After shooting to fame as a TV presenter in the 1980s Gyles Brandreth enjoyed a brief stint as a Conservative MP before a return to broadcasting. Mayfair Times meets Britain's favourite anecdotist to talk through his new book, an affectionate portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, his love for Mayfair, and his motto for a happy life
Words: Will Moffitt
Gyles Brandreth is a Mayfair man. “I spend most days of my life in Mayfair,” he tells me, before clarifying that he really means what he has just said: “I mean literally most days of my life”. Born in 1948 and brought up near South Kensington as one of four children – his father was solicitor who worked nearby – Brandreth spent his younger days endlessly strolling through Marylebone, soaking in the sights and sounds, meandering along Bond Street and then into Mayfair. Some years later, aged 15, he took his first job in Berkeley Street at the reservations department at the old Thomas Cook office.
In other words: he was walking these streets long before he became the man he is today, which, depending on who you ask, could be many things. After all, not many people have worked as a TV presenter, theatre producer, journalist, author and a publisher. Then again, not many people can say that they founded a Teddy bear museum or the British National Scrabble Championships either. For most excelling at one would be enough, but Brandreth is a relentlessly curious soul. “I like to do new things,” he says. “Busy people are happy people, so I’ve kept myself busy.”
Brandreth’s television career took off in the 1980s when he worked as a presenter for ITV. He had been writing for a decade by then – mostly puzzles and gamebooks, although curiously his first book was a serious study of prison reform. Stints on Countdown and acting roles followed; notably guest appearances in Doctor Who and That Mitchell and Webb Look. Brandreth then channelled his energies into politics, becoming a Conversative MP for the now vacant City of Chester constituency in 1992. Since then he has deployed his razor sharp wit, and endless collection of colourful jumpers on TV, radio and in print.
His seven crime novels, which pair Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle together as a detective duo hellbent on solving grizzly murders, are set against the exotic background of fin-de-siecle London, and regularly draw the reader into the dark underbelly of Victorian crime. Mayfair features heavily, in particular, the Albemarle Club, the infamous private members’ club that Wilde is known to have frequented in the late 19th century.
Brandreth’s latest book is a personal biography of the late Queen Elizabeth II, detailing the story of her remarkable life and reign.
He knew Her Majesty personally and fondly recalls first meeting her in 1968 as a student at Oxford University. As with all his wild and notable encounters, Brandreth noted it down in a diary which he has kept since 1959.
The pair met more frequently years later; bonding over a shared support of Fields in Trust (formerly the National Playing Fields Association), a charity passionately endorsed by Brandreth’s close friend Prince Philip, who served as president for 65 years, working to protect parks and green spaces in and around British towns and cities.
Having already penned two books on the Royals, including Philip and Elizabeth: Portrait of a Marriage, released in 2004, Brandreth had contemplated writing a book on Queen Elizabeth II for some time, but it was the outpouring of grief following her death that compelled him to document her warm and dutiful character, and her servitude, which resonated across demographics and geographies.
“I was part of the BBC team covering the funeral. I'd get out of Green Park station and I'd walk across Green Park to the BBC studio outside Buckingham Palace. Every day I’d meet ordinary people of all ages, nationalities and races,” Brandreth recalls. “They’d come to show their respects for the Queen. Of course, some had come because they wanted to be part of history.
“[But] I also sensed that they were reaching out for something,” he adds. “She was a person of integrity. She was consistently kind, and there was a goodness about her. They were reaching out for that goodness in a world that is very wicked. Look at what's happening in Ukraine… the book is my personal account of what made the Queen who she was.”
Brandreth has written with trademark wit about his own life too. His childhood memoir, titled Odd Boy Out, written during the pandemic, details his upbringing in a middle class household – ‘just bang-in-the-middle middle class’ as he puts it. The prologue begins with Brandreth’s wife Michèle telling him that nobody wants to read another of his books.
“My wife came into my study and caught me at it,” Brandreth tells me. “When I admitted that I was writing a memoir she said: if you’re going to do this don’t fall back on all your predictable stuff about jumpers and teddy bears. Try and dig a little deeper.”
He recounts this conversation in his memoir before telling an anecdote about a Royal Variety Performance with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. Brandreth does not rebel against his wife’s suggestions outright, however. There are signs throughout that he took her words on board, or that really, deep down, he always wanted to dig a little deeper. He writes candidly and movingly about his father who passed away aged 71, affectionately poking fun at his foibles, but detailing his lifelong struggle to earn ends meat with great sympathy.
“It’s a book about children and parents,” Brandreth says. “I wanted to call the book: ‘I hope there is a heaven’. I particularly thought I'd love my parents to know, my father in particular, how it all turned out… he was a solicitor, but he was blighted with money worries all his life. That's one of the threads in the book. And I've always been very sympathetic to anyone who's had money worries.”
Our conversation turns to the future. What next? “I've not done much in the world of movies. I’d like to write something myself or have one of my books made into a movie,” he responds. “There are possibilities there. There's been a lot of interest in my Oscar Wilde murder mysteries, so who knows. I love surprises. I love new things. Every day is a new adventure.”
Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait by Gyles Brandreth is out on December 8.