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Today in history… birth of a modern ‘renaissance man’

12:00am | & Lifestyle

A ‘renaissance man’ is one who does many different things very well, and for a current example you need look no further than writer, broadcaster, actor and former MP Gyles Brandreth.

Born on March 8th, 1948, Brandreth – still known for the garish pullovers he often wore on TV – turns 70 today. He was born in Wuppertal, Germany, where his father was a legal officer with the Allied Control Commission, the body which governed the various zones in Germany and Austria occupied by the Allies following World War Two.

When Gyles was three the family returned to London, where he began his education at a private school in Kensington then as a boarder at Bedales, another independent school in Hampshire. A gifted pupil, he went on to study at New College, Oxford, where he quickly made his mark, becoming president of the Oxford Union in 1969 and editing the university magazine, “Isis”.

Already a prolific writer and a natural performer, he landed a job hosting ITV children’s show “Puzzle Party” in the 1970s, which opened up other opportunities in TV and radio and led to him becoming more widely known. Keen on wordplay, puzzles and board games, he began to write books about Scrabble, the origins of words and different types of puzzles.

In 1971 he organised the first British National Scrabble Championships and is still the president of the Association of British Scrabble Players. He is also a former European champion of another popular board game, Monopoly.

Later he moved on to writing TV scripts, plays, reviews and stage shows, often with witty or comical themes. He also penned a well-received authorised biography of actor Sir John Gielgud and kept a detailed daily diary, sections of which he would later publish, covering his time as an MP.

It began in 1992 with his election as Conservative member for the City of Chester, holding the seat for five years until 1997. During his parliamentary career he held a junior ministerial position in the Treasury and later wrote and broadcasted extensively on his experiences as an MP. By then he was already well-known from frequent appearance on TV-AM where he became known for his outlandish and colourful woollen jumpers, many of them knitted and sent in by viewers. Several examples were sold off in a 1993 charity auction.

Brandreth has also appeared more than 300 times as a guest in Dictionary Corner on Channel 4 show “Countdown” – clocking up more appearances than any other guest on the long-running show. He is also a regular guest on other current affairs, quiz and panel shows including “QI”, “The One Show” and “Have I Got News for You”, often displaying surprising levels of knowledge on a wide range of subjects. He also hosted his own short-lived game show, “Knowitalls”, on BBC2.

On radio he has presented his own shows on London station LBC since the 1970s and frequently appears on BBC Radio 4, both in comedy shows and political programming. In particular, he has appeared many times on comedy panel game “Just A Minute”, and hosted his own comedy panel game shows, “Whispers”, from 2003 to 2005, and “Wordaholics”, which first aired in 2012.

Always a prolific writer, he published a bestselling book on the marriage of the Queen and Prince Phillip in 2004 and followed it up in 2005 with another on the relationship between Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. A great admirer of Oscar Wilde and president of the Oscar Wilde Society, he has also written six historical fiction books which together form “The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries”. He also contributes regularly to various newspapers and magazines, again writing on a wide range of topics.

As a stage performer, he has appeared several times and with considerable success at the Edinburgh Festival, as well as touring with a number of self-penned one-man shows. One of his best-known shows was “Zipp!: One hundred musicals for less than the price of one”, which enjoyed a successful run in the West End before touring nationally. Brandreth has also appeared in straight acting roles both on the stage and TV.

As if all that wasn’t enough, he is one of the world’s most in-demand after-dinner speakers and awards ceremony hosts. He previously held the world record for the longest continuous after-dinner speech, at 12-and-a-half hours, which was done as a charity stunt. He married his wife, Michele, in 1973, and they have three grown-up children working as a barrister, a journalist and a government economist. As he turns 70 today, he shows no signs of curtaining his remarkable output.

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