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There is nothing like my dames! Happy 75th Birthday, Gyles Brandreth

Blog | By Amelia Milne | By Gyles Brandreth | Mar 07, 2023

What a group of dames! Back row: Harriet Walter, Penelope Wilton, Floella Benjamin, the birthday boy, Maureen Lipman, Joanna Lumley, Twiggy. Front row: Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Patricia Routledge, Sheila Hancock, Joan Collins (Photo by Max Hilton)

The Oldie wishes Gyles Brandreth a very happy 75th Birthday on March 8. To celebrate his big day, he gathered Britain’s theatrical great dames at the Palladium to raise money for Great Ormond Street

I put on a show to mark my 75th birthday and, more importantly, to raise £75,000 for Great Ormond Street Hospital, where my youngest grandson was successfully treated for cancer when he was just a baby.

The show was a celebration of some of my favourite people: Britain’s great theatrical dames.

The first actor to be knighted was Sir Henry Irving in 1897.

The first actress to be made a dame was Irving’s stage partner, Ellen Terry, in 1925.

Since then, just 50 actresses have become dames (many more actors have been made knights). Happily, most of the living dames joined Judi and me at the Palladium, doing turns and chatting about the dames they have known and admired.

The first theatrical dame I encountered was Dame Sybil Thorndike (1882-1976), Bernard Shaw’s original Saint Joan. When I was a little boy in the 1950s, living with my parents in Lower Sloane Street in Chelsea, Dame Sibyl lived nearby and we used to meet her waiting at the bus stop. She was a keen Christian Socialist and a natural enthusiast.

‘Oh Lewis,’ she said to her husband, Lewis Casson, when they were both in their eighties, ‘if only we could be the first actors to play on the moon!’

At 90, Dame Sibyl appeared in the theatre for the last time in a play called The Old Lady. At the final run-through, she surprised the play’s young director by coming onto the stage haltingly, bent forward, miming pushing something rather erratically with her right hand.

From the back of the stalls, the young director called out, ‘Excuse me, Dame Sybil, but can I ask what you’re doing?’

‘I’m doing what it says in the script, dear,’ replied the old actress.

‘And what does it say in the script, Dame Sibyl?’ enquired the young man.

‘It says the Old Lady comes on and hoovers at the back.’

‘Hovers, Dame Sibyl,’ cried the young director, ‘hovers!’

Most of my heroes come from a bygone age. On my desk, I keep a framed, black-and-white photograph of an elegant-looking middle-aged man, sporting a white tie and a silk top hat.

‘Is that your dad?’ people ask.

‘No,’ I tell them, ‘it’s Jack Buchanan.’

Then, invariably, they say, ‘Who’s Jack Buchanan?’

Yes, it’s come to this. Nobody’s heard of Jack Buchanan! Perhaps it’s understandable. He was born in 1891 and died in 1957. But, as a singer, dancer, comedian and actor, he was once very famous – and on both sides of the Atlantic, too.

In 1928, John Logie Baird had him perform in the first-ever outside television broadcast. In 1953, he starred with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in Vincent Minelli’s Hollywood classic The Band Wagon. (Catch it if you can: Jack gives Fred a run for his money, I promise you.)

When I was young, I wanted to be Jack Buchanan. He was the epitome of the debonair English gentleman (though he was Scottish), described by the Times as ‘the last of the knuts’.

You probably don’t know what a knut is, either! It is Edwardian slang for a fashionable or showy young man.

Buchanan was a producer and theatre-owner as well as a performer and noted for his generosity towards others in the entertainment industry down on their luck.

Whenever he was in a show on Grand National day, he would cancel the performance and charter a train to take the entire cast and crew to Aintree for the race, providing food and drink for all, plus a fiver each for a flutter. That’s what I call style.

Though Edwardian in spirit, I am lucky enough to be kept in touch with the ‘now’ generation, the stars of Love Island, The Masked Singer and the rest, by appearing twice a week on ITV’s daytime magazine programme This Morning.

I love the show because it keeps me abreast of popular culture – and popular science. This week, I discovered that men who fancy big, fast and flashy cars really are compensating for intimate insufficiency. It’s not an urban myth. It’s an actual fact.

According to research carried out by Professor Daniel Richardson of University College London’s Psychology Department, there is substance to what he calls ‘the cultural phenomenon of genital inadequacy’.

Participants in the UCL study were shown images of luxury items such as champagne, a Rolex watch and a high- end sports car and asked to assess how much they wanted each of them. Those identifying as ‘under-endowed’ opted for the sports car by a considerable margin.

I gave up drinking years ago. I no longer wear a watch. And I sold my car (it was quite a small one, by the way, and electric) last March. I don’t plan to buy another one.

Make of that what you will. I am about to turn 75, after all.