Edinburgh Fringe 2015
Gyles Brandreth takes us on a magic carpet ride of words in an hour of rapid-fire anecdotes, piercing humour and full on engagement with the audience.
Gyles Brandreth is a cult. At least, that was the text he read out to us from his manager, late on in what was a wonderful hour of word play, to remind him he was already overrunning. But why did that remark generate such a big laugh? Simply because the remarkable organ that is the human mind is capable of quickly taking on-board what Brandreth actually said and can then swap out (in this case) a single letter and come up with something much ruder and potentially funnier. That around six hundred people in a packed Pleasance Courtyard venue can do so simultaneously, in under a second, is about as good a demonstration of word power as you can ask for.
Brandreth may indeed be a cult, but he is first and foremost a writer, broadcaster and a former MP, junior minister and sometime Government Whip. He’s appeared on just about every TV programme that requires an acute understanding of and ability to deploy clever words in an amusing manner. So he’s the perfect man to explore just what language has done for, and to, the human race.
And, in a machine-gun like rat-a-tat-tat opening of a sixty minute monologue, he tells us that English is the leading world language, with over 500,000 words, leaving French (100,000) and German (180,000) trailing in our wake. Apparently our native tongue is also the most flexible, with the meaning of some words evolving over time into their complete opposite. Who’d have thought, for example, that it would now be “cool” to be called “wicked”?
Well-chosen words can have such power as well. Take Shakespeare, for example. Here we are, 400 years from his demise, still happily using many of the 26,000 words his plays contain, a substantial proportion of which he was the first to deploy in our language. And less well-chosen words can be a source of much amusement. Take George W Bush and John Prescott, two wonderful examples of people who can create a language train wreck with their idiosyncratic mash-up of malapropisms, Spoonerisms and syntax.
Words are something that Brandreth, a raconteur par excellence, has never been short of. Here’s a man that is clearly at ease on the stage, providing an object lesson in how to involve the audience in each of the stories he tells with such glee. His sense of comic timing is as acute as any I have seen, leading the listener slowly but surely to the punch line which is then delivered with true élan. Never afraid of silence, he can leave a thought hanging in the air, allowing his words to paint a picture in the mind of the listener. And, judging by the frequent and resounding guffaws of laughter, there were some pretty active minds busily painting away as he spoke.
Actors, politicians, public figures and, of course lawyers, have provided Brandreth with a reservoir of anecdotes that is unlikely to ever run dry. That some of them are probably more than a little apocryphal is neither here nor there – he’s not a man to let a few mere facts (just words, after all) get in the way of a good story.
Words, words, words. Such fun to play with, as well as having the power to shape and change lives. And good for your health, too. There’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that words, particularly those of a second language, increase cognitive creativity and can help stave off dementia.
As we trooped out, happier and more than a bit wiser, Brandreth implored us each to learn a new word a day, a poem a week, perhaps even to start writing things down in our own words. That’s the power of words, you see. Especially when delivered by a cult.
Essential viewing for anyone who values their cognitive capability.