(5th March 2023)
If you set yourself a target of raising £75,000 on your 75th Birthday for Great Ormond Street Hospital, it stands to reason that raiding your contacts book has to be your starting point.
That it contains contact details for over twenty percent of all the theatrical Dames of the British Empire ever appointed would be more than fortunate.
Being Gyles Brandreth with the theatrical flair to put together a show, hire the London Palladium and get Fane Theatrical’s James Albrecht to produce it is the final key to more than over-achieving your target...
... and in unforgettable style create an event so significantly unique that the National Portrait Gallery requests not one but two on-stage photographs (facing the audience, then with audience behind the cast) to ensure the gathering is captured for archive posterity.
Almost three hours of remarkable chat, song and surprises were our reward for contributing, and worth every penny.
An opening letter from Camilla, Queen Consort read from the lectern by Dame Joanna Lumley was followed amusingly by Mr Brandreth’s “Don’t Put Your Daughter On The Stage” - making us wonder if the letters were perhaps confused in the mail.
Introducing long-suffering Stefan Bednarczyk at the piano (and noting the wonderful show-tunes before and after the performance), elaborate throne chairs eventually arrived on stage to seat a procession of the very best talent ever honoured by the United Kingdom.
Admittedly the first twenty minutes were identical to the previous “Gyles and Judi in Conversation” event the monkey attended last year. Still, top marks as always to Dame Judi for making it look spontaneous every time and indeed Mr B for summoning the appropriate incredulous laugh on cue.
With the arrival of Dame Floella Benjamin the show truly soared and never looked back. Greeting us old “Play School” hands, Benjamin’s warmth, wisdom (and rather excellent singing voice) shared a compelling history of her life as a sadly abused child emigrating to England in 1960 to find the country set against her... yet finding her way to being the final autobiography Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second read and the final Order of Merit our late Queen suggested. Wise to the last.
Dame Eileen Atkins shared further insight into the horrors of childhood with a remarkably filthy French song she sang in Working Mens’ Clubs... from the age of five. Put there by a vile dance-school teacher with a pretentious stage name to cover every other sin committed.
More revelations followed as each Dame took a turn. Sheila Hancock rose from her hospital bed after a week of pneumonia (please, get well soon, Dame Sheila) to chat about the perils of the senior moment listening to late night Radio 4 Extra.
Dame Twiggy regaled us with the remarkable story of dancing through Hollywood with her idol Fred Astaire – and if you don’t believe that sentence, as she pointed out, think of what those who saw them as they drove past were thinking.
The only non-theatrical Dame present, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller LG entertained with her contrast of life at the real MI5 compared to Dame Judi’s M. Oddly it didn’t include how she sold so many cheap kitchens, but one can’t have everything in the time available.
Music flowed with the first half ending on a never-to-be repeated “Ah Yes, I Remember It Well” featuring Mr B and Dames Atkins, Benjamin, Dench, Lawson and Wilton.
The second half opened with a pre-recorded segment of Dame Patricia Routledge with another Noel Coward favourite “I Went to a Marvellous Party” before the grand lady herself appeared to share her memory of “The Master” and an amusing fan-letter from her Hyacinth days.
Dame Maureen Lipman raised the roof with a witty ode to her fellow Dames, before causing the Palladium’s enchanted stage to demonstrate its magic once more. Something unnervingly special occurred as she launched into "My Old Man (Said Follow the Van)", the audience joined in and the stage summoned Marie Lloyd’s spirit to take us back a century in a few moments.
A quiz about Dames, for Dames, resulted in a draw (as it should) and provided segue into the promised “party” conclusion.
An unexpected appearance from Dame Joan Collins, urging us all to “Imagine” led movingly into an even more humbling appearance by Gyles’s 7-year-old grandson with his mother. As a baby, the boy had been a patient at the hospital – six years on, he is one shining reason among hundreds of thousands for this fundraising event.
With clever thought, as the requested portrait photographs were taken, Bonnie Langford sprang onto the stage to lead us through the highly appropriate “Flash Bang Wallop” from “Half A Sixpence.” So much fun were the audience having that Dame Maureen Lipman couldn’t resist breaking away from the group picture to clap hands and stamp her feet with the rest of us.
Bringing on George ‘Live Long & Prosper’ Takei to teach us all the Vulcan sign (much trying from Dames and audience alike) offered an optimistic blessing before the final ceremony...
You cannot have a birthday without a cake, and who better to wheel it on than a final and probably most famous Dame of all – a pantomime one. Dame Christopher Biggins himself performed the job marvellously, balloons descended, “Happy Birthday” was sung at least twice, and every person present knew just how lucky we had been to be there.
It was fascinating and amusing that the mainly middle-aged and senior audience (monkey included) were joined throughout by the very young Palladium ushering team. That they all were sliding quietly into the auditorium to not miss a moment simply underlined their understanding of the occasion.
We can only hope that the two on-stage video cameras are of broadcast quality and the monkey would urge that should the show be released to stream or on DVD, it is an unmissable purchase, particularly if it might aid Great Ormond Street Hospital. In fact, why wait, www.gosh.org will gladly accept any help anyone reading this blog can give.
A very happy 75th to Mr Gyles Brandreth for 8th March 2023. Your generosity, and that of your co-performers really does prove there is nothing like a Dame, nothing in the World.
5 stars, standing ovation.