Interview: Gyles Brandreth
For almost two decades, Gyles Brandreth has been searching for the secrets of happiness.
The result of that exploration is Looking For Happiness, a funny, erudite and engaging stage show which is launching on to a national tour having been lapped up at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe.
“I’m fascinated by happiness: what it is, who gets it and how. It’s been a real journey,” he insists.
“My search coincided with having lost my father and my best friend. My sister died and then my brother died: they were going down like flies around me.
“And I thought, here I am, the professional happy man with the colourful jumpers, turning up on TV grinning away in the jolly knitwear. I was annoyingly happy. But inside it was a different story, so I started this search.
“The last stand-up show I did was about the famous people I’d met and I stood up on stage and told funny stories about that. But this time I wanted to talk about this search for happiness.”
After a great deal of research, toil and fun, Brandreth has boiled it all down to the seven secrets of happiness (as well as the touring show, there’s a book: “it’s more serious than the stage show”).
There’s too much selfishness going around, Brandreth believes, too much focus on the individual.
“One of the things I learned was to avoid inward looking and to get away from narcissism; it’s interesting to me that the Brownies and Girl Guides have changed their oath to say something along the lines of discovering what your beliefs are, and discovering the real me.
“Well, actually, we don’t want to discover the real me: stop thinking about yourself. There are people going around taking pictures of themselves, a selfie, and sending them everywhere: well, this doesn’t make you happy.”
Among the other secrets, Brandreth states ‘live in the moment, ‘don’t resist change’ and, more bluntly, ‘be happy’. But there is one rule that he believes might well over-ride all others and he’s witnessed close at hand what happens if you don’t ‘cultivate a passion’.
“You have to have something you just love doing. In the show I cite Margaret Thatcher as an example. Later on in life she wasn’t happy, because she had one passion, and that was politics.
“So when that passion was taken away from her when she ceased to be PM, she had nothing else to fall back on and died aged 87 in April, not very happy.
“By contrast, the Queen has a passion for horses and in June this year, people saw her at Ascot when her horse won the Gold Cup, the first time the sovereign’s horse had won the race in 203 years.
“And there was this picture of her looking overjoyed and full of happiness. You can easily see the people who don’t have a passion: from the listless teenagers to the elderly just sitting around.”
He may have cultivated many passions in life, but if you had to pick one key fascination (and one which connects them all) it’s surely his love of language.
“My father was a lawyer and my mother was a teacher, so words were very important to me as a child. I learned to play Scrabble very young, and used to play it with an older gentleman who was the founder of my school.
“This gentleman died aged 102 and I played with him into his 90s. Incredibly, he had been a friend of Oscar Wilde’s! He would use these words that were arcane and obsolete but he’d say that they were current when he learned them.”
That introduction to Scrabble as a child led to Brandreth eventually founding the National Scrabble Championships and his love of words and wordplay can also be traced back to his schooldays.
“I had a wonderful English teacher and my favourite books then were the Sherlock Holmes novels. I read the complete works of Shakespeare at the age of 10 or 11: I couldn’t have understood much of it, but I had fallen in love with language. Language is power.
“As someone once said, ‘no matter how eloquently a dog may bark, it cannot tell you that his parents were poor, but honest.’ Only language can do that. And to me, it’s fascinating to go out on to a stage for two hours with nothing to assist you but words.”
Patently, it would be something of an understatement to say that Gyles Brandreth has had a varied life.
Many will recognise him as a staple of humour, erudition and colourful jumpers on Countdown, or as a resonant voice of wit on radio shows such as Just A Minute.
Others may have him down as the man who has written a series of murder mysteries featuring Oscar Wilde as his sleuth, or as the founder of the Teddy Bear Museum in Stratford-upon-Avon.
To board games enthusiasts, he was a previous European Monopoly Champion and to those who watch BBC primetime, he’s a roving reporter on The One Show.
But it was a deeply humbling moment in 1997 which led him on to this new and very fulfilling phase of his life as a master of the comedy stage.
“I was a member of parliament in the 1990s until the people spoke,” says the former Conservative MP for Chester.
“They say you shouldn’t take it personally, but it’s hard not to when thousands of people get up on the same day with the sole objective of getting this fellow out, and it’s your name on the ballot paper.
“As my wife said, ‘when one door closes, it’s shut’. She said, ‘forget the politics, that’s over, what else do you want to do?’”
Brandreth wasn’t short of ideas and most of them revolved around acting.
“I thought, well, I want to be in a musical, I want to be Henry Higgins. But it turned out that the National Theatre was doing My Fair Lady with someone else in the role.
“And then I thought, well, I wouldn’t mind doing Hello Dolly and then I got the idea of doing a show where we did 100 musicals in 100 minutes. So, I brought Zipp! to the Edinburgh Fringe and it was a transformative experience.”
A transformation is a rather apt noun for the life and career of Gyles Brandreth.
Gyles Brandreth: Looking for Happiness is at the Durham Gala Theatre on Saturday 19 October. Click for tickets.