By Claire Richardson
EFR speak to writer, broadcaster and entertainer, Gyles Brandreth, about his new show ‘Break a Leg’. The show takes us on a semi-autobiographical journey across a star-studded career, discussing the names and faces that inspired and entertained Gyles throughout. As a Fringe fanatic for decades, with multiple sell-out performances, we ask Gyles for his advice for the student and amateur groups that we will review this August.
Gyles first encountered the Fringe as a member of the audience in the sixties. Then, it was a cluster of around thirty acts that dotted the mile, and a shadow of the 3,400 strong machine that will explode on the Mile in a week’s time. ‘Then, it was literally a fringe – an add-on’, he muses, ‘and the word ‘stand-up’ did not exist’. In decades since, while new genres emerged and the Fringe community grew, Gyles assures us that the infectious atmosphere remains unchanged.
Another unaltering Fringe attribute is the style that Gyles brings, seen in his first Fringe production in 1997; a one hundred minute musical featuring one hundred musicals called Zipp!. This pastiche style, that attempts to create depth by blending the dynamic drama of various sources, mirrors that of ‘Break a Leg’. Gyles’ new show aligns anecdotes from his experiences in showbiz, rather than excerpts from musicals, ranging from his time as a student at Oxford, to his social sphere as a performer in 2018. As such, Gyles has often worked to combine the highlights of an inconceivable range of pursuits. These include the establishment of a teddy bear factory, a World Record for the longest after dinner speech, the organisation of the first British Scrabble Championships, and hosting his Radio 4 show, Just a Minute - continually embracing jam-packed variety.
Gyles is also former Member of Parliament, and the loss of his seat in 1997 was what propelled the creation of Zipp!; finding both escapism and liberation. Discussing the frontier between politics and theatre, I explain that we would groan to be sent to ‘another one about politics’ when reviewing in 2017 – be it Brexit, or the British and American elections. ‘My show is a Brexit free zone,’ Gyles assures us. ‘I should get a sign. There will be no Boris. There will be no Mrs May.’ He adds ‘my wife said – ‘Gyles, in politics, the door is shut’’. For Gyles, the Fringe was an open door.
‘The Fringe is brilliant,’ he states, describing ‘a place where anyone, young or old, from 14 to 94, can succeed’, as he did in 1997. Nevertheless, after his first Fringe performance, the applause made Gyles wince, accustomed to the heckles and boos of the Commons. ‘Feel the terror – do it anyway – and take your time. There’s terror every time that you perform, even across 26 performances,’ Gyles explains, as we ask how an amateur can succeed. Behind the glitz and glamour, he warns that it is hard work and consistency that allow a live show to flourish - each and every performance must be special, personal and likeable.
Above all, Gyles disparages the star rating system. ‘There were no star ratings back then!’ he objects, ‘it was a lucky dip. I think the Fringe should be a lucky dip. Everyone gives it a go. I’ve seen some great shows but because that night it wasn’t particularly good, or the reviewer didn’t like that subject, it only got two stars…’.
Gyles has certainly had a lucky dip over the years, but his ambition, aptitude and arduous work ethic have clearly driven the production for the content of this show. Technically decades in the making, he whisks us on his whirlwind tour of the brightest lights and delights of his encounters in the entertainment industry. Irrespective of the stars we would award, the reminiscent ‘Break a Leg’ is set to be full of the star memories, characters and anecdotes of a twinkling career.
You can find Gyles in Edinburgh at Pleasance One, Pleasance Courtyard, 1st-26th August, 4.30pm.