Gyles Brandreth reminisces on how his novelty knitwear has been a constant thread throughout his life.
Amazingly, knitting has been part of my life for more than 50 years. In the 1950s, as a cub scout of six or seven, I was taught to knit and awarded a badge as proof of my skill. In the 1960s, at school and university, I wore outsize pullovers and cardigans – a student uniform of sorts. In the early 1970s I founded the National Scrabble Championships and, on the day of the finals, a friend brought me a bright yellow hand-knitted Scrabble jumper to wear. The garment caused quite a sensation on the day and, in a way, changed my life.
From that day on, colourful jumpers became my professional trademark. Throughout the 1980s I appeared regularly on TV, always in bright knitwear. Others did, too, of course, but no one else had jumpers quite like mine – or quite so many of them. I had hundreds. For the most part, I designed them myself and made sure that I had them for all occasions – featuring hearts for Valentine’s Day, bunnies for Easter, daffodils for St David’s Day, Shakespeare on his birthday, Winnie the Pooh on mine, stars and stripes on 4 July… I had at least one different jumper for every day of the year. And I had them for different times of the day, too: ones featuring boiled eggs (and fried eggs) to wear at breakfast and an assortment of trompe l’oeil evening jackets for nights out on the town.
In 1990 I gave up television for politics. After a dozen years popping up on game shows like Give Us A Clue, seven years as a regular in Dictionary Corner on Countdown and three mornings a week on the sofa at Britain’s first commercial breakfast station, TV-am, I put away my bright knitwear and donned sober grey business suits instead. I became the Member of Parliament for the City of Chester. John Major was the prime minister then. Grey was the order of the day.
As a politician I assumed I could leave the jolly jumpers behind. Wrong. In my constituency, whenever I did my best to seem statesman-like, the local newspaper would come up with another old photograph of me in a fun knit with which to adorn its front page. At Westminster, I was appointed to the standing committee overseeing the legislation to privatise Britain’s railways. Leading for the opposition on the committee was John Prescott, MP. Whenever I got up to speak, he muttered in my direction: ‘Woolly jumper! Woolly jumper!’, eventually I had to point out to him that the joy of a woolly jumper is that you can take it off at will, whereas the blight of a woolly mind is that you are lumbered with it for life.
Of course, Mr Prescott got the last laugh because, in time, he became deputy prime minister and is now wrapped in ermine and seated in the House of Lords. But my jumpers had their political advantages, too. Because I was the jumper man I was visible and accountable. And I could put my jumpers to work in aid of good causes. I gave them away by the drawerful to raise money for charity. Jeffrey Archer auctioned one off for a thousand pounds.
Some of my jumpers sold rather well because the best of them were pretty classy. These were the ones specially made for me by George Hostler, who was both a wonderful teacher (the head of design at Leicester Polytechnic, now De Montfort University) and a knitwear designer of note. His other clients included Elton John and Diana, then Princess of Wales.
For a decade I wore novelty knitwear by day and night. (I even had a red-and-white-striped knitted nightgown – with knitted nightcap to match.) My wife and children wore the knitwear, too, though they were a little less loud than the outrageous ones I wore on stage when I appeared in pantomime, but they were still distinctive. I published knitting books and magazines. I judged knitting competitions. I opened knitting shows. For a few years I was director of a chain of hand-knitting wool shops. I was ‘the jumping Jack Flash of jolly jumpers’ (The Sun) and happy to be so.
And then it stopped. From the day I went into politics in 1990 until the day I came to the first photoshoot for the book Novelty Knits that I have created with my daughter, Saethryd, I wore not one of my colourful wit-knits. Even so, my jumper-wearing days were not forgotten – and, perhaps, not surprisingly. Research shows that when people watch TV, they recall 83 per cent of what they see, but only 17 per cent of what they hear. Everyone has long since forgotten anything I ever said, but quite a few still have a distant memory of what I once wore. Indeed, even today, 30 years on from my jumper-wearing heyday, I can’t walk down the street without someone asking me, ‘Where’s your jumper?’
And, happily, thanks to my new book, I now have an answer to give them. ‘Here are my jumpers,’ I can say – or at least, ‘Here are my favourites.’ The book came about because, suddenly, it seems my kind of fun jumper is back in vogue. In 2013, BBC Television beat a path to my door. They were making a documentary on the golden age of knitting and needed my input.
‘Yey!’ I cried, ‘I’m a style icon.’
‘I wouldn’t go that far, dad,’ said Saethryd. ‘Let’s just say that some folk think some of your jumpers are fun.’
‘And knitting’s cool again?’
‘Well, dad, Julia Roberts is knitting, as are Cameron Diaz and Winona Ryder.’
So knitting is cool. And fun. All I want you to know is that these jumpers were fun to create, are fun to knit and fun to wear. Best of all, they will look even better on you than they ever did on me.