine letters long.  Strengthlessnesses, at eighteen letters, is the longest word in the English language with only one vowel repeated.



The word has two distinct meanings: it can be a genus of goat grass or a stye in the inner corner of an eye.






The chincherinchee is a beautiful plant found in South Africa. The word chincherinchee is the only known English word that has one letter occurring once, two letters occurring twice, and three letters occurring three times.

Ultrarevolutionaries is a word in which each of the five main vowels occurs twice.


Cabbaged and fabaceae, each with eight letters, are the longest words that can be played on a musical instrument – i.e. only using the letters of the notes A, B, C, D, E, F and G.  Seven-letter words with this property include accededbaggagecabbagedefaced and effaced.


Aegilops, with eight letters, is the longest word whose letters are arranged in alphabetical order. Seven-letter words with this property include beefily and billowy. Six-letter words include abhorsaccentaccessalmost, biopsybijouxbillowchintz and effort.

Gyles Brandreth
Scout's honour: the philosophy of Robert Baden-Powell

Sometimes I think I'm the only person I know who's still alive.  Sir William Gladstone Bt KG has just died.  He was 92.  I met him when he was Lord Lieutenant of Clwyd and I was MP for the City of Chester.  He was palpably 'a good man'.  His claims to fame included being a descendant of the Victorian prime minister of the same name and being Chief Scout between 1972 and 1982. 

As a boy, I was a keen cub scout and still have the badges to prove it.  The Boy Scouts and Girl Guides movement was founded, of course, by Robert Baden-Powell (1857-1941).  I think Sir William Gladstone's philosophy of life was one he shared with Baden-Powell.  On 4 July 1911, in a letter to a friend, Baden-Powell wrote: ‘I know my weak points and am only thankful that I have managed to get along in spite of them!  I think that’s the policy for this world: Be glad of what you have got, and not miserable about what you would like to have had, and not over-anxious about what the future will bring.’

Gyles Brandreth
The Duke of Devonshire's A to Z of Englishness

My wife was born in Swansea.  My great-grandparents had a house in North Wales.  Sometimes I say I'm Anglo-Welsh.  (I say that my parents were properly Anglo-Welsh - they burned down their own cottage.)  In fact, I'm wholly English and happy to be.  The most English Englishman I ever met was the late Duke of Devonshire (1920-2004) and I'm thinking of him now that April's here: it's the most English month, it's spring but it's still raining, and it includes the birthdays of The Queen and William Shakespeare, and St George's Day.

Andrew Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire, had all the credentials required of the quintessential English gentleman: silver spoon, stately home (Chatsworth), Eton, Cambridge (Trinity College), the Guards, a good war (MC, 1944), Minister of State for Colonial Affairs (1963-4), Knight of the Garter (1996).   He was blessed with the traditional English virtues: he was humorous, tolerant, self-deprecating, gently eccentric.  He had an urbane manner, by turns languid and breathlessly enthusiastic, and an impressive wife (Deborah, 1920-2014).  Once, a few years ago now, over tea in his study at his London house (Mayfair, naturally), for my benefit and now for yours, he conjured up an idiosyncratic A to Z of the people, places, qualities, things that said something special to him about England and Englishness.


‘A is for ancestors.  I’ve got plenty, but I’m thinking of one in particular, the Marquess of Hartington who became 8th Duke, born 1833, died 1908.  He had the best of all worlds: he was never prime minister, but held many of the high offices of state, and enjoyed a pretty raffish private life.  It was said of him, “Lord Hartington is a decent gentleman who yawns in his own speeches and prizes the triumphs of the turf and the boudoir above those of the forum.”   Sounds about right, doesn’t it?  Family lore has it that when people - colleagues, civil servants - would come up with schemes, proposals, plans, he would dismiss them with the phrase, “Far better not.”  That seems rather a sensible approach to government.


‘I have two for B.   Beau Brummel once lived in this house.  He came to a tragic end and died in a pauper’s lunatic asylum in France, but in his heyday he was a friend of the Prince Regent and the epitome of elegance.  I am a great believer in good manners and sartorial style.  My other B is Capability Brown who laid out the park at Chatsworth, my home in Derbyshire.   Is there anything lovelier than settled English parkland in the afternoon sunshine?


‘C is for Cheltenham.  I have to be careful here, because my son is the Queen’s representative at Ascot, but, let’s face it, Cheltenham is now socially the smartest race meeting and the Cheltenham Gold Cup the racing day of the year.  The secret is that steeple-chasing is still a sport, whereas flat racing is now a business.  Epsom, alas, is very declasse.


 ‘D is for Debo, my wife.  We’re both 80.  We celebrated our 59th wedding anniversary this week.  She is extremely tolerant.  She runs Chatsworth beautifully.  I have enormous respect for her judgement.   We work well together: I am very good at spending money and she is very good at making it.  She is on the bossy side, of course, but I’ve always liked that in a woman.  And she’s a Mitford.  In their own way, the Mitford sisters are something of an English phenomenon.  Did you see the musical about them?  I called it “La Triviata”.


‘E is for Eton and Eastbourne.  I was a horrible boy, lazy beyond belief, dirty, filthy, useless.   This is no exaggeration.  I wasted my education.  Cambridge was a wash-out.  Too near Newmarket.  But I did enjoy Eton.  If you wanted to work you could, but if you didn’t no one forced you.  That’s changed, but when I go back now and then on a sentimetal journey I find there’s still something special about the ethos of Eton. 

‘The family developed Eastbourne as a resort in the nineteenth century.  I go every year for the last week in July, stay at the Cavendish hotel, and feel completely and utterly free.  I like everything about Eastbourne.  I like the pier.  I like the theatre.  It puts on jolly shows like A Bedfull of Foreigners and Run for Your Wife.  You can take a boat trip round the lighthouse.  There’s a miniature railway and, best of all, on the front, really good military bands, morning and afternoon.  You can’t beat the English seaside and a really tiptop military band.


‘F is for the fragrance of English flowers.  The tube rose is lovely, but my favourite is the gardenia.  I used to sport a buttonhole, but no longer.  If I go to the Derby again I might wear one, but, as a rule, a buttonhole doesn’t become old age.


‘G is for the Guards.  I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to meeting the chap we’ve got Northern Ireland - Peter Mandelson isn’t it?- so that I can say to him, “You do realise you’re speaking to a chinless wonder?”

‘The key to my life was the army.   It turned me from a filthy, useless boy into something vaguely approaching a man.  The discipline wouldn’t be allowed now.  I remember at the end of my first day at Caterham barracks I bought an apple and was eating it crossing the parade ground.  The Sergeant-Major’s stick descended on my shoulder like a whip.  He’d have been had up for GBH these days.  It did me a power of good.

‘The Brigade of Guards is like a family.  My lot, the Coldtreams, are second to none.  That’s our motto: “nulli secundus”.  That said, if you are looking for the epitome of the English soldier it has to be a Grenadier.


‘I think we can take the English sense of humour as read, so H is for hats. Having the right hat at the right time in the right place is important for an Englishman.  I never wear a hat in London.  I have a trilby to go racing, and I take my boater to Eastbourne.  And I think a boater with a pale grey suit is appropriate for Goodwood, don’t you?


‘I is for indolence.  All Cavendishes are lazy by nature and my entire life has been a battle against indolence.  When you consider my advantages - there probably isn’t anybody more fortunate in the world - I’ve achieved absolutely nothing.  It’s quite shaming.  And I never forget, not for a moment, that if it wasn’t for a German sniper’s bullet in September 1944 I wouldn’t be sitting here now.  I’m the younger son.  My brother, who should have become the 11th Duke, was killed in action.  He was a better man than me in every way.


‘J is for the Jockey Club.  Racing is important to the English and it’s open to all.  As the saying goes, “On the turf, and under it, all men are equal.”  I like that.


‘K is for KG.  I know the Duke of Wellington said “There’s no damn merit in the thing”, but the Garter is far and away the greatest honour I have received and it gives me real joy every hour of every day.  I don’t deserve it, but it is our oldest order of chivalry and I take the idea of English chivalry seriously.  It’s important.  I know it makes one or two of them livid, but I like getting up and opening doors for a lady.   I talk to taxi drivers - that’s how I keep in touch -  and they tell me that a polite passenger with a friendly smile transforms their day.  Courtesy costs nothing and makes all the difference.


‘L is for Lawn Tennis.  I used to be President of the Lawn Tennis Association and the All England Club kindly let me have two tickets every day for Wimbledon.  Around this time of year I start to get calls from people I hardly know saying, “Andrew, old boy, how are you?”   I no longer play - I used to, very badly - but, if we’re conjuring up a perfect English scene, can we do better than to sit out in the sunshine, drinking our squash, and watching the girls playing tennis on the lawn?


‘M is for marmalade, Oxford marmalade on toast.  One bite and you’re eating a little bit of England.


‘N can’t be for nightcap because I no longer drink.  That wasn’t always the case.  Now I’m a newsaholic.  I sit up till three in the morning watching CNN, but that’s not frightfully English, so perhaps N should be for nostalgia.  I feel nostalgic for the House of Lords.  I really miss it. 


’We’ll give O to Oscar Wilde.  I remember my father, who died in 1950,  talking to me about homosexuality.  He said, “In my father’s day, people like  Wilde were put in prison.  In my day, it was illegal, but we tried to turn a blind eye.  However in your day, son, it may become compulsory, so watch out.”   I think promoting it is going too far, but a sympathetic understanding is important.  Tolerance has always been an English virtue.  I am proud to be English because this country is tolerant of everything except intolerance.


‘P is for Pratt’s, White’s, Brooks’s, the English gentlemen’s clubs.  The membership of Pratt’s is Brigade of Guards, politicians, landowners.  A friend of mine calls it “a grown-ups nursery”.    In the fifties and sixties, White’s was very agreeable.  You met everyone there, from Evelyn Waugh to Harry Rosebery.  Now I favour Brooks’s.  The days of fast women and slow horses are behind me.  What I like to do now is sit in the hall at Brooks’s watching the world go by.   Actually, that wouldn’t be a bad place to die.  I shall be rather relieved when my time’s up.  I’ve lived beyond my shelf-life.


‘Q is for the Queen who, in half a century, hasn’t put a foot wrong once.  Her accumulated wisdom is extraordinary.  Her charm is infinite.  She is duty personified.  And a sense of duty is an important English characteristic.  If I was to give advice to my grandson, it would be, “Never don’t do the things you don’t want to do.”


‘R is for reading which I can’t do any longer.  My eyes have gone.  But if you want to get to the heart of England, read Galsworthy, Kipling and Trollope.


‘S is for the Cavendish family motto, “Secure by caution”.  It suits us admirably.  We’ve never gone in for things we don’t know about.   On my mother’s side I’m a Cecil and the Cecil motto is “Late but in earnest”.  You know the difference between the two families?  The Cecils are High Church and convinced the aristocracy knows best, while the Cavendishes are very much in favour of improving the lot of the underprivileged - provided it doesn’t interfere with their own wealth.


‘T is for English tailoring, and afternoon tea, and the thrush, my favourite English bird.


‘U is for Uncle Harold [Macmillan, the duke’s uncle by marriage].  When he put me into his government it was the greatest act of nepotism ever.  I think we’d given him some good shooting.  He was a remarkable character.  If he had been more happily married, he might have achieved less   He had the most beautiful manners.  He was very bright.  When he was Chancellor, some mandarin was lecturing him and Uncle Harold interrupted.  “Look here,” he said, “I’m very clever too.”  He was.  And he was the most complete actor you ever met.  He could have made a fortune on the boards.

‘After Debo and the army, I owe everything to Uncle Harold.  And to Messrs Currey & Co, my legal and financial advisers.  I don’t know what we’d have done without them.


‘V is for my valet, Henry.  He’s been with me thiry-five years.  He knows what I want before I do.   If someone’s coming who has given me something - a handkerchief, cufflinks - he puts them out for me to wear.  He is a great friend.  People who don’t have servants don’t realise that they are part of your family, they become your friends.


‘W is for the great Duke of Wellington and for Winston [Churchill].  Winston’s judgement was frequently faulty - think of Gallipoli, think of the Abdication crisis - but he was undoubtedly the greatest Englishman of my lifetime.


‘X is what we censor. There’s generally too much talk of sex nowadays.  I know attitudes have changed and, thanks to the Pill, young unmarried ladies can sleep around in a way they simply didn’t in my day.  They’re more relaxed, which is nice, but are they happier?    English girls are the loveliest in the world and an Englishman should marry an Englishwoman, without a doubt.  As to a dalliance?  Well, the French have their strengths and the Italians are very agreeable, but if you want my advice stick to English women.  They know the rules.


‘Yellow socks are a weakness of mine.  They come from Turnbull & Asser and I have worn them for more than thirty years.  I imagine I care so much about all things sartorial because my father was the worst-dressed man in the world.  He wore paper collars and shoes that were half ordinary leather and half-suede. 


‘Z is for zizz.  I think it was Winston who said, “I don’t take a nap after lunch, but sometimes a nap takes me.”   Snoozing is another great Cavendish characteristic.  Get things done in the morning, then have a little zizz in the afternoon.  Indeed, if good-hearted English people are kindly reading this after lunch, I think, with a clear conscious, they can nod off about now, don’t you?’  

Gyles Brandreth
An Easter conversation: going to Heaven with Desmond Tutu

Good Friday, 2018.  Seventeen years ago, at Easter in 2001, I went to South Africa to meet Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  He was 69 and suffering from prostate cancer.  We talked about faith and his family.  And about death - and Heaven. 

 ‘I wonder whether they have rum and coke in Heaven?  Maybe it’s too mundane a pleasure, but I hope so – as a sundowner.  Except, of course, the sun never goes down there.   Oh, man, this Heaven is going to take some getting used to.’

Desmond Tutu suddenly slaps the table and explodes with laughter.  His tiny eyes disappear, his massive nostrils flare: he hoots, he honks, he shakes with merriment.  He cackles with delight.  Over the next two hours it happens again and again: sometimes a wild burst of merriment, at others a long, soft, giggling tee-hee.   Surprisingly, it isn’t irritating.  It’s simply Tutu.  The man is a bundle of joy.

And he has prostate cancer.  I am told that this could be his last interview, that I will find him frail and easy to tire.  In fact, as he potters round his kitchen fixing me a fruit juice, he looks remarkably robust.   He is 5’ 5” but sturdy, and clearly full of beans.  ‘I’ve been having cryosurgery to zap the cancer,’ he explains.  ‘They freeze the prostate, freeze it, and zap it.’   Another paroxysm of laughter.  ‘They don’t freeze everything around there, man.  I want to celebrate my golden wedding in style!’

Desmond Tutu will be 70 in October.  He will have been married to his wife, Leah, for fifty years in 2005.  They live, in a spacious house, airy and modern (car port at the front, small pool at the back), in a comfortable suburb of Cape Town, where Tutu was Archbishop for ten years, until 1996, and where, famously, on 9 May, 1994, on the Town Hall balcony, he ushered in the new South Africa and presented his country’s first freely elected president to a rapturous crowd: ‘This is the day of liberation.  This is the day of celebration.  We of many cultures, languages and races are become one nation.  We are the Rainbow People of God . . .  I ask you: welcome our brand-new State President, out of the box, Nelson Mandela!’

I have come to see Archbishop Tutu, Africa’s most persuasive orator, and, since 1975, when he became Dean of Johannesburg, the unquestioned moral force of the anti-apartheid movement, to talk, not of politics but of God.  It is Easter and my host – Nobel laureate, winner of every humanitarian honour imaginable, recipient of fifty-five honorary degrees – has been voted most inspiring church leader in the world.  

As we sit together at one end of his dining room table, beneath a small painting of the Last Supper, and I take out my notepad, he gently puts his hand on mind and says, almost in a whisper, ‘Let us say a prayer together.  Let us pray for God’s blessing on our conversation, and on your article, and on all the readers of the Sunday Telegraph – in Jesus’s name.  Amen.’

Our prayer done, the Archbishop – who was wearing full purple fig when I arrived, but has now changed into a loose black tee-shirt – leans towards me and chuckles, ‘If this is going to be my last interview, I am glad we are not going to talk about politics.  Let us talk about prayer and adoration, about faith – and hope – and forgiveness.’

First, however, we talk about death.  ‘When you have a potentially terminal disease,’ he says with a suitably beatific smile, ‘it concentrates the mind wonderfully.  It gives a new intensity to life.  You discover how many things you have taken for granted: the love of your spouse, the Beethoven symphony, the dew on the rose, the laughter on the face of your grandchild.’   At this exact moment, an enchanting six year-old, Naniso, the daughter of Mpoe, one of his own three daughters, skips through the room singing “Jingle Bells” and looking for an Easter egg.  She kisses her grandfather on the nose before dancing off.

‘When I die I will miss my family so much.  I will miss the rugby and the cricket and the soccer too.’

‘What will you be glad to leave behind?’

‘Personally?  Illness, exhaustion, the diminishment in one’s powers.  I will be glad too to say goodbye to hatred and war and injustice and oppression, to the long, ragged lines of refugees, to all the things that have scarred this beautiful planet.  I will be glad to be somewhere where you know accidents are not going to happen anymore.’

‘What do you think Heaven will be like?’

The Archbishop closes his eyes to ponder and spreads his palms out on the table.  ‘It will be spatially, temporally different, of course.  It is difficult for us to conceive an existence that is timeless, where you look at absolute beauty and goodness and you have no words.  It is enough just to be there.  You know how it is when you are sitting with someone you love and hours can go by in what seem like moments?   Well, in Heaven, eternity itself will pass in a flash.  In Heaven we will never tire.  We will never be bored because there will always be such new sides of God that will be revealed to us.’

‘Will there be people in heaven?’ I wonder.

He looks directly at me and grins.  ‘Oh, yes.  Heaven is community.  A solitary human being is a contradiction.  In Africa we say that a person is a person through other persons.  That’s why God gave Adam that delectable creature, Eve. ‘

‘Will we recognise them as people?’ 

He furrows his brow.  ‘I believe so, though what form or shape we’ll have in Heaven I don’t know.  Saint Paul tries explain it when he talks of “a spiritual body”.   It is a kind of oxymoron, but he is saying that in the next life we will be recognisably ourselves, but in an existence that is appropriate to Heaven.’

‘Who do you hope to see in Heaven?’ I ask.

‘I’d love to meet my parents again.  My father died in 1972 when I was teaching theology in Lesotho.  My mother died in 1984, the year we got the Nobel Peace Prize.  And then I have an older brother who died in infancy.  I’d love to meet him.  And I want to see my younger brother again.  He died as a baby, but I remember he had this engaging gurgle if you tickled him.’

‘Will he still be a baby.?’

‘I think so.  There are babies in heaven, definitely.  But no nappies.  It really is Heaven, you see.’  He is laughing again, rolling from side to side, his eyes shining, his right hand tickling the tummy of his imaginary baby brother.  ‘The little children will be very important in Heaven because they will be the ones asking those extraordinary questions that are so profound – “But, God, who made you?”’

Another explosion of wild laughter, near hysterical this time.  And then, once the wave has crashed onto the shore, a sudden calm.  ‘In Heaven,’ he whispers, ‘I would want to meet St Francis of Assisi.  And I would love to encounter Mary Magdalene because I think she is a gorgeous creature.  She was abused, you know.  I believe she was a prostitute, and yet she could love Our Lord so deeply, passionately, extravagantly.  She offered unconditional love, not for any utilitarian purpose, but for the sake of it.  Quite fantastic.

‘I’d also like to meet Origen.  He was an Alexandrian father, third century, one of the brighest minds of the early church.  I am drawn to him because he taught “universalism” which says that, ultimately, even the devil is going to be saved because no one is going to able to resist the attractions of the divine love.’

‘So Hitler and Stalin and those responsible for the Sharpeville massacre are going to find a place in Heaven?’

Archbishop Tutu narrows his eyes and smiles.  ‘The wonderful thing about God’s love is that maybe we are going to be surprised at the people we find in Heaven that we didn’t expect, and possibly we’ll be surprised at those we’d thought would be there and aren’t.   God has a particularly soft spot for sinners.  Remember, Jesus says there is greater joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine needing no repentance.  Ultimately it all hinges on one thing: our response to the divine invitation.   There is hope for us all.  God’s standards are quite low.  Think of the thief on the cross.  He has led a dissolute life.  He gets his come-uppance.  But all he has to say is “Please remember me” and that small spark of repentance is enough to get him an assurance that he will be in Heaven.’

I am thinking, ‘God can forgive, but can we honestly expect a mother to forgive the murderer of her child?’  I begin to say it, but the Archbishop – who chaired South Africa’s controversial Truth and Reconciliation Commission - is ahead of me. 

‘Forgiving is not easy.  Forgiving means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin, but, in my experience, it is a loss which liberates the victim.  Forgiving is not being sentimental.  And in forgiving, people are not being asked to forget.  At Dachau, the former concentration camp, they have a museum to commemorate what happened there.  Over the entrance are the words of the philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”’

‘When you get to Heaven,’ I ask, ‘ what do you think will happen when you come face to face with God?’

The Archbishop shrieks.  ‘Will I survive?  You remember Gerontius?  He longs to be in the presence of God and his guardian angel takes him to God and the moment he comes into the divine presence he cries out in anguish, “Take me away.”  In the blinding presence of holiness, who would survive?’

It is my turn to smile.  ‘I think you might,’ I say.

The Archbishop chuckles softly.  ‘So, God in God’s goodness tones down the wind for the shorn lamb. . .’

‘What would you ask God?’

‘A great deal,’ he says, earnestly.  ‘Why, God, did you make suffering so central to everything?  Why?  Why?  Why?’

‘Yes,’ I respond. ‘And what will his answer be?  Why does God seem to spit on Africa?’

The Archbishop sighs and takes a deep breath.  ‘God says, “I obviously had the choice of making all kinds of different worlds, but I wanted to make a world of creatures who would love me, who would choose to love me, and that would not have been the case if they had been automatons.  They had to have free will: they had to be free.  And this is how they have used their freedom . . .”’

‘Have you ever had doubts?’

‘No, not doubts, but I have been angry with God on quite a few occasions.  I remember I was chaplain at Fort Air university at a time when it was taken over by the apartheid government and the students who protested were expelled.  I went into the chapel and I wept at the altar.  I was so angry with God.  I said, “How can you sit there and do nothing in the face of such blatant injustice?”’

‘And what did God say?’

‘I’m afraid I didn’t give God the chance to reply.  I’ve had a few such moments.’  Another burst of laughter, another moment of calm.  ‘Can I say something about prayer?  Our trouble has been that we have thought of prayer as conversation, where we use words and ask God for things.  We forget that actually the heart of prayer is adoration – just being there with the beloved.  Most of us have had that experience where you sit with someone you are deeply fond of and you don’t have to use words, you seem to communicate at a level you didn’t know existed.  When you sit quietly with God, you will find the silence is a pregnant silence.  It is not the absence of noise.  It is something positive.’ 

‘Have you always been a Christian?’

‘My father was headmaster of a church primary school and my mother, although she was uneducated, was also a Christian.  I would have been about twelve when I met up with Trevor Huddleston [the English missionary, and later Bishop of Stepney, who went to South Africa in 1943] and went to live in Sophiatown in a hostel that the Community of the Resurrection was running.  I was nurtured by people like Trevor and, gradually, slowly, the flower opened up.  In 1946, when I was fourteen or fifteen, I went to hospital suffering with TB.  I got to the point where I was haemorrhaging and coughing up blood and I’d seen that most of the people who went through that stage died.  I remember going to the toilet and coughing up quite a bit of blood and – it sounds like bravado at this distance, but I said,’ – he speaks these words gently, lightly, imitating a child – ‘ “Well, God, if you mean that I’m going to die, it’s okay.  If not, it’s okay.”  I accepted God’s will.  And I really did have an extraordinary sense of peace from that moment on.’

‘What do you think now are your weaknesses, your frailties?’

The Archbishop beams at me.  ‘I have a very strong weakness for being liked.  I want to be popular.  I love to be loved.  One has enjoyed the limelight.  I am guilty of the sin of pride.  Sometimes I find it very difficult to be humble – that is why it is so good to have Leah.  She pulls me down a peg or two.  To her I’m not an archbishop with a Nobel prize: I’m just a not-very-good husband who likes gardens but won’t do any gardening.  Your family is there to do what your guardian angel is supposed to do: keep your ego manageable and remind you that you are just a man.  “Thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return”.’

Archbishop Tutu is one of the most celebrated and admired people of our time.  I ask him, ‘What has been the high point of your life on earth?’

He replies without hesitation: ‘The most gorgeous moment would be when I became a father for the first time, 14 April, 1956, when our only son, our Trevor, was born.  I was so proud and so happy.  It made me feel a little like God.’  He pauses and adds, slowly (it is the only time he is hesitant in our entire conversation), ‘And, later, with the way Trevor has lived his life, taking the wrong turns and causing pain and anguish, I have learnt something of the impotence God feels as he watches his children making the wrong choices.  Sometimes, in my own life as a father, I have felt very like God looking at us and thinking, “Whatever got me to create that lot?”’

Everywhere you look in the Archbishop’s home, in the living room, the dining room, his study, alongside the trophies, medals, certificates and awards, are framed photographs of his family, dozens of them.  ‘What is Trevor doing now?’ I ask.

‘He’s some sort of consultant.  He is a very gifted person, very charming, when he is sober.  He destroys himself, or seems to want to destroy himself, when he drinks.  He has been in trouble with the police.  But there we are.’

He looks at me, and blinks away the tears, and claps his hands.  ‘You can’t be so stingy as to give me only one moment in my life to remember?  Can’t I have another?’

‘Of course,’ I say, ‘as many as you like.’  The man is irresistible.

‘The day that Nelson Mandela was released from prison, after twenty-seven years.  He came to spend the night with us.  It was like a miracle.  In all the time of the struggle, it seemed there was no light at the end of the tunnel.  It was all gloom and darkness and then, suddenly, there he was.  This guy, who a few weeks before had been a terrorist, was a free man and the calls were coming in from all over the world, from the White House, from 10 Downing Street.  It would be easy to say those twenty-seven years were a shameful waste.  I don’t think so.  Those years and all the suffering they entailed were the fires of the furnace that tempered his steel, that removed the dross.  Perhaps without that suffering he would have been less able to be as compassionate and magnanimous as he turned out to be.  And that suffering on behalf of others gave him an authority and credibility that can be provided by nothing else in quite the same way. 

‘Of course, he is only a human being.  He has his failings.  As a speaker, he can be deadly dull, but, it’s a cliché to say so, he is a truly remarkable person.  And what he does show – and Mother Teresa and others have shown it too – is that the world that is supposed to be so cynical and hard is actually extraordinarily sensitive to goodness.  Nelson Mandela was not the leader of some mighty military machine or even a country with a powerful economy.  South Africa is hardly a blip on the screen.   He is famous the world over and people warm to him because he is good.’

And, of course, I have warmed to Archbishop Tutu for just the same reason.  I remind him that the purpose of my visit has been to collect an Easter message.  He laughs.  ‘You have travelled to the Dark Continent for an Easter message for your readers.  God has a great sense of humour.  Who in their right mind would have imagined South Africa to be an example of anything but awfulness?  We were destined for perdition and were plucked out of total annihilation.  God intends that others might look at us and take courage.  At the end of their conflicts, the warring groups around the world – in the Balkans and the Middle East, in Angola and the Congos – will sit down and work out how they will be able to live together amicably.  They will, I know it.  There will be peace on earth.  The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ puts the issue beyond doubt: ultimately, goodness and laughter and peace and compassion and gentleness and forgiveness will have the last word.

‘Jesus says, “And when I am lifted up from the earth I shall draw everyone to myself”, as he hangs from His cross with out-flung arms, thrown out to clasp all, everyone and everything, in a cosmic embrace, so that all, everyone, everything, belongs.’

The Archbishop has finished his homily, but somehow he can sense that I am not wholly satisfied.   He smiles.  He recognises a lapsed Anglican when he sees one.  He leans towards me one last time and, in a voice barely above a whisper, says, ‘You are like so many, my friend.  You have everything, but, inside, you feel there is something missing: deep down, somewhere, it’s not quite okay.  Do not worry, do not feel troubled, do not be perplexed.  God loves you as you are – with your doubts, with your intellectual reservations, with your inability to make the leap of faith.  God says, “I made you, actually, and I made you as you are because I love you.  Don’t try to titivate yourself.  Just be you and know that I affirm you.  You are precious.  You matter enormously to me.  You matter as if you were the only human being and, you know something,”’ - he pauses for a moment and smiles a wonderful smile – ‘”I create only masterpieces.  I have no doubt at all about your worth.  You don’t have to do anything.  Your worth for me is intrinsic.  Please believe I love you.  You are not going to find ultimate satisfaction in anything out there because I made you like me.  As St Augustine says, ‘Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.’  I made you for a worshipping creature – and you have worshipped money and fame, I know it – but, ultimately, I am the only one worth worshipping.  I won’t let you go, my child.  I won’t give up on you - ever.  I won’t.  I will sit here like the father of the prodigal son, waiting.    Come back home, come back home to me, and our celebration will be mindboggling.’

A final, explosion of laughter and the Archbishop pushes back his chair and says, ‘Come, we will go outside and watch the sun falling on Table Mountain and smell the flowers together.  God is good, man, and he is waiting for you.’

Gyles Brandreth
'Blog' - and other 'portmanteau' words like 'brunch' and 'Brexit'

A year to go until we get to 'Brexit' . . .  And perhaps the only thing not in dispute when it comes to Brexit is the fact that word 'Brexit' (from Britain and exit) has become the most rapidly recognised portmanteau word in history and possibly the most universally recognised since 'brunch' (from breakfast and lunch) came in to being in 1897.   A portmanteau is a large travelling bag, typically made of stiff leather and opening into two equal parts, and a portmanteau word is one that combines the meaning of two others.  Portmanteau words were pioneered by Lewis Carroll, who created 'chortle' (chuckle and snort) and 'galumph' (gallop and triumph), among others.  As well as 'Brexit', other more recent portmanteau 'b' words include: 

  • blog, from web and log 
  • botox, from botulism and toxin
  • Bennifer, from Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez
  • biopic, from biography and picture
  • bootylicious, from booty and delicious
  • Brangelina from Brad Pitt and Angelina Jol
  • Britpop, from British and pop music
  • bromance, from Bro (brother) and romance
  • Bruceploitation, from Bruce Lee and exploitation
  • brankster, from banker and gangster 
  • banofee, from banana and toffee
  • bicurious, from bisexual and curious
  • blaccent, from black and accent – used by non-blacks who try to sound black
  • botel, from boat and hotel 
  • brainiac, from brain and maniac
  • breathalyser, from breath and analyser
  • burkini, from burka and bikini
Gyles Brandreth
Saying goodbye to Katie Boyle at a beautiful church in Hampstead

If ever you are in Hampstead, do visit the Catholic Church of St Mary’s in Holly Walk.  It’s a gem. It’s only two minutes from the tube, but not easy to find.  I went there today to a beautiful Requiem Mass for Katie Boyle. Glorious music - Schubert and Cesar Franck, and, appropriately, as they carried Katie’s coffin out, ABBA on the organ with a Eurovision hit: Waterloo.  Monsignor Phelim Rowland wore a biretta with a scarlet pompom (a Monsignor’s privilege) and delivered a fine and thoughtful homily. Rupert Rhymes remembered Katie with affection. And, as we emerged from the church, the sun shone. Katie was a sunshine person.

There were two young servers in attendance at the Mass, reminding me of how much I loved being a server at St Stephen’s, Gloucester Road, when I was a little boy of seven or eight. I remember, too, how much I looked forward to a funeral when I was in the choir at Holy Trinity, Brompton. We were paid half-a-crown for weddings, but five shillings for funerals. On Sundays we choir boys looked around the church carefully picking out the oldest members of the congregation and then, on our knees, prayed earnestly for them to die.

Gyles Brandreth
Talking about playwrights, actors and wives with the late Sir Peter Hall

On Monday night I found myself at the Garrick Club in London at a wonderful cabaret performed by the brilliant Stefan Bednarczyk and the dazzling Janie Dee.  I was a guest and it was a joy.  By way of bonus, and by chance, at the show I found myself seated next to Chris Hall.  He is the producer of a TV series I love: The Durrells.  He turned out to  be as delightful and sunny as his TV series.  He also turned out to be the son of the actress Leslie Caron and the great theatre director, Sir Peter Hall, who died in September of last year.  Meeting Chris on Monday - and Sir Peter's widow, Nicki - reminded me that I had interviewed the great man back in the spring of 2000, in the week that he set off for the United States to direct his friend John Barton's ten-play cycle, Tantalus.  I thought I'd post the interview here.  It's a bit long for a blog, but what Sir Peter had to say about Pinter and Tennessee Williams and Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson - and about his own childhood, and sex, and his several wives - is intriguing, so dip in if you're interested.  If not, scroll on.  (I'm off to Katie Boyle's funeral.  I'm about the only person I know who isn't dead.  It's only a matter of time, of course.) 

Sir Peter Hall has upped and left the country.  He departed these shores yesterday morning, taking his fourth wife and his sixth child with him.   ‘I am going to Denver in the Rocky Mountains to direct this huge epic, ten new plays by John Barton based on the Greek legends and the Trojan War.  I wanted to do it here with the Royal Shakespeare Company.  They would have done it, but they haven’t got any money.  It drives me mad this country because of its stupidity.  The arts are starved of cash.   Chris Smith [the Culture Secretary] is nice enough, but he’s got no clout.  And Blair doesn’t care.   He’s indifferent to the arts.  He isn’t remotely interested.

‘The greatest artist of all time was British.  Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists created the richest theatrical culture in history.  Thirty years after Shakespeare’s death, the theatres were torn down and the dramatists sent into exile.  The Puritans triumphed.  They seem to be triumphing again in the person of New Labour.  And I voted for them.  Of course, we’re all going to be voting for Ken Livingstone now.  At least, he seems to care.’

Sir Peter (‘Don’t make me sound like a cross old bugger’) is not leaving us forever, but after six months in Denver he has some Shakespeare to attend to in Los Angeles and an opera in Chicago, so he may be away some time.    I am sorry to see him go, not only because he is a beguiling creature (intelligent, articulate, determined, charming, disarming), but also because it seems odd - and wrong - that the man who, arguably, has been the single greatest contributor to British theatre in the past fifty years (he ushered in a whole new world when he directed Waiting for Godot in 1954; he founded the RSC in 1960; he established the National Theatre in the 1970s) can no longer find the berth to do what he wants to do in his own country.   ‘I can’t complain about the opportunities I’ve had, but I’d rather be working where I grew up with the people I grew up with than having to go abroad.’

I am giving him a valedictory lunch at a fish restaurant of his choice around the corner from his beloved Old Vic  (‘That’s what I wanted.  My own small company at the Old Vic.  I needed a half-million guarantee from the Arts Council, but I wasn’t to have it.  That’s why I’m leaving.’)   He is 69, but seems ten years younger.  He is a big man (tall, bulky) with a beady eye and a soft voice.  He has a healthy appetite, for life, for work, for food.

As we tuck in (moules with salmon and Pernod for starters; then Dover sole, with rocket and parmesan cheese salad on the side; a couple of glasses of an unpretentious Chablis) I suggest we conjure up a farewell party for him.   Of all those he has known, worked with, loved, who would he have on the quayside to wave him off?

Given he sees the essence of his life’s work as ‘unlocking texts’, I suggest he starts with writers.  The waitress is mopping up the Pernod sauce that’s cascading down his beard and jacket, but he doesn’t hesitate.

‘Samuel Beckett, a good man to have a glass of Guinness with, a man of grace, elegance, generosity of spirit.  Sam’s face is one of the icons of the twentieth century.  We all know the gaunt bones and the ravaged cheeks.  Prone to melancholic fits, but wonderfully funny.  Waiting for Godot changed my life.  I was 24, the East Anglian railwayman’s son just down from Cambridge, directing at the Arts Theatre Club.  I got sent the play because nobody else would do it.   I can’t pretend that I thought it was the seminal play of the mid twentieth century - which I now do - but I knew it had something.   It made waiting dramatic.  Look Back in Anger won’t last, it feels dated already, but Godot will go marching on.   It’s a metaphor for life.  And its language is extraordinary: it’s poetic speech that sounds real.   Pinter wouldn’t be Pinter without Beckett.’

‘Will you have Pinter on the quayside?'

‘Yes,’ he laughs.  ‘I suppose so.   We did a lot together.’ 

‘Are you two reconciled?’

‘I never fell out with Harold.  Harold fell out with me.  He took exception to my diaries when they were first published.   I wrote about him leaving Vivien [Merchant, the actress, who later committed suicide] and his affair with Antonia Fraser, and he wrote me a letter full of hurt and sorrow and didn’t speak to me for eight years.  Then he sent me a postcard saying “Life’s too short”.  He was right.’

‘Harold takes himself seriously?’

Another laugh.  ‘Oh yes.  You know the lovely story about Harold and the Comedy Theatre, don’t you?   There was a thought that a theatre might be renamed in his honour, and since several of his plays had been put on there Harold had hopes it might be the Comedy.  Tom Stoppard got wind of this and said to Harold, ‘You’ve got the wrong end of the stick.  It’s not the theatre that’s going to change its name, it’s you.  It’s not going to be the Pinter Playhouse, you’re going to be Harold Comedy.”’

‘What about Tennessee Williams?’

‘Yes, I’d like him there.  It was again through Godot that I met him.  He just rang up.  “Halooo, this is Tennessee.  Would you like to direct my new piece?”   He was wonderful in his prime, but, oh, the sad and awful end of it all when he would come reeling into my office at the National with yet another terrible play.’

‘Who are the actors you want to see on the quayside?’

‘Judi Dench, Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, of course.  And Ralph Richardson.  He had an extraordinary quality.   In rehearsals most actors describe to you what they plan to do in performance, talk about it and around it, begin to sketch it out.  Ralph simply did it.  Edith Evans was the same.  From a standing start, they just got up and gave you the complete performance.

‘Ralph was like a father to me.  About six weeks before he had his stroke and died, we were having lunch.  He was 81.  He said - imagine the voice - “Are you religious?  I am.  I’ve tried to lead a good life, but when I die and go up to the pearly gates, will St Peter come and open them and say ‘Hello, Richardson, come in, old boy’?   You know, I don’t think he will.  I don’t think there’ll be anyone there at all.”   I miss Ralph very much.’

What about Olivier, Hall’s predecessor at the National?

‘No, no, thank you.  I don’t have a good memory for pain.  Larry is a tragic and heroic figure.  He was a medieval monarch, inspiring, awesome, wilful, sometimes giving favours, sometimes withdrawing them.  He never believed he would stop, retire or die.  He thought he was immortal.  He had genius, but he was hell to work with towards the end.  It was like the last days of Stalin.

‘Larry did not make it easy for me.  One of the things I’m most proud of is the way I laid the ground for my successors at the RSC and the National.  I’d want Trevor Nunn and Richard Eyre there to see me off.   And Peter Brook, of course.’

‘Any members of your family?’

‘My parents, not simply out of sentimentality, but out of reparation.  I was the cliche: an only child, the scholarship boy, the working-class lad who turned himself into a phoney member of the middle classes.  I was not as generous or grateful to them as I should have been.’ 

‘What about your wives?  Will you have any of them to see you off?’

‘All of them, please.  I have loved them all.’

Talking to Hall’s friends, talking to him, reading his patently honest and beautifully written autobiography, it is clear that women, love and sex, have been central to his life for virtually all of his near-seventy years.

‘My parents were very physical and tactile.  This surprises me now because their attitudes and morality were essentially Victorian.  They were very correct, very respectable, but there was nothing prudish about my upbringing.  I was cuddled and caressed.  On Sunday mornings I would creep into my parents bed and luxuriate in the sense of being physically at one with somebody else.  This sense of recognition, of being seen by somebody else’s eyes, of being appreciated and touched by another’s hands, is the happiest sensation for a child.  Out of it come the first stirrings of a healthy sensuality.   When I was three or four, I had a recurring erotic dream in which our next door neighbour, her children and I all danced naked.’

He remembers falling in love for the first time.  ‘She was a fragile-looking blonde with blue eyes called Monica.  I watched her all day in my class at school.  I kissed her during Postman’s Knock at a party.  She seemed to find me absurd, and I suppose I was.  She giggled at my intensity.’ 

During the war, when he was twelve or thirteen, a family of evacuees, bombed out in London, moved into the house directly opposite the Halls in Cambridge.   ‘Edith was the daughter of the family and I fell passionately in love with her.  I kissed and kissed her in the darkness of the autumn garden.  She tired of the activity, but I wanted to go on and on.  Sexual passion is agony before we have the means to assuage it.’

He met the first real love of his life after the war, when he was doing National Service in Germany.  ‘Her name was Jill and she was a porcelain-faced member of the WRAF in which she was intending to make her career.  She was private and shy, and as young and virginal as I was.  We cuddled and I groped feverishly.  This, remember, was the pre-Pill age when how far you could go with a girl was a clear indication of her morality.  I masturbated lustily in my bed and dreamt of making love to Jill.  Being a romantic, I took the whole thing terribly seriously - much more, I suspect, than she did.  Just before I was demobilsed, we became engaged.’

Soon after, at a hotel in Leamington Spa, they went to bed together.  ‘How and why our love-making worked, I cannot imagine.  My knowledge of sex and of a woman’s body was confined to chatter and gossip, my avid reading of Penguin sex education books, and a great deal of D H Lawrence, whose rhapsodic descriptions were, at best, rather unclear.

‘Sex is the great mystery, as great as death.  Yet we commercialise it and destroy it with fear, prudery and envy.  It is the expression of our love, and the means by which nature ensures our future.  It gives the greatest pleasure and the greatest pain.  At nineteen, I had been given no education, no counselling and no help in this crucial part of life.  Is it really much better for young people now?  Knowing how to give pleasure to a woman is the nearest most men get to being an artist.  It is something that should be helped and cherished.’ 

His relationship with Jill foundered ‘because of the extent to which my ambitions consumed me - a taste of terrible things to come.’   Hall has been married four times and had two other serious long-term commitments which were marriages in all but name.  ‘I don’t wonder that people doubt me when I say that I believe passionately in marriage, but I do.   I am sentimentally uxorious.  It was through Godot again that I met my first wife, Leslie Caron.  I was asked to direct Gigi as a play.  I was twenty-five.   We fell in love, we married, but she was a star who needed to be in Hollywood, when I needed and wanted to go to Stratford.  Leslie begged me not to, but I had to.  After Jill, after Leslie, there were many attempts to get it right.   Until Nicki [Frei, a press officer at the National, whom he married in 1990] they all ended in pain.

‘The other day my youngest daughter, Emma - she’s seven - asked me, “Papa, why do you split up with all your wives?”  I said, “Darling, for me, if it isn’t all right, somehow it is all wrong.”’

I suspect there’s more to it than a search for perfection.  I reckon there’s an element too of ‘what Peter wants, Peter gets’.    When he was six he badgered his Auntie Vera into giving him a brass band of toy soldiers that was almost certainly beyond her means.   When he was thirty he cajolled Leslie Caron into giving him a vintage Rolls-Royce.  Toys, girls, performances: once he has seen the potential, it must be realised.  This must be part of why he is so frustrated now.  He wanted his own company at the Old Vic and a stupid government wouldn’t let him have it.

The coffee has arrived.  We are resisting further alcohol, because Sir Peter has to return to the rehearsal room and then go on to give a talk at the National Theatre and then go home to pack.  He works all the time.   His energy, his  commitment, his achievement are extraordinary: two hundred productions over five decades, many of them true landmarks.   I say to him, ‘This is going to be a celebratory piece, because I think you are one of the great men of our time.’

‘Thank you.’   He looks genuinely pleased.  He blushes.

‘I think perhaps too that you are a narcissist.’

He looks perplexed.  He frowns.  ‘What do you mean?’

‘I am sorry.  I don’t mean to be rude.  I am probably one myself.  As my wife would say, “Most men are”.   I just mean that everything revolves around you, always has, always will.  You see everything in relation to yourself, as a reflection of yourself.  When you said a moment ago that Nicki was clever, for a moment I thought you meant she was intellectually bright.’

‘She is.’

‘Yes, of course, but what you meant is that she is clever at handling you.’

‘Yes, that is what I meant.’

‘It’s all about you, about what you want.  Your work, your ambition have always come first.  Your wives have had to accept that.’

‘Yes.  In the beginning they always say they understand, they won’t mind, they can manage.   But is it bad to be a workaholic?   Is it wrong?  Isn’t it a great blessing to know what you want to do and to have the passion that makes you do it?   I don’t want to pause.  I want to keep moving.   I have always striven to be booked up so I can go briskly from one job to the next.  I am a director: each day I want to direct, not wait for the phone to ring or meditate on my failings.’

‘But people say you do too much, that you take on more work than you should before you need the money.  Unlike some of the other directors from the subsidised theatre, like Trevor Nunn, you haven’t had a big commercial success, you haven’t hit the jackpot.’

‘I suppose the nearest I’ve come to a jackpot has been Amadeus.  I’ve earned quite nicely out of that.  But I don’t do things for money.  I don’t think I’ve ever done anything I shouldn’t have done for the money, except perhaps once.  I’ve done all right, but it has all gone on divorces and school fees.’  (He may be a lifelong Labour voter, but four of his children went to Bedales; the fifth is currently head girl at Roedean.)  ‘I am going to be seventy in November.  I enter my old age with a pension and a house and nothing more.’

For a moment he looks exhausted.  Beached on his banquette in our fish restaurant in SE17, Sir Peter suddenly, fleetingly, puts me in mind of the rejected Sir John Falstaff, as he appears at the end of the two Henry IVs, Hall’s favourite plays.

‘I have always been prone to black depressions, but they have been much less frequent since the coming of Nicki.  I have achieved the marriage I dreamed of, but the happiness is not unalloyed.  There is thirty years difference between us, so an in-built sadness, the sense of the shortage of time.  I have a daughter of seven who I shall be lucky to see grown-up.  I have five other talented children and five grandchildren who I shall be heartbroken to leave.  I know that I am a better director now than I have ever been.  And that is a further sadness, because I don’t have a theatre or a company.   You say I’ve always got what I wanted, Gyles.  Well, I’ll tell you what I want now.  I want more time.   A few more years.  Please.  I mean it.’


Gyles Brandreth
The owl and the castle - and a place in history

Today's papers are carrying pictures of an owl causing chaos at a wedding in Cheshire.  On cue, the owl (a professional "wedding owl") flew in to deliver the wedding rings, but the best men (there were three of them - it was a big wedding and the groom couldn't decide between his three best mates) had trouble unhooking the pouch containing the rings from the owl's talons and, as the bird began to flap its wings, the best men started flapping too . . .

This all happened at Peckforton Castle - an address that has a special place in the social history of our country.  In 1992, when I became MP for the City of Chester, Mrs Evelyn Graybill, the then owner of Peckforton Castle, came to see me.  She wanted to know why people wanting a civil wedding couldn't get married in her castle.  'People can be married in Chester Cathedral,' she said, 'why not in Peckforton Castle?'  I took her point - and, as a direct result of our meeting, introduced a private member's bill in parliament that became the 1994 Marriage Act and for the first time allowed civil weddings to take place in venues other than register offices.  It was a simple piece of legislation that totally changed the wedding business in our country.  Yup, if you've been married - or are planning to be married - in a beautiful hotel or an historic house or a stately home or whatever wonderful venue it may be, it's all down to Peckforton Castle, Mrs Graybill, and me.

Gyles Brandreth
A brief message from William Saroyan


‘Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep.  Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell.  And when you get angry, get good and angry.  Try to be alive.  You will be dead soon enough.’   Novelist and playwright, William Saroyan (1908-1981)

Gyles Brandreth
Unrivalled Rivals

Treat of the week: went yesterday to the lovely Watermill Theatre near Newbury to see a revival of The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan - written when he was 23 in 1775 and, in 2018, still one of the funniest farces in the language.  The production runs until 15 April and if it's not sold out, get to see it if you can: it's life-enhancing.  Beth Flintoff has adapted it very effectively (boldly giving Mrs Malaprop a few additional verbal infelicities), Jonathan Humphreys directs, and the cast is a joy.  I've seen a few Sir Anthony Absolutes - among them Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir Donald Sinden, Peter Bowles and Nicholas le Prevost - but Michael Thomas is now my favourite: so hilarious and so human.  

Sheridan gave up play-writing aged only 29 and went into politics, but he maintained his interest in the theatre - and in the 1790s was responsible for rebuilding the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.  Famously, on 24 February 1809, the theatre was destroyed by fire.  To a friend who marvelled at the calm way he sat in the Piazza Coffee House as his beloved theatre burned to the ground, Sheridan replied: 'A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine at his own fireside.'


Gyles Brandreth
Words by Shakespeare

Went last night to see the acclaimed Bridge production of Julius Caesar.  Terrific stuff.   Going tonight to see the panned production of Macbeth at the National Theatre.  We'll see.  They are both full of quotations - and words never heard before.  William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is credited with originating: 1,700 words.

In truth, many of Shakespeare’s ‘new’ words were created by using existing nouns as verbs, verbs as adjectives, re-framing their original meanings, adding pre-fixes, suffixes or simply taking the Latin derivatives and playing around with them to come up with something a little bit different.  If you count all the variants of the same word – for example, ‘love’, ‘loves’, ‘loving’, ‘loved’, ‘lovest’ – Shakespeare in all his works has a vocabulary of just over 29,000 words.  If you discount the grammatical variations, his basic vocab was between 17,000 and 20,000 words.  Given you can find 500,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary today, 20,000 isn't many.  Clearly, it's not the number of words you know, but the way in which you use them.

Of course, Shakespeare gets the credit for words he did not necessarily invent.  He may have invented them – or simply have been the guy who first put them down on paper.  Here are some of the words first found in Shakespeare and the plays in which we first encounter them:

advertising - Measure of Measure

amazement – The Tempest

assassination - Macbeth

bandit - Henry VI, part 2

bedroom  - A Midsummer Night’s Dream

birthplace - Coriolanus

bloodstained - Titus Andronicus

barefaced - Hamlet

blushing - Henry VI

bump - Romeo and Juliet

champion - Macbeth

circumstantial - As You Like it

cold-blooded - King John

compromise - Merchant of Venice

courtship - Love’s Labour’s Lost

critic  - Love’s Labour’s Lost

dawn  - Henry IV

discontent - Titus Andronicus

dishearten - Henry V

drugged - Macbeth

epileptic - King Lear

elbow - King Lear

excitement - Hamlet,

eyeball – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

fashionable - Troilus and Cressida

frugal The Merry Wives of Windsor

generous - Love’s Labour’s Lost

gossip The Comedy of Errors

gnarled - Measure for Measure

grovel - Henry VI, Part 2

hurried - Comedy of Errors

label - Twelfth Night 

laughable-  Merchant of Venice

majestic - Julius Cesar

marketable - As you Like it

mimic A Midsummer Night’s Dream

monumental - Troilus and Cressida

moonbeam A Midsummer Night’s dream

mountaineer  - Cymbeline

negotiate - Much Ado about nothing

obsequiously - Richard III

outbreak - Hamlet

pedant The Taming of the Shrew

puking - As You Like It

radiance - All’s Well That Ends  Well

rant - Hamlet

remorseless - Henry VI

savagery - King John

scuffle - Anthony and Cleopatra

submerge - Anthony and Cleopatra

summit - Hamlet

swagger – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

torture - Henry VI, Part 2

tranquil - Othello

undress - Taming the Shrew

unreal - Macbeth

varied - Titus Andronicus

worthless - Henry VI, Part 1

zany – Twelfth Night

Yes, before Hamlet, ours was a language without excitement. 

Gyles Brandreth
Thanks for dropping by

Good of you to be here: welcome to the blog.  Not sure what it's going to feature.  Early days.  Bits and pieces, I suppose.  It won't be a diary.  I already keep a diary and, a few years after the events, publish some of it.  There are two volumes now in print: 'Breaking the Code' is essentially about the reality of political life in Britain and covers the years from the fall of Margaret Thatcher to the arrival of David Cameron (most people seem to think it's my best book); 'Something Sensational to Read in the Train' covers my life from 1959 to 1999.  I've been asked to publish another volume to run from 2000 to 2020.  We'll see if I make it.  Meanwhile, thanks for dropping by.  Do come again.  I'm thinking of simply posting odds and end designed to spread a little happiness.  (If you enjoy P G Wodehouse spoofs, there's one just below.)  Today I'm sharing the great American baseball player Satchel Paige's Six Rules for Staying Young.  He had them printed on his business card. 

1. Avoid fried meats, which angry up the blood.

2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.

3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.

4. Go very light on the vices such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain't restful.

5. Avoid running at all times.

6. Don't look back; something might be gaining on you.

Gyles Brandreth
What ho, Your Majesty!

A short story of our times by Gyles Brandreth

It was a beautiful morning in the breakfast room of Oodles, the oldest club in St James’s.  Bright sunshine poured in through the tall windows.  The club silver sparkled, the dust danced in the sunbeams, and round and round the bread rolls came - winging through the air, now high, now low, now from the left, now from the right.  Once in a while there was a loud ‘Huzzah!’ as someone scored a direct hit.

The laughter never seems to stop at Oodles and the breakfast is always tip-top.  Today Chef had excelled himself.   The fried eggs were positively giving me the glad-eye, the bacon sizzled like Pippa Middleton in one of her backless, strapless numbers, and the fried bread . . . Well, it was with the first happy scrunch, that I looked up to see Quiffy Cartwright beaming down at ‘Ah, Quiffy,’ I said, ‘I bet you don’t get a brekkers like this at Number Ten, do you, old bean?’  (I still can’t get over Quiffy being prime minister: at school he didn’t even get a pass in Religious Studies, and at Oxford he read Geography.)

My old friend widened his big blue eyes and ran an elegant hand through his famous forelock.  ‘I don’t come to the Club for the breakfast,’ he answered, smiling, ‘– superior as it is.  I’ve come to see you, Willie.’   He pulled up a chair and sat down beside me. ‘I know I can count on you.’

Actually, I like to think he can.  Before the election, I gave him my policy paper – Back to the Future: A New Way with National Service – and he’s been decent enough to say it’s what helped nudge him over the finishing line that hair’s breadth ahead of the other chap. 

Quiffy glanced around the dining room.  ‘By the way,’ he murmured, ‘have you got a cheque for me, old bean?’

‘What?  Another one?'

'You know, Willie, as I was saying to little Mr Putin the other day – in fact, as I always say to anyone who asks after you – “Willie Dabney is the brains of the Party, the brains.”’

‘Fear not, Prime Minister,’ I laughed, fishing my chequebook out of my pocket.  ‘Will fifty k do?’

‘Can you manage a shade over?’

‘A shade over fifty?  Why not?  You know I’ll always do what I can to help the Party in these parlous times.’

‘Good man,’ said Quiffy, pushing back his chair and trousering my contribution to the funds.   ‘We need another policy paper from you, Willie – and soon.’ 

‘Of course,’ I said, ‘but I’m rather struggling with my column for GQ magazine this month.  “Tweeds – what happens next?”  It’s proving trickier than I expected

‘When you’re ready, old bean,’ said the PM - at which point a bread roll bounced off the prime ministerial bonce and landed squarely at his feet.  It was swiftly followed by two more. 

Quiffy, quick as a flash, spun round, bent down, picked up all three rolls and whizzed them back whence they came – in the direction of Teddy Ivanhoe, Mayor of London, who ducked, but not quite in time. 

‘Cripes!’ squealed Teddy, clasping his forehead and jumping up and down like Humpty Dumpty on a Bungee wire.

Chuckling, I returned my attention to the breakfast nosebag – and to the prime minister who was now fielding a beauty of a bumper from the mayoral corner.   ‘What’s on the race-card today, Quiffy?’ I asked.

‘The Emergency Budget, then off to Brussels for soup and escalopes with Johnny Foreigner.’  Quiffy zinged a zooter Teddy’s way.  ‘The European Union . . .’ he sighed.

‘Good grief,’ I murmured, ‘Is that still going on?’

‘Oh, yes.’  Quiffy laughed.  ‘But you’ve got to look on the bright side.  They all speak English nowadays.’  Having delivered his quip and bunging a beauty of a bosie as his parting shot, Quiffy went merrily on his way.

Moments later, while reflecting that Teddy Ivanhoe is actually a bit of a dibbly dobbly in the bowling stakes and wondering to myself whether or not a slice of old-fashioned toast-and-marmalade might not just round off breakfast rather nicely, of all people Tubby Orr Balls came padding excitedly through the hurly-burly of bread rolls towards me.

‘Willie,’ he cried breathlessly, ‘I’ve found you.’  His moon-like face was wreathed in smiles.  His bald pate was shiny with perspiration.

‘You have, old bean,’ quoth I, raising an eyebrow while casting a glance towards Tubby’s bulging waistcoat.

Tubby spread his arms wide with pride.  ‘Charlie likes a fellow with a touch of tummy – reassures her he’s really an Englishman.’

Charlie is Charlotte Bonar-Law, actress, revolutionary, dangerous sports addict; and Tubby’s current affianced. 

‘It’s because of Charlie I’m here.’

‘Because of Charlie?’

‘I’m producing a film.’

‘Another one?’

‘This is a gem, Willie.  The Private Life of Nell Gwyn.  Charlie is going to star.  She was born for it, Willie, absolutely born for it.  And Benedict Cumberbatch is playing King Charles.’

‘Eddie Redmayne, surely?  Cumberbatch is a Harrow man.’

‘Willie,’ said Tubby, dramatically, ‘the point is this: we need to film the film at Upton Hall.  It’s the only place.  It’s the right size.  It’s the right period.  Charles II actually slept there – with Nell Gwynn.’

‘Topping, Tubby.  So what’s the problem?’

‘The Earl of Doncaster says No.’

‘Ah, that’s my Uncle Donald for you.  The Donkey’s a racing man, really.  Bit of beagling.  A touch of riding to hounds.  Not really one for the moving pictures.’

‘He can’t say No, Willie.’

‘He can say No, Tubby.  It’s his house.  He won’t change his mind.’

‘He will – if you ask him.’


‘You, Willie.  I know I can count on you.  You’re his favourite nephew.’  Tubby put out a pudgy paw and squeezed my arm.  ‘That’s why I’m here, Willie.  I need you.’

‘Oh no you don’t.’

‘Oh yes I do.  I need you to persuade your kind-hearted old uncle to allow your old school friend, Tubby Orr Balls, to make his BAFTA-bound, Oscar-destined, three-dimensional cinematic scorcher in the old family pile.’

 ‘I’m sorry, Tubby.  I won’t.  Never forget,’ I cried, warming to my theme, ‘we Dabneys came over before the Conquest.  We’ve been saying No for a thousand years.  When we say No, we mean it.  I am not going to Upton Hall for you or anyone else, Tubby, and that’s that.’

Tubby thrust his imploring face right into mine.

Pr-rr-ing-pr-rr-ing! Pr-rr-ing-pr-rr-ing!

I was saved by the bell.  With a mighty chirrup the mobile in my left breast pocket began to throb and jingle.  I pulled it out and, ducking through the flurry of flying bread, zigzagged across the dining room and out onto the landing – where mobiles are permitted.   I answered the call.  It was Aunt Lilibet.  I must say you can always rely on the old girl.

‘What ho, Your Majesty? What’s the goss?  What?  Upton Hall?  This very afternoon?  Of course, Aunt Lilibet.  Nothing I’d like more.’

Well, it’s difficult to say no to Aunt Lilibet.  She’s not actually my aunt: she’s my godmother – and the best: as solid as a rock cake and as shrewd as an on-course bookmaker.  She is also the Queen of England, of course, and I think we can agree, the best of the bunch in that department, too, eh? 

‘It’s my long weekend at Upton Hall,’ she explained. ‘We’ll be playing Bridge.  We always do.  Your Uncle Donald insists on a rubber after dinner – and I need a partner, so, of course, I thought of my godson, Willie . . . You’re still playing a Weak No Trump, aren’t you, Willie?’

‘I certainly am, God-mater.  Who else is going?’

‘I can’t remember.  Your Aunt Augusta did send me the guest list.  There’s a Russian, I think.  There usually is nowadays.  But it’s always a jolly party.  And there’ll be the fancy dress dance on Saturday.  You love a fancy dress dance, Willie, don’t you?’

‘Well, yes, Aunt Lilibet, you know I’m partial to a spot of shimmying in the old fancy dress – as are you, if I may say so.’

Her Majesty snorted merrily.  ‘You may say so, godson,’ she chortled.

‘And who are you coming as this year, godmater?’

‘My usual.’

‘George Formby?’

‘Yes.  Well, I’ve got the ukulele and I know the songs . . .’

‘I’m with you, Your Majesty.  Don’t break with tradition.  Let’s face it, the year you came as Winnie Mandela was not a complete success.’

‘It was Ella Fitzgerald, Willie.’

It was my turn to snort merrily – but as I did so I heard a curious scrabbling, scratching, rattling sound coming down the line.  ‘Are you alright, Aunt Lilibet?’

‘I’m fine,’ she replied, but the strange noise was getting louder and Aunt Lilibet’s voice sounded breathless and more distant.

‘What’s going on, Aunt Lilibet?  Where are you?’

‘On my hands and knees, if you must know.’

‘Are you feeding the dogs?’

‘No, no.   Bronislaw’s walking the dogs.’


‘My new page – Bronislaw.  He’s a poppet.  Doesn’t speak a word of English, but he’s got a heart of gold.’  As she spoke, the scratching noise was getting louder.

‘What are you doing, aunt?’

‘I’m rummaging around in my honours drawer.  I need to find a gong for the Donkey.  I always take him something - as a hostess gift.  Your Aunt Augusta expects it.’

‘What did you give him last year?’

‘The Order of the Thistle.’

‘Is he Scottish?’

‘No, but he likes a malt whisky.’

‘And the year before?’

‘St Michael and St George.’ 

‘He’s got the Garter, I suppose?’

‘He’s had that for years.  I gave it to him for his sixtieth.’

‘And the Order of the Bath?’

‘Sixty-fifth.  He’s a Knight Grand Cross.’  The Queen snorted.  ‘Very grand, very cross – that was your Aunt Augusta’s joke.’

‘Very droll.’

‘Oh lordy, I give up.  He’s had the lot.  I suppose I’ll just have to give him a book.’

‘A book?  Uncle Donald?  Good grief.’

I heard her struggling to her feet.  ‘I know.  He only really likes to read one book.’

Three Men in a Boat?’

‘Exactly.  I always think it’s the only book anyone ever needs to read, don’t you?’

‘Absolutely, Aunt Lilibet.  Couldn’t agree more.  Shall I get him another copy then?’

‘No, no.  You’ll have to get him a new book.  With lots of pictures.  Lots of pictures.’

‘Do you have something in mind?’

‘I do, Willie.  I had the Astronomer Royal to lunch this week – with the Poet Laureate and the Master of the Queen’s Musick.  It got a bit sticky – some rather long silences, I’m afraid, though the Keeper of the Swans did his best to keep it going with his bird impressions.  Anyway, the Astronomer Royal was telling me he’s just published a new book - In the Shadow of Venus.  Packed with wonderful photographs, apparently.  It’s won some sort of prize.  I thought it would be right up the Donkey’s street.  You know how he likes to sleep under the stars now and again. He’s a great outdoorsman.

‘If you say so, Aunt Lilibet – a picture book for Uncle Donald, just the ticket.’

‘Now, Willie, would you be a dear and pop in to Hay and Stoppard and get a copy for your old godmother?  Get it nicely gift-wrapped and bring it down to Upton for me to give to the Donkey as my hostess present?’

‘You can rely on me, God-mater.’

‘I hope so, Willie.’

‘I know so, Your Majesty.’

Without even a fleeting backward glance in the direction of the dining room, all thoughts of hot-buttered toast and thick-cut Oxford marmalade abandoned, I set about my royal errand right away.  When Aunt Lilibet commands, a chap obeys. 

Happily, as I reached the foot of the stairs, who should be coming across the hallway towards me but Mann, the Club butler, bearing his tray of mid-morning bracers? The bracer is an Oodles speciality: mostly gin, with a just trace of vermouth and two splashes of Napoleon brandy in place of the common-or-garden Angostura bitter.  Frankly, it’s a pick-me-up like no other.

I took one, raised the glass to Mann (a most excellent fellow) and downed it.  The effect was immediate and immensely cheering.   I took another and as it slithered down the hatch I can tell you that all the problems I’d been having with my column for GQ Magazine began to evaporate before my very eyes.  The future of tweeds became as clear to me as a stag at bay silhouetted on a Highland hilltop. 

In this mellow frame of mind, I slipped out of the Club, executed a sharp left and climbed up St James’s towards Piccadilly.  To the merry blast of horns, I crossed the busy thoroughfare, offering a friendly wave to the bus driver who was raising his finger cheerily in my direction, and made my way down the side-street leading to Hay and Stoppard – Aunt Lilibet’s, bookseller of choice.

The shop was deserted and I did not recognise the cove behind the counter, though he looked amenable enough.

‘I have come in search of a book,’ I announced.

‘Any particular book, sir?’

‘Oh, yes.  A very particular book.’


‘Er . . . ar. . .’  For a moment, the Dabney mind went blank.  But not for long.  I rewound the old brainbox, re-spooled the morning’s encounters and bingo.  ‘Fifty Shades of Venus is the title.’

Fifty Shades of Venus?  Are you sure, sir?’

‘Quite sure – my godmother recommended it.  You have it?’

‘It’s in the back room, sir.  We only have a few copies – for the discerning customer.’

‘The illustrated edition.’

‘Oh yes, sir, it’s certainly illustrated.’

‘To be honest, it’s the pictures that I’m really after.’

‘I can imagine, sir.’

‘Yes, well, can you get it?’

‘I won’t be a moment, sir.’

The fellow returned pretty smartly.  They know their stuff at Hay and Stoppard.   Didn’t even have to ask them to gift-wrap it.  I believe this brown wrapping is the latest thing.

Mission accomplished, I ankled my way back to the club, giving Aunt Lilibet a quick call on the way.  ‘I’ve bagged the prey, godmater.  Book bought, wrapped and ready for you to hand over to the Donkey.

‘Oh,’ she purred, ‘I can’t wait to see his face when he opens it.  It’ll perk him up no end.  Thank you, Willie.  I know I can always count on you.’

‘What ho, Your Majesty.’

Gyles Brandreth