Court circular

Gyles Brandreth, on Prince Philip and his wife

Originally published in Lunch With The FT

A few years ago, Gyles Brandreth spotted a lucrative niche. “With the vast array of books available on royalty,” he says, “there remained a yawning gap. We’d had a library full of books about Diana, and about Charles, and about the Queen being unaffectionate. We’ve had books by servants, and any number of books with lines like, ‘A courtier told me… ‘ or ‘A friend of the royal family says… ‘ I thought it would be interesting and worthwhile to produce a book about the central figures in the story, together.”

Brandreth was shadowing Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh for a Sunday newspaper as they carried out various public duties. One evening they went to the theatre in London. “During the interval, we went to the bar and they were doing their stuff. Mingling. Because she is the Queen, she is the focus of attention. So she was over there and I’m over here with the Duke of Edinburgh.” (Brandreth says the title rapidly, so it sounds like “Dukeavedim” – just as Americans call George Bush the “Presunidestates”.)

“He was leaning against the wall, looking over, and he raised his glass and the Queen looked over and there was a twinkle. No, to call it a twinkle is exaggerating. But they have been doing this for 60 years! The next day, I was in the vehicle behind theirs, squashed in with the mistress of the robes. I could see into their car and they were just chatting. I thought, what is it all about? What drives these people? I thought this would be a really interesting book: history and drama and a marriage. A love story.”

That book, Philip and Elizabeth: Portrait of a Marriage, has now been published. It’s wonderfully entertaining – particularly impressive when you consider this unusual aspect: “I set myself various rules. Most importantly, there would be no anonymous contributors. If somebody had something to say it should be on the record.”

We’re having brunch at The Landmark hotel in London, where Brandreth once dined with the Prince and discovered that he follows his own version of the Atkins Diet. “Afterwards, he said he thought he’d been here before. And I said, ‘Yes, this was formerly the headquarters of British Rail.’ But he disagreed. He said it wasn’t.” Nervously, a hotel manager explained that Brandreth was right.

“Prince Philip is very contrary. He challenges everything. Almost every sentence starts, ‘Yes, but… ‘ I asked him why he did that and he said maybe it was to keep him interested.”

Brandreth wears a navy blazer and an open-necked shirt. He has slightly bulging eyes and grey hair. Taken as a whole, he rather resembles J.R. Ewing from the 1970s TV series Dallas, though when Brandreth smiles archly it’s not so much sinister as faintly queeny (and not in the royal sense).

His voice is less fruity than I remembered from his many TV appearances; it has the slightly strained, throaty quality typical of the upper class. A brilliant newspaper interviewer himself – he has published two collections – he is acutely conscious of his duties as interviewee. He chooses words with care and reflexively spells aloud uncommon ones.

Scanning the menu, he says he is attempting to lose 14lb in 14 weeks. “I said to my wife, Michele, ‘What would you like for Christmas? Anything you want, darling, anything in our means.’ She said she would like me to be the weight I was when we married. So I will not gorge myself.” He orders the full English breakfast. I ask for the same.

Though the book covers admirably the Queen’s life story, and the marriage, Prince Philip’s portrait is the most compelling. Brandreth has known the Prince for 25 years or so, working closely with him on a charity, the National Playing Fields Association.

“I saw him at close range, doing his stuff. And it dawned on me that he was so not like the caricature. I thought, this is a very remarkable person, very funny and engaging, articulate, living in the present and always willing to give you attention. Actually rather a heroic figure.”

Brandreth is careful not to describe himself as the Prince’s friend (”the royal family offer friendliness, not friendship”). Even so, for the Prince’s 70th birthday in 1991, Brandreth and Michele organised a treat: a “ladies-only” lunch. “We filled a room at the Savoy with 300 young women.”

For the Prince’s 80th, there was a big celebration at the Albert Hall and Brandreth was invited to write a 5,000-word biographical sketch for the commemorative programme. “As I did that, I got to know this extraordinary story. The Dukeavedim was born a prince of Greece. His grandfather was assassinated. His father put on trial. The family was exiled when he was a toddler. His favourite sister and her family were killed in an aeroplane accident. Before he was 10, his parents separated. His mother ended up in an asylum and his father in the South of France with a girlfriend. For years, he rarely saw them, not even getting a birthday card from his mother.

”But he will not, he will not, complain. In the programme I wrote that his mother ended her days at Buckingham Palace dressed as a nun, and he said to me, ‘What is wrong with that? A nun’s habit is not expensive, and she didn’t have to worry about her hair.’”

I’ve long admired Brandreth’s newspaper interviews. He takes much the same approach as the emollient Sir David Frost – asking gentle questions to elicit unguarded answers. “I admire David enormously,” he agrees. “I can picture him finishing an interview with Joseph Stalin… “ He suddenly wrinkles his nose, Frost-like, puts a hand on my arm and says: “Joe, it’s been a joy! A joy!” Then turns to his audience, comprising a pair of startled businessmen breakfasting at the next table, and announces: “Ladies and gentlemen, Joseph Stalin!”

But Brandreth is also capable of asking awkward questions and stating unpleasant facts. It turns out that he takes just such a robust line in the book – and not only with the royal couple. (It seems unlikely that Brandreth will be invited back soon to sample Prince Charles’s lavish hospitality at Highgrove after criticising it.)

”My challenge is to see whether the people who know the Queen and Prince Philip recognise them. That can only happen if you have a rounded portrait, and that means addressing the Prince’s irascibility, his curmudgeonliness, whether it was true that he was hostile to Diana, and his ‘romantic life’. And in the Queen’s case, the suggestion that she was more fond of dogs and horses than of her children.”

He drew up a list of awkward subjects and went to see the Prince. “He asked at once, ‘Tactless overseas? Is that on your list?’” In an appendix, Brandreth lists various of the Prince’s offhand remarks that are held to have offended Scots, Indians and Hungarians – and goes into detail about his infamous reference to “slit eyes” on a state visit to China. “There was the unpleasant implication that he was some kind of closet racist,” Brandreth writes. “He may not be a disciple of all that is politically correct, but I have never detected a hint of racism in him. That said, he is not inclined to apologise.”

I ask why dynasties command so much interest internationally – even in countries where leaders are chosen, not inherited. “It’s about brands,” he ventures. “If we had in front of us a Coke, a Pepsi and a… “ – he grasps a name out of the air – “a Fizz Cola, then unless we were devils for adventure we would try a familiar name.” The same goes for dynasties. “They’re very secure with the name Gandhi in India. With Hillary [Clinton] we know where we stand – and the same goes for Bush.”

Brandreth’s great-great-grandfather left Liverpool for New York with a recipe for patent medicine that made him a fortune. He owned chunks of Fifth Avenue, was a senator for New York and a friend of P.T. Barnum. Brandreth descends from a son who returned to England, but claims his own American credentials. Such as: “I’m a friend of Walter Cronkite.”

A former European Monopoly Champion, founder of the Teddy Bear Museum and the British Pantomime Association, and winner of records for the longest screen kiss (on daytime television, with a 1980s pop singer) and the longest uninterrupted after-dinner speech, Brandreth was introduced to a mass audience in Britain in 1983. As celebrity lexicographer on afternoon television quiz show Countdown, he imprinted himself on the public mind by always wearing dazzling woolly jumpers.

The world would be a fine place, to my mind, if all serious authors had such broad experience, but others I fear disagree. Does Brandreth regret presenting himself, over the years, as essentially silly? In the 1990s, he relaunched himself as a Conservative MP. Labour opponents had at first only to say “woolly jumper” to put him off his stride. He did eventually hold posts in John Major’s government but left politics because his wife hated it. “She said, if you want to be an MP, you can do that, but you will not have a wife. She meant it.”

Since then, as well as writing the book, Brandreth has reverted to type by wearing fishnet stockings in his own show, Zipp! (”100 musicals in 90 minutes or your money back”) at the Edinburgh Festival and 33 other British venues.

”I reject the charge of fundamental triviality,” he says, our brunch nearly finished. (He’s left nothing on his plate but his wife will be glad to learn that the dish of butter remains untouched.) “I like having a bit of fun, but I don’t want to do any one of these things exclusively. We’re only here once and there are lots of things I want to do.”

1640 words. First published 2 October 04. © FT Magazine