Gyles Brandreth: The day I opened for Bernard Manning | The former MP reveals all to Marissa Burgess

Gyles Brandreth: The day I opened for Bernard Manning

The former MP reveals all to Marissa Burgess

When you think of Gyles Brandreth ‘stand-up comedian’ isn't the first term to spring to mind. Tory MP, a tenant of Countdown's Dictionary Corner and, dependent on your age, the possessor a wardrobe full of hideous jumpers, are more likely descriptions.

But comedy was one of the first of many vocations he tried after leaving Oxford University in the early Seventies – and not in some cosy middle brow theatre in the south but at one of the toughest gigs in the country: Bernard Manning's Embassy Club in working class Harpurhey, north Manchester.

‘I said to my agent, “I want to do some comedy” –  the word stand up didn't exist in those days,’ Brandreth recalls. ‘I think he thought he'd teach me a lesson and throw me in at the deep end. He got me a booking at a club in Manchester. I was to be, this is a true story,’ he stresses sensing my disbelief, ‘the support act to Bernard Manning. I turned up wet behind the ears, carrying my little briefcase, wearing my pinstripe suit at this working men's club. It was like a subterranean aircraft hanger, full of men, full of smoke, and Bernard Manning was there and I think he looked at me and maybe took pity on me.

“How long are you booked for lad?”’ Brandreth recalls, adopting a passable Northern accent. ‘”I’m booked to do 30 minutes Mr Manning.” “Lucky to do 30 seconds, lad. Good luck, I'll do all I can to help.”’

So on he went and initially he wasn't doing too badly, well... there were no bottles flying in his direction. ‘They didn't clap or laugh, they didn't even smile, but they didn't jeer; I wasn't booed off the stage. They did all look up at me.

‘But I realised a few minutes into this act that they weren't looking at me but they seemed to be looking over my shoulder. I glanced around and behind me Bernard Manning had positioned two topless go-go dancers. These poor girls were gyrating slowly in time to my jokes.’

Finally, last year, he thought it was time to try it again, taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe and then out on tour.

‘Forty years later I thought I'll have another go at this,’ he says. ‘This show I'm doing, The One To One Show, it's stand-up and I tell stories.’

It's gone pretty well so far, Brandreth received positive reviews from somewhat surprised reviewers and good audiences. He clearly relishes telling a story, evident in any of the many anecdotes about his adventures in showbiz and the House of Commons during his time as MP for Chester. To this, his theatrical background – he trod the boards at Oxford and directed – adds many dramatic flourishes.

Brandreth has had more than his fair share of showbiz chums view the show. The day I was in Nicholas Parsons sat next to me. ‘There you are,’ notes Brandreth when I tell him. ‘On day release from heaven! Isn't he lovely!

‘I got them all from Ronnie Corbett to Nicholas Parsons and back. And some of them weren't 80, it was amazing. Actually that was the nice thing about Edinburgh is that the range of the audience was quite extensive, there were young people as well as middle aged and older people which is nice. That's what I've found taking the show around the country. Even in the age of television, people bother to get up and get out.’

But then why wouldn't there be a crowd? He's tried his hand at so many different things over the years and, it seems, has fans in each area.

‘The nice thing for me is having lots of plates spinning at the same time. I try to keep them all spinning but if one doesn't materialise another one does. At the moment my life is basically doing the tour of the show and by day either making film reports for The One Show on television or writing my new Oscar Wilde murder mystery.’

The fourth book of Brandreth's flamboyant Oscar Wilde mysteries has just been released but for now it's back to the tour for its London stint, back to the stand-up once more setting off Brandreth on a reverie of that first, memorable - albeit disastrous - comedy gig.

‘And I shared the dressing room with the stripper,” he recalls. “I learned more with Bernard Manning that I've learnt since. It's taken me 40 years to recover. He was tough. The good news is for the tour that I don't use any of his material, the bad news is: no topless go-go dancers, just me.”

  • Gyles Brandreth is at the Riverside Studios In Hammersmith, London until May 8. His diaries Something Sensational To Read in the Train and Oscar Wilde and The Nest Of Vipers are both out now.

Published: 5 May 2011

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