My naughty nights in the world’s raciest sex clubs: GYLES BRANDRETH was just 22 when Lord Longford asked him to join his Pornography Commission… now revel in the hilarious results in his ribald memoirs
People sometimes seem amazed that I go on working in my 70s, writing and going out most evenings to do a show or host an awards ceremony or give an after-dinner speech.
I say it’s because I agree with Noel Coward: on the whole, work is more fun than fun.
My wife Michele says it’s because I only think I have any worth if I am working. There is something in that (she is always right), but there is more to it, too.
I am middle class, as most of my family have been for the past 200 years. Not upper-middle class (none of my sisters were debutantes), not lower-middle class (we never called a napkin a serviette), just bang-in-the-middle middle class.
It’s a mistake to think that the middle classes are always well off. They aren’t.
My father, Charles, a good man and a successful solicitor, died when he did — in 1981, aged 71 — because he had run out of funds. Essentially, he died because he had reached the end of his rope and couldn’t hang on.
I thought why would the 7th Earl of Longford be calling me? He decided to set up a commission of inquiry to look at pornography. Pictured: Gyles Brandreth and Susan Pegden in 1971
Dear sweet lovable Pa, as we all called him, sent me not only to the fee-paying Lycee Francais but also to Bedales, whose fees rivalled Eton’s.
My sisters went to Cheltenham Ladies’ College, because that was the boarding school to which English middle-class girls had been sent for 100 years.
From first term to last, paying the school fees was a nightmare. As a senior partner in a medium-sized firm of London solicitors, Pa was earning good money, but he always spent more than he earned and as a consequence was never free from anxiety.
Pa was worried about money from the moment he got married until the moment he died.
He had a humorous, engaging and persuasive manner and he used it to the full — negotiating with the bank to extend the overdraft, negotiating with the tax man to delay the tax, negotiating with one of his father’s rich schoolfriends for ‘another small subvention’ to help tide him over while he was waiting, Micawber-like, for something to turn up.
Something did turn up now and again. Relations died and left legacies, but none ever quite enough.
At home, on the kitchen wall, I have a verse from the Book Of Proverbs: ‘A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a vagabond and want like an armed man.’
At the age of 18 I won a scholarship to Oxford. I arrived there in 1967 with a mindset (and agenda) dating from the late 1920s.
It was an eye-opening experience — and it introduced me to some fascinating figures. At the first full meeting of the Pornography Commission, Cliff Richard and I sat side by side
My contemporaries were dancing to the beat of Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones.
I was humming the Charleston and setting my sights on achieving the glittering prizes that had meant so much to my father’s generation — becoming editor of Isis, directing the OUDS [Oxford University Dramatic Society], being elected President of the Oxford Union.
Within 48 hours of my arrival, I had joined the Union, joined the OUDS, and managed to meet the editor of Isis. How I got hold of his name and address I don’t know, but I did.
And so when, a few months later, the Sun newspaper came to Oxford and ran an article on ‘The Tomorrow People’, I was featured.
DAY I DROPPED YEHUDI’S PRICELESS STRADIVARIUS
The filming of my first documentary, in 1970, was memorable for one reason alone: it was the only time I have ever held a Stradivarius violin.
It belonged to the virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin, who arrived carrying it in a case handcuffed to his wrist.
‘The insurance people insist,’ he explained. ‘It is a very rare Stradivarius and it has a beautiful tone. I love it very much.’
As the documentary was being made to mark the 800th anniversary of the murder of Thomas Becket, he had agreed to play Bach unaccompanied on the very spot in Canterbury Cathedral where the archbishop is believed to have died.
‘May I hold it a moment?’ I asked, peering at the violin.
‘By all means,’ said Menuhin. ‘But be careful,’ he added, as he handed me the precious instrument.
I took it with both hands. ‘My, my,’ I murmured appreciatively. ‘To think I’m holding Yehudi Menuhin’s Stradivarius!’
At that moment, the instrument flew swiftly and easily out of my hands. I made to catch it and, as I did so, tilted the edge and sent it spinning gracefully towards the crypt.
It bounced its way elegantly — and audibly — down the ancient stone stairway and landed, with a crash, at the foot of the steps, not more than a yard from the very spot where Becket had been murdered.
Menuhin’s many years of meditation had been but a preparation for this moment. He did not offer a word of reproach. He closed his eyes briefly and took a deep breath.
Then he walked down the stone steps to retrieve his broken violin. Carefully, he inspected the instrument.
‘I think I’ll have to use the other one,’ he said quietly.
I offered to fetch it for him from his car. Briefly, his face seemed to twitch. ‘Er, no, I’ll fetch it. Thank you, all the same.’
As he turned to walk back towards his car, he smiled. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘These things happen.’
Yehudi Menuhin was a good man. He left much of his musical archive to the Royal Academy of Music, and if you visit its museum you will find the Stradivarius I dropped now on display.
It has been well repaired: the damage barely shows.
The truth is I’m cack-handed and not to be trusted with anything precious.
At the British Museum once, I was allowed to inspect the original manuscript of De Profundis, the letter that Oscar Wilde wrote from the depths of his despair during his imprisonment in Reading Gaol.
In a moment of excessive exuberance, I managed to spill a drop of coffee on to the priceless manuscript.
‘Oh dear,’ said the curator, with forbearance. ‘We’ll have to pretend it’s one of Oscar’s tears.’
Michael Rosen, playwright and poet, and Diana Quick, ‘generally talked about as the best actress at Oxford for years’, got a fair look-in, but mine was the top photograph, and there was a quote from me as the main headline: ‘I’d like to be a sort of Danny Kaye and then Home Secretary.’ I was 19.
In fact, I never managed either. After I left Oxford I did whatever work came along. I was writing books. I was making TV programmes. I was hosting my first panel show on Radio 4.
It was called A Rhyme In Time and starred Cyril Fletcher, the prince of Odd Odes, Graeme Garden from The Goodies, and my childhood favourite from Take It From Here, June Whitfield.
I launched the National Scrabble Championships. In Trafalgar Square I organised the world’s biggest Christmas-cracker-pull. On the Today programme, I tossed the world’s tiniest pancake.
On the front page of The Times — the newspaper Pa took — I was described as ‘the high priest of trivia’. I was profiled in the New Statesman — disobligingly.
Ralph Steadman, the great caricaturist, drew a cartoon of me as a slavering dog chasing its own tail. In Private Eye I was described as ‘appalling’ and ‘revolting’.
I carried on regardless. I spent three months touring the UK dressed up as the dog Snoopy. I read poetry in the late-night God slot on Anglia TV.
By way of contrast, to exercise my comedy chops, I took a booking as the support act to Bernard Manning at his club in Manchester.
I shared a dressing room with the two topless go-go dancers and the stripper. She was fun. Before she went on, she made me fix the sparkles to her bottom with a Pritt stick.
Was I mad? Perhaps. I was like a spinning top. Whenever the phone rang, I never asked who it was, I simply said yes.
One day, in May 1971, when I answered the telephone the voice said, ‘Is that Gyles?’
‘It’s Frank Longford here.’
Pull the other one, I thought to myself. Why would the 7th Earl of Longford, Knight of the Garter, former Cabinet minister, be calling me in Muswell Hill? I assumed it was a practical joke.
But it wasn’t. It was the great man himself — and he wanted my help. He had decided to set up an independent commission of inquiry to look at the whole question of pornography in our time.
‘It’s a high-powered group. We’ve got two bishops, an archbishop, a High Court judge and Malcolm Muggeridge. But we need some young blood. I thought of you and Cliff Richard. What do you say?’
I said, ‘Yes.’
And in saying yes, I let myself into a world as curious as anything Alice found in Wonderland. Fifty years on, I still have vivid dreams about it.
I am not complaining. It was an extraordinary, eye-opening experience — and it introduced me to some fascinating figures, including Cliff. At the first full meeting of the Pornography Commission, Cliff and I sat side by side.
I was 22. He was 31, but he looked much younger, dressed in a gorgeous nut-brown chamois-leather suit, with silk shirt and scarves to match.
The room was crowded and chaotic. It was like the courtroom scene at the end of Alice In Wonderland: a lot of colourful old cards milling about, all talking at once.
I recognised the journalist Peregrine Worsthorne looking like a dandified version of the White Rabbit, and a couple of token women (a pair of late-middle-aged doctors with low-slung bosoms) looked exactly like the Duchess and the Cook.
Lord Longford, with unexpected authority, called us to order and welcomed us to ‘the crusade’. (Crusade? I thought this was supposed to be an independent, open-minded inquiry. Never mind.)
He was 65, tall, thin, a little stooped, bald with tufts of still-black hair sprouting on either side of his crown and bits of yesterday’s lunch on his lapels and tie. I liked him a lot.
From that first meeting on, Frank took me under his wing. I remember he entertained me to lunch at the Garrick Club on the day after he had been installed as a Knight of the Garter. He was devoted to the Queen.
‘She is wonderful, beautiful and very funny. People don’t realise how amusing she can be.’
I suddenly heard myself asking, ‘Do you think the Queen enjoys sex?’
Frank wasn’t the least bit abashed. ‘Of course she does,’ he enthused, raising his glass of Beaune to her. ‘She’s a healthy Christian woman. And she enjoys riding, as I do.
OH I DO LOVE TO WEAR STOCKINGS AND SUSPENDERS
I know Grayson Perry a little and I like him a lot.
He is a wonderful artist, but I have to admit that I find his penchant for dressing up in women’s clothes a tad disconcerting — which is odd, since I’ve been doing it myself, off and on, all my life. Why? I wonder.
My friend Brett Kahr, noted Freudian psychologist, says it’s simply me being playful, ‘And that’s a good thing, Gyles.’
Aged seven, I played Christopher Robin’s nursemaid, Alice, in a stage rendering of A. A. Milne’s poem, Buckingham Palace. That’s when it began, in 1955, this thing with dressing up as a girl.
I had joined the local Cubs and at Christmas the Scoutmaster recruited me for the Kensington Scouts’ Gang Show.
A kindly, tall and balding man, with hairy legs and knobbly knees, he was surprised to learn that I had a full nurse’s outfit in my dressing-up box at home — complete with navy skirt, blue blouse, white apron and nurse’s cap.
But since I had, and I seemed keen to wear it, the part of Alice was mine.
I did my best and I seem to remember (though it was 65 years ago) it went down rather well.
At home I had a huge playroom all to myself. It was my magic kingdom and my window on the world.
Cowboy, pirate, policeman, spaceman — you name it, I had the outfit. I could dress up as everybody, from Robin Hood to Davy Crockett.
Performers like dressing up, and I like performers who dress up in style.
As a rule, when I dress up as a woman, I want to be the real thing. I don’t do it secretly, ever. I do it for public consumption, just once in a while.
When I was in a show called Zipp! in the early noughties, I spent several months wearing stockings and suspenders
Grayson Perry says of himself, ‘I just love dressing up in everything a man is supposed not to be, in all that vulnerability, sweetness, preciousness and impracticality.’
For Grayson in his teens, creating for himself a female alter ego called Claire was about sexuality, escape and excitement.
I have never been in the Grayson Perry league. I don’t have his baggage — or his courage or imagination.
I just put on a frock now and again for fun, to feel different, to show off in disguise.
I legitimise it by doing it in a show. I’ve never been a secret cross-dresser.
When I was in a show called Zipp! in the early (and possibly aptly named) noughties, I spent several months wearing stockings and suspenders, and rather enjoyed it.
Zipp! was a celebration of musical theatre. We promised the audience 100 musicals in 100 minutes — ‘or your money back’.
With a cast of five, at breakneck speed we zipped through a century of theatrical hits, from Chu Chin Chow to the latest offering from Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The bit the audience seemed to like most was the sequence from The Rocky Horror Show where suddenly I appeared centre stage wearing little more than fishnet stockings, a black suspender belt and a huge golden codpiece (it was stuffed, I remember, with a scrunched-up copy of the Daily Mail).
Whether it was the erotic power of my performance or the absurdity of seeing someone who had recently been a Conservative MP dressed to kill in a kinky rig-out, I don’t know, but at every performance, it drove the punters wild.
Zipp! was a huge hit in Edinburgh. We won the award for the most popular show, and played to capacity.
I remember, after one performance, having a drink outside a bar in George Street, when the great Sir Ian McKellen, whom I barely knew, stopped to say hello to me.
He smiled, leant towards me conspiratorially, and asked, ‘Are you still wearing your stockings and suspenders, Gyles?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘How did you know?’
He grinned. ‘Because I’m still wearing mine.’
‘People who enjoy riding always enjoy sex. It’s well known. Do you ride much, Gyles?’
‘No, I don’t.’
‘I’m sorry to hear it.’ He sipped at his wine before adding earnestly, ‘She isn’t a puritan, you know, the Queen. And nor am I. People expect me to be teetotal, but I’m not. I love wine. And I enjoy sex greatly. After all, I’ve had eight children.
‘I swim in the nude, regularly. There’s nothing nicer. I doubt that the Queen swims in the nude. Prince Philip might. They’ve got a pool at Buckingham Palace, you know.’
As well as the meetings to discuss pornography, where we would sit around in a solemn circle flicking through filthy magazines, we younger members were sent out to do fieldwork in Soho: in ‘the square mile of depravity’, as Lord Longford called it.
I was intrigued to find on these forays that our fellow customers really were wearing shabby fawn-coloured raincoats. At one shop, we spoke to the manager. We told him we were doing research for Lord Longford. He chuckled. ‘That’s what they all say nowadays.’
The climax of my time on Lord Longford’s Pornography Commission was our research trip to Denmark. Six of us went to Copenhagen — advertised as ‘Sin City’, ‘the most permissive place on earth’ — to reap the alien porn.
On the flight out, Lord Longford read the Bible (Book Of Proverbs), and didn’t lift his eyes from the page. ‘I am preparing myself for the ordeal we are going to have to face, Gyles.’
Over dinner at the hotel, we were briefed by an official from the British embassy on where to find Denmark’s hottest sex clubs. After we’d eaten, Frank gave us each £10 spending money.
‘That should be more than enough,’ said the diplomat. ‘You can usually get live sex for around a fiver.’
We decided to hunt in pairs and meet back at the hotel at midnight to compare notes.
I teamed up with Sue Pegden, a 21-year-old social psychologist, and Lord Longford went off with Dr Christine Saville, a wise old bird and prison psychiatrist.
Sue and I wandered sheepishly in and out of assorted sex shops and eventually ended up at the Private Club where (for £7) we had ringside seats. Stark-naked hostesses offered us plastic beakers of beer and, frankly, anything else we wanted.
As they squeezed past us along the row, by accident or design, their pubic hair brushed our noses. I started to sneeze.
During the more lurid moments, Sue and I simply grinned inanely at each other or gazed steadfastly at our knees.
When we got back to the hotel, Frank was looking positively wild-eyed. ‘I feel exhausted, disgusted and degraded,’ he shuddered.
At the first club he’d been to, he found a stout middle-aged man onstage with his trousers round his ankles being attended to by a naked dancer.
Frank gazed on the scene aghast and then the penny dropped. The fat man was not part of the act: this was a club with audience participation.
Hastily, Lord Longford got to his feet and made for the exit.
Unfortunately, the manager, taking him for a disappointed customer, chased after him, ‘But, sir, don’t go, you haven’t seen any intercourse yet.
The intercourse here is excellent. I assure you it’s next on the programme.’ Frank fled into the street.
On our second night, we took in a blue movie. It could not have been more explicit. In the front row Lord Longford and Peregrine Worsthorne perched on tubular chairs, eyes popping as they studied the scratchy screen.
Quite soon, and quite loudly, they began to tell one another how desperately boring it was.
‘Let’s go,’ said Perry.
‘I can’t,’ said Frank, ‘I walked out of the live show last night, I’ve got to sit this one out.’
In the end, a compromise was reached: we endured five minutes’ more thrusting and then all left together, with Perry whispering wittily, ‘Just as they’re coming, we’re going.’
After three days in the erotic Wonderland of Copenhagen, we flew home, our cases packed with free samples.
As soon as we reached the customs hall at Heathrow, Lord Longford accosted a young man in uniform and thrust a thick blue folder into his hands.
‘I want you to examine these magazines. Carefully. You may have heard of me. I am the Earl of Longford. I was a member of the last government. I have just returned from a fact-finding mission to Copenhagen . . .’
The young man leafed through the sordid material, nodding appreciatively. At this point, Frank realised he was not addressing a customs officer but a courier for American Express.
On THE flight back, I’d asked Lord Longford if he was sorry he came.
‘No, it has been necessary, dreadful but essential. Of course, I would rather have gone to Rome with Mary. You know Mary?’
I knew Mary Whitehouse quite well, having taken part in debates with her. She was a teacher-turned-campaigner, an articulate champion of traditional Christian values; to look at, she was the spitting image of Dame Edna Everage but nobody’s fool.
She had planned to call her campaigning organisation ‘Clean Up National Television’ — until she looked twice at the poster, and saw the problem.
‘Mary flew to Rome yesterday,’ said Frank. ‘She’s gone to see the Pope. I said to her, ‘Mary, you are off to Heaven, while I am going to Hell.”
Adapted by Corinna Honan from Odd Boy Out by Gyles Brandreth, published on 16 September by Michael Joseph at £20. © Gyles Brandreth 2021.
To order a copy for £18 (offer valid until September 25, 2021; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.
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