Jeffrey is joined by Gyles Brandreth – author, broadcaster, and, like Jeffrey, a former politician – to discuss which book and film he believes are ‘unputdownable’. Both Jeffrey and Gyles have chosen Shakespeare adaptions for one of their choices, which prompts plenty of anecdotes, memories of great performances and laughter.
Gyles also reveals the invaluable advice he received as a schoolboy from Sir Laurence Olivier.
Hi, I’m Jeffrey Archer. And welcome back to Unputdownable. You probably got the idea by now. Every episode finds me joined by a close friend and impassioned guest. They will be given the opportunity to recommend one book and one other work they believe to be quite impossible to put down or ignore.
And then I give my recommendations to them. Today, I’m fortunate enough to be joined by a man who, like me, was a politician. But now we have the pleasure of viewing politics from a very long distance.
He’s also over his life, like me again, taken a joy in the theater and the written word. And so, it’s a very special privilege to welcome – no. Before I welcome him, I must tell you what someone once said about us.
Indeed, it was a distinguished prime minister who shall not be named, who said when he saw us both playing Father Christmas at a charity concert, he looked at us both and said, the two biggest hams in England. Will you welcome – Gyles Brandreth.
What fun to have one of the great entertainers of our nation as my guest today. A man who is, frankly, a polymath. There’s almost nothing he can’t do and do well. So it’s a particular pleasure not only to say hello to an old friend, Gyles Brandreth, but I know you’ll all be fascinated to hear first what book he has chosen.
Well, I’m excited to be here, Jeffrey. Ah, you’re right. We’ve known each other a very long time. We first met, you and I, when I was about ten and you were about 18, that sort of thing. And I was at a prep school in Kent and the headmaster of the prep school said, boys, we’ve got an amazing new athletics coach coming today.
He’s teaching at another school nearby – Dover College. But I think he’s the most remarkable athletics coach I have ever come across. He is completely extraordinary. And into the room came you, Jeffrey, wearing shorts, I think, or possibly a track suit, I think maybe it was shorts.
And you then tried to teach us boys how to run very fast, and you did. And that was your passion at that time in your life, wasn’t it?
Absolutely. I desperately wanted to run for my country and I loved teaching because young children are so enthusiastic and there were exceptions, the pathetic people who couldn’t run at all, Gyles, so it’s amazing we got to know each other in the first place.
Well, I did actually once run for Hampshire – very slowly – and only because they had a shortage of people to join the team. I wasn’t very good, but when I was young, I was quite whereas you were quite successful, weren’t you, as a runner?
Well, it’s fascinating you say professional, because that was the difference, of course, in our day, Gyles. None of us were professionals, and I would never have run for Britain in the modern era, as indeed, there is almost no one in the Oxford and Cambridge team who is an international, with the exception of the boat.
And frankly, the boat are all postgraduates and half of them are American. So that’s the last sport that is what I would call world class. So, no, today I wouldn’t have a chance.
To answer your question, I have chosen as the unputdownable book, the novel that I always say is my favourite novel. It’s by Arnold Bennett. And it’s The Old Wives Tale. I say it’s my favourite novel. I’ve got a long list of favourite novels.
Often on that list will feature something by Anthony Trollope or something by William Thackery. Vanity Fair is often on my list, but the one I keep coming back to is The Old Wives Tale by Arnold Bennett.
And I’ve got a little family interest in Arnold Bennett because my parents lived in various blocks of flats in London when I was a little boy, and they ended up in a block called Chiltern Court, which is above Baker Street tube station.
And that and a number of interesting novelists lived there. HG Wells lived in Chiltern Court. In fact, not a novelist, but living in the flat next door to us was Hughie Green. Do you remember Hughie Green from Opportunity Knocks?
He lived in the flat next door and he had a marvelous model railway set and he sometimes let me and my brother in to look at it. We couldn’t touch it, but we could watch Hughie Green letting the trains go round.
Anyway, in this block of flats lived and died Arnold Bennett. And indeed, famously, when he was dying in the 1920s, so celebrated was he that they put down straw in Baker Street to lessen the noise of the cars rumbling past, and indeed the horses and carriages, which there still were in the 1920s, rumbling past.
So celebrated was this man, who for a while was the highest paid novelist of his day. But he’s completely fallen from favour and I don’t quite know why, because this book of his is one of those mesmerizing books that you dive into. It’s long, it’s called The Old Wives Tale because it begins, well the premise is here is the the writer, the novelist Arnold Bennett, sitting in a cafe in Paris and he sees two women and he begins to imagine what their story is.
One is an old woman. How has she come to be like this? Because also in the cafe is a beautiful young woman. What’s the journey that somebody takes to become this old lady? And essentially he takes this on, the story of these women, these two old women.
It becomes The Old Wives Tale. And I’ve only read it, I think twice, I’m completely hooked. And the reason I’ve chosen it today is because I thought to myself, I’m going to reread this and just and find out if I love it as much as I did when I first read it. Is it a book you know, at all, Jeffrey?
I’ve read it and I wouldn’t have, it’s very interesting, the other books you chose, because I’ve always considered you a very well read man and still do, but Vanity Fair, I think, is truly a masterpiece.
I never quite put The Old Wives Tale in the same category. I have recently read Vanity Fair for the third time, but after listening to you, Gyles, I shall go back and read The Old Wives Tale again. I was very moved in that early scene that you spoke about because he was able to portray not only what those two women might have gone through, but what he thought they might have gone through, which, of course, is something totally different.
It’s a game I play all the time and get wrong all all the time. But it’s such fun to sit in a restaurant and see two people and think, wow, I wonder. I’m sure you do that as well, Gyles.
Well, that’s why I chose this book in particular, because I thought it would exactly. I wanted to ask you about what triggers a story. I mean, clearly, Arnold Bennett had written a variety of novels. He was a very well established writer. People will know him best, probably from the novels he wrote about life around Stoke on Trent, the Anna Of the Five Towns.
He wrote a series of novels based around the Potteries. There are, in fact, Six Towns, but in the novels, he reduces them to five out of the Five Towns. But this novel is triggered by this seeing for you. What triggers a story? I mean, here it was seeing a woman.
Well, it’s a weird thing you ask that, because one of the things one missed in lockdown was chatting to someone like you or other people and picking up one sentence, picking up a paragraph, picking up a story, which you didn’t do when you were locked down.
And funnily enough, Gyles, that short period we first came out of lockdown, Mary and I went on the launch of a sky ship, which went from Southampton down to Cornwall. So it was a very short journey. And on it was a very distinguished man who I happened to sit next to at dinner, and he said, I’ve just read some of your books and I’ve got an idea for you.
And in one sentence, he gave me the whole idea for a book. He’d clearly been thinking about it and what he suggested was so exciting, I literally didn’t sleep that night. Other times is, no one will know better than you.
You get people who will bombard you with ideas and their life history. And I’ve reached a stage now where I say, have you murdered at least three people? And if they say no, I say, fine. This is going to be a bit of a struggle.
Let’s go from here. So you chose this. Great book, but dare I say, I’m sure you’re the same as me. If anyone ever says, what is your favourite novel? I mean, ten come into mind immediately.
Absolutely. I mean, I sometimes go through a phase of thinking Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Poe. That sequence of novels that tells the story of the middle of the 20th century is totally gripping.
And I think also from that same period, the novels of Evelyn Waugh really gripped me. I mean, I’m interested. I enjoy a historical novel. I think I prefer Arnold Bennett, believe it or not, to Charles Dickens.
That’s a bold thing to say. I enjoy Dickens. They’re wonderful characters. Sometimes they’re quite difficult to read now because he writes a lot of the dialogue in a kind of phonetic way of speaking, so that you’re actually reading it.
If he has a Cockney character, he writes the words in a funny cockney way, and that’s a bit difficult to read nowadays. And sometimes I think his characters border on the caricature, whereas in Arnold Bennett they’re all very real people.
I mean, what Arnold Bennett succeeds in doing is making ordinary people extraordinary. He makes the mundane interesting. It seems more real to me.
That’s genius when you can do that. I don’t know if you’ve ever read and I recommend him to you, Gyles – RK Narayan, the Indian author, and in particular Malgudi Days.
He can take a tax collector in a small town and make him a giant. I commend him to you because Graham Green said he should have won the Nobel Prize. And it may be an author that you’ve missed, and I promise you, you will enjoy.
He is an author I’ve missed. Do you ever do what I have done? I wrote a series of murder mysteries featuring as my detective Oscar Wilde and his real life friend Arthur Conan Doyle. And in a way, I did this because I’m fascinated by Oscar Wilde, and like so many people of our generation, Arthur Conan Doyle was one of the people who introduced us to a good yarn.
The Sherlock Holmes stories, when we were brought up, were absolutely gripping. And I made these characters because it worked and also they were ready made, so it was, in a sense, almost cheating. I made two real people whose lives I knew about and whose characters were very different, but they’d been real friends and I made them as characters.
Now, you’ve done that a few times. You do that with Mallory, didn’t you? The explorer? Have you done it more than that? More often than that?
No. And I was thinking, going back to your comment on that, Gyles, your knowledge, and we all acknowledge this, your knowledge of Oscar Wilde is second to none in this country.
And he frankly, if I ever meet him, I shall say to him, you can thank Gyles Brandreth for having survived another hundred years, because he kept you in the public eye. No. I’m now going on to my novel.
Well, it’s very interesting. You talked about you were fascinated by different centuries. I have always been fascinated by the First World War, because the amount of people who went through absolute agony, they were just told to get on with it, what they must have done when they came back from that dreadful and, frankly, unnecessary war.
And I love the particular book I’m going to talk about, because the author wrote a book of unquestionably masterpiece, and it would have been easy to pick the masterpiece and say, here it is. But I like the one he wrote immediately after his masterpiece, which every one of you will know listening to this program is unquestionably, one of the great books of all time.
I am, of course, referring to All Quiet on the Western Front. I loved the idea when I was a young man of seeing a war through the enemies – I put in adverted commas – point of view, so to see it through a German’s point of view.
I remember, before going on to the book I’ve chosen, I remember in All Quiet on the Western Front, one German soldier looking at another German soldier in the snow, and someone standing by him said, good God, he’s an officer.
And the first German said, that won’t make a lot of difference now. It’s a sentence that stayed with me. Now, in this second book, I think again, to be fair, a work of genius, – A Time to Love and A Time to Die.
What a wonderful title to start with straight away. And this is a story of a private soldier called Graber who comes home to find his house has been bombed, his parents are nowhere to be found, and he can’t be sure if they’re dead or alive.
We experience that in our country and the Blitz, but of course, the Germans experienced it as well. And then he meets an old school friend called Elizabeth, and it’s what happens in their life because of the situation that has arisen.
And through this dreadful war, I am not ashamed to say I wept at the end. And when you can make someone cry in a book, you’re a class individual.
Is it a long novel?
It’s about 500 or 600 pages. But of course, they were in those days, Gyles. Nowadays the 300 page novel is acceptable. I go back further in the sense that if you look at novels with that in mind, you have to realize that Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo is 1,200 pages, and he wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers in the same year.
Of course, there was no television, no radio, everyone was sitting waiting for the next book. So, yes, I think it’s about 450 to 500 pages, but today I suspect he’d write it 300, 350.
And is it a narrative about one man or one family? One group of people. I mean, we following his story through the war.
Yes, you follow it through not a senior officer, not a rich, successful man, not a general. You follow it through a private soldier looking for his parents.
My God, you’ve got to write well to do that, to hold the page. And then, of course, the love story happens. I remember the things I will remember for the rest of my life are him waiting to be called back to the front line.
But, of course, because of the dating, you know, there’s only a few weeks to go until the end of the war. I try not to give too many clues away as to the significance of that. And one the anger and one the unhappiness one had reading it.
Because I guess you secretly feared he’d go back, or feared he’d have to go back. I found it wonderful.
Are you a quick reader or a slow reader?
I’m a slow reader. Ah, I’m sure you’re a quick reader.
No, I’m a slow reader, too. It takes me two minutes a page, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, and I read every evening. I always read in bed before going to sleep, which means I have to reread, because I usually dozed off during the last couple of pages.
So each night I go back a few pages. But for me, a holiday isn’t a holiday unless I’ve got a really good book. So I’m going I’m going to give this book of yours a call. A go. What’s it called again?
Well, you can either do All Quiet on the Western Front, which is unquestionably a masterpiece, or my choice, A Time to Love and a Time to Die.
It’s such a brilliant title, isn’t it? It’s a time to love and a time to die and the author’s name is?
Erich Maria Remarque
And is he writing in English?
No, it’s a translation. Now, I say that it’s very interesting you raised that subject, because I’m leading a campaign on which I hope you’ll join me, Gyles, is that translators should have their name on the cover of a book.
The one thing I say when I go to see my work translated into another language, I say to the publishers, I’m frankly not interested in anything except you picking the finest translator that exists. That’s the only thing I care about.
And having had the honor of meeting Anthea Bell, who translated so many of the great classic German and French novels, one meeting with her convinced me for life that the only thing I cared about was who the translator was.
Well, my Victorian murder mysteries, featuring, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle and their circle have been particularly successful in France. And Michelle, my wife, says this is entirely because they’re so well translated.
They’re much better in French than they are in English, and she may well be right. So what can you do? One is grateful.
Now we’ll move on. We’ve both discussed books, which we love, and I will read for a second time An Old Wives Tale, because I don’t think I’ve read it for 30 years and you said you’ve read it for a second time recently, but I will now move on to one of your other great loves, which has been a love of your life.
And something whenever we sit down together you talk about endlessly and I learn endlessly from you talking about it. Both your affection, love and, dare I say, knowledge of the greatest playwright poet this nation has ever produced.
But may I, even before I mention his obvious name, Gyles put an idea to you before we discuss your choice that he’s also the greatest storyteller the nation has ever produced. I put it to you that if you did not know the end of Romeo and Juliet, you’d be on the edge of your seat.
You go to the play as I’m I’ve been seven times. I’ve seen seven Romeos and seven Juliets. And, of course, we all go towards that ending we’ve known since the age of 14. But what if you didn’t know the ending to a Shakespeare play?
That’s why I add to all his other genius that he’s a storyteller. Tell us the play you’ve chosen and why?
The play I’ve chosen is Hamlet, and I’ve chosen it in a version directed and starring the great Sir Kenneth Branagh.
Now, Shakespeare, you’re absolutely right, has been an obsession of mine since I was a little boy, since, in fact, the time we first met, when I was ten years of age at that school, Betshanger in Kent.
I appeared in the school plays there. I played in 12th night. I think I was Festy. And in As You Like it, I was Rosalind. It was an old boys school. I was a very effective Rosalind, apparently.
So I must have been, because I was Celia for a while, but I was upgraded to Rosalind, so I must have done something.
I think Celia is a better part.
Well, there we are. But Rosalind is the more famous one. But I absolutely am with you. I do envy people who go to a Shakespeare play for the first time. And whenever I go to the theater, I deliberately don’t get a programme. I don’t want to know what’s going to happen if it’s a play I’ve never seen before, because that is part of appreciating it.
I wonder if you remember we went together when we were in Stratford years and years ago, 30 or more years ago, to see Titus Andronicus together. And I think that’s the play where some of the characters end up in pies.
Yes. And I wouldn’t have known the story before I went in on that one.
And I don’t think we did. I think it was when one of those small places, like the other place, it was a small theater in Stratford, and I think we sat on the edge of our seats thinking, what does happen now?
Because we half knew but couldn’t remember it. And of course, there were people, early Victorians and before that, who didn’t like the ending of the play, so you could go to Romeo and Juliet and get a surprise finish, when in fact, they don’t both end up spoiler here. Spoiler alert. Yes, well, somehow they wake up and they live happily ever after. So there were people who tried to change the plots.
The reason I’ve chosen Hamlet is that it’s not necessarily my favorite Shakespeare play. There are times when I think The Comedy of Errors is my favorite Shakespeare play because it’s such fun, and yet it’s very touching and it’s worth.
I’m with you totally about him being a great storyteller. But is it not true that most of the stories in most of the plays are ones that he borrowed from other people? He embellished them, he told them his way, but the plotlines were often ones that he took from other writers?
It’s never worried me, Gyles, and I’ll tell you why. I could say to you, here is Romeo and Juliet. I’ve just found the German version, or the Italian version perhaps, would be more appropriate. I’ve just found the Italian version.
Two great families at war with each other. The leader of the country is anxious not to annoy either family and try and bring them together. And through a misfortune, two young men fight, and one ends up being killed.
And tragically, the one who’s killed the one who’s killed is the brother of a beautiful girl who the other boy falls for. Gyles, you’ve still got to write it. You’ve still got to make people sit on the edge of their seats.
You’ve still got to make them cry at the end. And I could give that story, you could give that story, to a thousand so called writers, but they couldn’t achieve that.
Absolutely. My favorite poem about Romeo and Juliet goes like this twas in a restaurant they met Romeo and Juliet.
He had no money to pay the debt. So, Romeoed, what Juliet? You see, there are all sorts of ways of slicing a masterpiece, but Hamlet. To be serious. Hamlet. Hamlet. You know, I played Hamlet myself not very successfully years ago when I was far too young.
I played it. The critics didn’t like it. The audience didn’t like that. The audience threw eggs at me, went on as Hamlet came off as omelet.
But where did you play that?
I didn’t. That’s just a joke.
I did play Hamlet, and I think you came to the play.
I’ve seen you play Shakespeare leads, so I wasn’t meaning it to be a joke.
No, and I think you came a few years ago when my son and daughter in law and I…
…in your house…
…had the idea.
It seemed to be it was actually the Park Theater in North London. We did a production, a 90 minutes version of Hamlet simply taking the domestic story because it’s very much a family drama. And so we left out all the politics, all the stuff about what was happening in Denmark at the time and concentrated on Hamlet his mother, his father, who killed who and why.
And we did it, just three of us. My son playing Hamlet. Me playing old Hamlet the ghost and Claudius and Polonius and my daughter in law playing Gertrude and Ophelia. And it was an extraordinary experience to spend a couple of months working with your own son and daughter in law on the greatest text probably ever written.
And to begin to… all human life is in Hamlet. Everything you can imagine is there. And that’s what makes it so fascinating. But I’ve chosen Kenneth Branagh’s film version as the one to recommend or as my sort of unputdownable only because it is virtually the whole play – which is unusual.
It’s impeccably done, impeccably spoken. Kenneth Branagh is marvelous. He has amusing ideas. Such as Yorick does appear. Alas, poor Yorick, who was the jester. And he has Ken Dodd playing Yorick. But it’s got a great cast.
Derek Jacobi, I know, one of your favorite actors, I think, plays Claudius in it, or maybe it was Alan Bates. Maybe I’ve got that wrong. Anyway, it’s a fabulous cast. Richard Bryers, I know, plays Polonius and is most fine but quite sinister.
I’ve seen many Hamlets, as you have, and probably the first I saw was the film version of Lawrence Olivier, a black and white version. Beautifully spoken, again, and I love that. What’s the best Hamlet you think you’ve seen in your lifetime?
Well, I think David Warner was pretty startling because he played it with such vigor and that stuck in my mind. I went down to Windsor to see the great Ian McKellen play and staggering, Gyles, I mean, the man is 82.
You mentioned the script. The text, as you know it, is one of the longest plays in Shakespeare. And if you play – as you said, happened with Kenneth Branagh – the entire script, it must have been a four and a half hour film that you want us to sit through.
Whereas I think we did just under 3 hours with Sir Ian. And absolutely wonderful.
This will intrigue and amuse you, Jeffrey. Ian McKellen said recently he’s now gone on to play Furs in The Cherry Orchard, which is a very old a very, very old man.
And he was playing Hamlet and he told a mutual friend of ours that now he’s playing Furs all the time, he’s totally exhausted. Now he’s playing this old man the rest of the day he’s completely exhausted.
But when he was playing Hamlet for three months, playing Hamlet eight times a week, he’d never felt fitter or lively. What happens? Isn’t that interesting? So when he was playing the young man, he felt like a young man during the rest of the day.
Now he’s playing an old man. He’s completely knackered all the time. But I enjoyed it as well.
In the Hamlet I saw in Windsor, he was running around the stage.
Yeah. You know, a lot of his friends and contemporaries wouldn’t go to see it.
Because they thought, well, one of them said to me, it’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. An 82 year old playing Hamlet. Hamlet is clearly, from the text, it says that he’s 26. To play it at 82 is absurd.
But my answer to that is, Ian McKellen is a great actor. The whole thing is an act of fiction. There’s a ghost in it. We don’t believe in ghosts, do we? But there is a ghost in it. So why not have something going on in Hamlet’s mind?
He is telling us this. It doesn’t matter. And it was one of those times when, for me, colorblind, age blind, gender blind casting actually worked. It doesn’t always work, but for me, on that occasion, it did.
Did you see Derek Jacobi playing, again, a 28 year old when he was 70 in Shakespeare? And it didn’t worry me at all.
Exactly. That was a Romeo and Juliet again, directed by Kenneth Branagh, and it worked.
And I think you can play Mercucio possible. Anyway, he made it work. Richard Briars, when he played Hamlet, he did it so fast, he was described as playing it like a demented typewriter. He rattled out the words.
Michael Caine, the Sir Michael Caine, the film actor. He told me that his favorite Hamlet had been Richard Burton. He said when he was in the in the 1950s, Michael Caine went to see Richard Burton. And it was listening to Richard Burton’s voice that convinced him, Michael Caine, that you needed to be a film star.
A unique voice. But he said he loved his Hamlet because he did it such speed, because in those days, the pubs closed at 10:30, last orders were 10:30, and he had to be out of Elsinor and in the pub near the Old Vic by 10:20.
I’d love to tell you an Albert Finney story, because I don’t know anyone who has better actors, actresses, stories than you. You are the absolute king of stories. But my Albert Finney’s story was I was invited many years ago by Princess Margaret to raise money for charity.
She was a friend of Richard Burton’s and she instructed me, as only that great lady could, to go and see him and tell him the whole thing. So I did. I went and sat with him and explained what Her Royal Highness wanted, and he said yes.
And what he wanted was, what she wanted was for him and Elizabeth Taylor to do a performance, and then all the money taken in the play would go to her charity. And he said, yes, of course we’ll do it. Delighted, honoured.
And he rang up oh, I guess he rang me with three months to go to say they couldn’t do it. They just couldn’t do it. And I thought, oh, my God, I’m going to have to go off to the palace and tell her they’re not going to do it.
You’ll love this, Gyles, because it’s worthy of your brilliant, brilliant Oxford book on anecdotal stories of actors. A brilliant book. You’ll love this. He said to me, how much were you hoping to raise, Jeffrey?
And I said, Quarter of a million, sir. And he wrote out a check for a quarter of a million pounds. And I gave it to the princess. What a class act.
That’s the way to do it. What a great man.
What a class act. Well, I thought that was wonderful.
Well, while we’re telling our Hamlet stories, I’ll tell Donald Sinden’s favorite Hamlet story. And we were both huge admirers and indeed lucky enough to be friends of Donald Sinden.
And you, if I may say so, at his funeral, gave a wonderful address. I mean, he was a wonderful man, wasn’t he? As well as being a great actor, he was a lovely human being. And he lived well into his nineties and he collected theatrical anecdotes. And he told me this wonderful story. About…
No, before you tell your story, you’ve just delivered the sentence, he lived to the age into his nineties. It annoyed Mary, as chairman of a great hospital, that he smoked 40 cigarettes a day. It used to drive Mary absolutely mad.
I know. He really went on smoking right to the end. I mean, right to the very end. Sorry, I interrupted. No, but you’re right. Not that we are advocating that you should smoke.
He doesn’t necessarily follow. He might well have lived to be 100 if he hadn’t smoked all those cigarettes. Yeah, but he did. He was a great smoker, but he loved life and he loved theatrical anecdotes.
And he told me about the young actor who was playing Hamlet for the first time and couldn’t really get to grips with, particularly with the relationship between Hamlet and fair Ophelia. Wondered what was going on.
It’s quite opaquely written in the play, you know, what what is how intimate are they? And so this young actor went to see one of the older actors in the company, an old boy who was now playing the part of Polonius, but had himself played the part of Hamlet many years before.
And the young actor said to this old actor, look, what do you think is going on between Hamlet and Ophelia? How close are they? How intimate are they? What’s the nature of the relationship? For example, does Hamlet sleep with Ophelia?
And the old actor replied, well, I don’t know about the West End laddie, but we always did on tour.
Yes, he was great fun. I once said of him, Gyles. People say to me, when you travel up from Cambridge in the car, Jeffrey, how long does it take?
And I say, well, about an hour and 30 minutes. An hour and 40 minutes? Unless you’re with Donald Sinden, and then it takes about five minutes.
Beautiful. What’s your Shakespeare? What are you choosing?
My Shakespeare will have you in envy. Because I didn’t want to go. I intended to go and see Lawrence Olivier, who I saw five times in my life play Shakespeare parts. But I intended to go and see, as a teenager, go and see him play Coriolanus at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1959.
And when I turned up, they had this dreadful announcement that Sir Lawrence was indisposed. And onto the stage marched a young actor. I thought, Do I claim my money back and go home, or do I sit through this?
And I thought, I’ve got here, and when I say, sit through Gyles, I had a five shilling ticket for the back row. But I had come that far to see the great man. And Albert Finney came onto the stage and gave a performance that, of course, made him famous, literally overnight.
He was into films immediately. He was hailed immediately. And it was a classic example of an understudy taking advantage of moment in his life and sending us all home, going, what a privilege to have been in the theater that day.
I discussed it with him many years later and he said, yes, I poisoned him.
And, what for you was the greatest Olivier performance that you saw, saying you saw him?
I think. Long Days Journey. I think Long Days Journey, and you’ll remember because you have that retentive memory about casts.
He was surrounded by four of the greatest three or four of the greatest actors in our country. And I think Constant Cummings was brilliant. The whole cast was wonderful. But I tell you that I paid him the greatest compliment I could pay him.
I don’t know if you do this, Gyles, and I’ve only done it half a dozen times in my life, and I can name each occasion. I went to bed at 02:00 in the afternoon and slept until five, six so that I wouldn’t fall asleep during the four hour performance.
I’ve seen so often in my life, as you will in great performances, people actually falling asleep. They’ve come straight from work, they’ve had a hard day, and 4 hours is too much to them. So four or five times in my life, I literally gone to bed.
I did it when Frank Finley played Iago. The reviews were so amazing about the greatest Iago in living memory, and I’ve always thought it was one of the toughest parts to play that I did that. I went and lay down for 3 hours and then went to the National Theater.
And of course, Olivier was playing the lead. Of course I went to see Olivier, but I came out talking about Frank Finley.
When I saw Olivier’s Othello for a second time, I was still a schoolboy. And funny enough, I’ve just been writing about this in my sort of childhood memoir.
It’s one of the sort of key moments of my childhood, and I decided to collect his autograph after the performance. And I went to the stage door, and it was a matinee I’d been to.
Where was it? Where was it?
At Chichester. It was at the Chichester Festival Theater. It was right at the beginning of the time of the National Theater, and in the summer they were at Chichester, and in the winter they were at the National Theater.
So I watched the cast coming out, and out they came. Maggie Smith, who played Desdemona. Of course. Frank Finley. Iago. They all came, John Stride and others. No sign of Olivier, so I was still peering through the stage door.
Then I read the stage doorkeeper was no longer there, so I boldly went backstage and you know the Chichester Festival Theater? It’s built in the Round, so there’s a semicircular sort of corridor behind the scenes. And I was walking along this corridor when I realized, coming towards me was Lawrence Olivier wearing a sort of raincoat glasses. But he saw I was a schoolboy and he took my autograph book and he signed it, and seeing I was a schoolboy, he said, Where are you at school?
And I said, I’m at Beedale, sir. He said. Oh, beedales. He said, My first wife went to Beedales. His first wife was the actress Jill Esmond, and she’d been there. I thought, oh, well, I mean, he actually knows the school.
And then he said, I take it you want to be an actor. I said, oh, yes, I do want to be an actor. He said, Would you like to see the stage? And Lawrence Olivier, then the most famous actor in the world, put his hand on my shoulder and led me from this corridor through a door, through another door, across the wings, and onto the stage of the Chichester Festival Theatre.
And we stood there side by side, and he said to me, when you come onto the stage for the first time, you must let the audience see your eyes. Take your time, take as long as it takes. Make sure they have seen your eyes.
Make sure everybody has had the opportunity to see your eyes before you begin. And then he said, Are you in the school play? I said yes. He said, in the school play? Where do you come on from? I said I just come on.
He said, you can’t just come on. You want to be noticed, don’t you? I said, oh, I do want to be noticed. He said, well, if you want to be noticed, I suggest you come on backwards. They always notice the fellow who comes on backwards, and he said, and come on backwards, but be waving at the same time.
Be waving to somebody in the wings, through a window or through a door. The movement of your arm as you wave, you see, will attract their attention. And you’ll come on. They’ll be looking, who is that interesting man coming on backwards?
Then you will swing around, they’ll see your eyes. You will be noticed. I said, oh, that’s absolutely wonderful, sir. If you were in the school play, I said to him, if you were in the school play, where would you come on from?
He said, oh, I’m Lawrence Olivier. I can come on anywhere.
I’m afraid that’s near the truth. Gyles, what a wonderful conversation. What a privilege to hear your love of books, your love of the theater.
You’re slightly manic and uncontrollable, and that enthusiasm and that energy has taken you through to the age you are, and the nation loves you for that. And it’s been a real privilege to have you on my podcast. Thank you.
Thank you, Jeffrey. And as we know, both of us, energy is the secret of everything. What did Olivier give us? As well as animal electricity, acting quality of genius, an energy on stage that was unsurpassed.
I’d like to thank the second biggest ham in England, Gyles Brandreth. And thank you for listening to Unputdownable. If you don’t want to miss out on a future episode of this podcast, help is at hand.
All you have to do is hit follow or subscribe wherever you get your podcast, and the next episode will appear, if by magic, on your device. Here’s the boring bit you can turn off now. My publishers would like me to remind you that my new book, Over My Dead Body, is currently in the Sunday Times Bestsellers List and the New York Times Bestsellers List in hardback ebook and audiobook. Until then, or more accurately, until the next time. Bye.