TV and radio presenter and ex-Tory politician Gyles Brandreth tells Lorne Jackson about his love affair...with Shakespeare, Wilde and Conan Doyle.
I have been talking to Gyles Brandreth on the phone for five minutes and already I think I have unearthed a scoop.
The sort of gossip that makes headlines in lurid red-tops around the world.
“Yes, it’s true. I’m with a young woman at this very moment,” he burbles from his mobile, confidentially. “You’ve caught me in a secret tryst!”
Gyles then ruins everything by revealing the turgid truth. The mystery woman is Carol, a researcher for The One Show, the early-evening television programme Mr Brandreth frequently appears on.
He is not having an affair at all. Just keeping busy, doing outside reporting for the BBC.
However, when pushed, he does admit to having an unruly passion outside of his marriage...and it is a passion for a man. A dead man, at that.
“I’ve always adored Shakespeare,” he says. “My respect and absolute love for the chap is so all-consuming, that I even lived in Stratford for a time. I wanted to have a house near his grave, and that’s exactly what I did get. When I woke up in the morning, I would open my window and look out upon Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare’s grave is. Not once did it fail to move me.”
Being in such thrall to both William Shakespeare and Stratford, Gyles is glad to be one of the guest speakers appearing at this year’s Stratford Upon Avon Literary Festival, which begins tomorrow.
But he will not be talking about Shakespeare. He will be focusing on the two other authors he adores the most – Oscar Wilde and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
For the past few years, Gyles has been working on a series of fictional detective novels starring Wilde, with Conan Doyle as his side kick.
The latest thrilling yarn is called Oscar Wilde And The Dead Man’s Smile, and it includes guest appearances by Bram Stoker, the man behind Dracula, and Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scot who dreamed-up Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde.
JM Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, is also added to the heady literary mix.
Although Brandreth offers up an invented story, it’s a recorded fact that all these esteemed fin de siecle artists knew each other. Wilde and Conan Doyle met at a publisher’s lunch, where Conan Doyle hoped to sell the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study In Scarlet, while Wilde pitched his prospective spine-tingler, The Picture Of Dorian Gray.
Gyles also has a link to both men.
As a child, he lived in Baker Street, opposite the fictional home of Sherlock and Dr Watson.
Later, he went to Bedales School, in Hampshire, where he befriended the elderly founder of the establishment, John Haden Badley, who, in his youth, was a close chum of Wilde’s.
“Badley told me that he once asked Oscar for advice,” says Gyles. “Wilde said to him ‘Always avoid murder. A gentleman should never do anything he can’t talk about at dinner’.
“Having known Badley is one of the reasons I feel such a strong connection to Wilde. When I shake hands with all those people at the Stratford Literary Festival, they will be shaking hands with the hand that shook the hand of Oscar Wilde.”
Like Wilde, Brandreth prefers good humour and glib remarks to grumping or gravitas. The 61-year-old’s voice is a precarious balancing act between charm and smarm, while each silken thread of his conversation is woven into a luminous tapestry of intricate anecdote and plush wit.
But Brandreth is no mere bubble of bonhomie. Don’t be fooled into concluding that he’s a bright and silly grin inside a bright and silly jumper; or that frivolous cove manning Dictionary Corner on endless episodes of Countdown.
Like all successful men, he keeps a horseshoe hidden beneath the squishiness of the boxing glove.
In a varied and bustling career, he boasts Conservative politician in his resume. During the ignominious years of the Major Government, Brandreth was a whip, one of the small band of MPs tasked with policing the party.
So what is his opinion of the scandals now peppering Members of Parliament? Was he shocked to discover that so many Parliamentary piggies have their snouts deep in the trough?
For once, the smooth ooze of his voice ripples with a sigh. “This is not unfamiliar territory for me,” he says. “All this sleaze stuff, it’s like the last days of the John Major administration.
“I have this feeling of deja vu. And I know how it all ends, too. With a bucket-load of tears for Mr Gordon Brown.”
Would Gyles like to be back at Westminster to help heal our entropic economy?
“I have been asked by various Conservatives to run for Parliament at the next election,” he reveals. “But the truth is my wife found that Parliament was the enemy of family life.
“Now I’m just loving the world of Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle so much. I really wouldn’t want to go back into the world of Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling – where would the fun and adventure be in that?”
* For more information about the Stratford Upon Avon Literary Festival, phone 01789 207 100.