CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: Gyles gives a Austen tour to write home about

CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews last night’s TV: Gyles the Austen maestro gives us a literary tour to write home about

In Jane Austen’s Footsteps With Gyles Brandreth 


This Is My House 


Life wasn’t so different a couple of hundred years ago. Sunseekers rushed to the beach on the first warm day in spring — and because bathing costumes hadn’t been invented, they all went skinny-dipping.

There were riots on the streets of Bristol, then as now, with mounted charges to control a mob intent on burning carriages and kicking in windows.

And the older generation complained it was becoming impossible to hold a conversation with a young person, because they all had their noses buried in some new-fangled device, reading instead of talking.

The smartphone of the day was called a ‘novel’ and, as Gyles Brandreth declared with his usual bustling enthusiasm on In Jane Austen’s Footsteps (C5), it caused quite a moral panic.

Jane’s first full-length story, Northanger Abbey, was a send-up of the craze, and of fears that readers’ minds would be so addled by the racy narratives that they’d lose the power to distinguish fiction from reality.

Gyles is as amiable and delightfully flighty in person as on TV, and friends might say that distinguishing fiction from reality has never been one of his stronger points.

Gyles Brandreth (pictured right) explores works of Austen during In Jane Austen’s Footsteps

He certainly indulged the rich fantasy here, dressing up in a high starched collar and a cutaway coat to play manly Mr Darcy, and paying a visit to the excitable Mrs Bennet in Pride And Prejudice.

Then he dashed off to the seaside at Lyme Regis, where scenes in Austen’s Persuasion are set.

Thank goodness this was filmed in November and it was too cold and choppy for skinny-dipping.

There was endless frivolity. At the Pump Rooms in Bath, Gyles sipped the spa waters and tried balancing a shelled walnut on his head — said in Georgian times to be a cure for hysteria.

But moments of true educational interest crept in, too. At the church in Steventon, Hampshire, where Jane’s father was rector, we saw the blank marriage certificate that a 12-year-old Jane filled out with names of imaginary characters.

And in the house in Chawton where she wrote most of her novels, her tiny writing table still stands — barely big enough for a teacup.

It was a charming little tour, the first in a series that will also take Gyles in search of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy.

Pictured: This is My House panel includes Judi Love, Jamali Maddix, Bill Bailey. The panel also include barrister Robert Rinder, television presenter Stacey Dooley and actor Emily Atack

If the show is a hit, as it should be, our beaming, bumptious guide has unlimited scope for more: visiting the cathedrals of Anthony Trollope, for instance, or swanning round Bloomsbury in an Edwardian gown like Virginia Woolf.

He was assisted by historians and devotees, though it’s slightly tiresome that no show these days is considered complete without a contribution from a pair of comedians — in this case, Katy Brand and David Baddiel.

And the stand-ups have free rein on This Is My House (BBC1), where Bill Bailey, Judi Love and Jamali Maddix have hit their stride in this thoroughly entertaining format.

The panel also includes actress Emily Atack, and this time they were joined by the acerbic Rob Rinder.

Rob, a barrister, fancies himself as an incisive questioner and was brimming with pompous tips on how to spot the liars — as three actors pretended they each owned a manor house near Luton.

In a silly twist, the chap who hoodwinked everyone last week was back again . . . and just as convincing.

People have become celebrities with far less exposure than this, and ‘Michael’ is now a bona fide star.

Expect to see him on Would I Lie To You? and all stations west, perhaps culminating in the I’m A Celebrity camp this autumn. By then, we might have learned his real name.

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