When I first moved to England in 1968 I couldn’t wait to meet the ultimate Englishman. He would be a cross between Sherlock Holmes and a university don, and he’d be wearing an old tweed jacket with a leather patch at the elbow, baggy trousers and maybe even mismatched socks. He would be a comfortable kind of man – a sort of loveable shaggy dog. Perhaps a bit eccentric but someone you could depend on.
I found him soon enough – on stage in a West End production of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound. His name was Richard Briers and he was a dead ringer for the man in my English daydreams. I kept a sharp look-out for other men like Briers during the next few days, and I saw a few here and there – tending their back garden, walking the dog or following obediently behind the wife busily filling a Sainsbury trolley.
My stereotype was ticking over nicely until a week later when we went to the National Theatre to see the all-male production of As You Like It. It was the last night, and somehow we wound up sitting in the first row. It didn’t take me long to notice the half-naked body of the actor playing Orlando. Jeremy Brett was tall, well-built and very good looking. Very. Somehow I couldn’t imagine him wearing a worn tweed jacket and baggy pants.
I was confused. All of a sudden I found myself loving colourful shirts, cravats, flared trousers and battledress jackets and looking twice at the Jeremy Bretts who wore them. I spent a lot of time at the National Theatre that next year, and then I remember seeing him on telly playing Lord Byron. I was impressed.
I wasn’t the only one who had picked out Jeremy Brett as a fashionable, romantic figure. In 1970, mannequin-maker Adele Rootstein, who had already made window dummies of Donyale Luna, Twiggy and Lady Jacqueline Rufus Isaacs, decided Brett had the right look for today. She convinced him to model, and now there are life-size copies of Brett in shop windows all over the world. He represents “modern man” in the Bath Museum.
I decided to go meet my two Englishmen to see if they really are like I’ve visualised them all these years. Richard Briers met me wearing a blue and white striped shirt vaguely tucked into plaid trousers. The pocket of his grey cardigan was stuffed with a pipe and what looked like about 12 Kleenexes. I couldn’t see if his socks matched.
“I’ve kept pretty old-fashioned,” he explains, drawing an imaginary square in the air. “I can’t stand trousers flapping around the ankles. I had to wear them for a part once and that was awful. I like to be comfortable.” He favours Hush Puppies because they don’t make any noise.
“I guess I’m very English. What I mean is, I’m sloppy. I’ve always wanted to get up in the morning, zip myself in and go. I usually reach for the nearest thing. Clothes are to cover yourself in. I can’t get involved with them.
“I buy them only when I absolutely have to. Right now I need a dark blue mac. I lost the last one. In fact, I lose three a year.” He replaces them at Burtons and goes to Marks and Spencer for shirts “because I need ones that will cover a middle-age spread.” He stops eating his BBC canteen salad and looks down irritatedly at his bulging waist. “I must go on a diet,” he tells himself.
In real life as on stage Briers is a friendly, homely kind of person. So it didn’t seem even slightly odd when he opened a jam jar at the table and offered me some apple chutney. “Here, try some of this. It’s home made.” I thought for an instant he’d taken to heart the self-sufficiency theme he’s been promoting in his current TV series The Good Life. “No, I didn’t make it. A friend brought it in this morning so I thought I’d open it for lunch.
“My wife wants me to smarten myself up so I try to make a conscious effort. I could put on the smartest suit and in 20 minutes… Also, I have no sense of colour. I can’t seem to put an outfit together.” Around the house he says he usually wears old trousers, a plain shirt and a V-neck sweater. Just as I had imagined. He even admits to having an old tweed jacket, but without elbow patches.
But wait a minute. He begins telling me about his favourite outfit. “I wore it in a show and bought it at a reduced rate. It’s very useful and easy to clean. I wear it to rehearsal or when we go out.” What is it? A biscuit-coloured safari suit.
Jeremy Brett surprised me even more. I expected him to open his front door wearing a patterned silk shirt and knotted cravat – my idea of what the well-dressed man wears around the house. Instead he had on a green cashmere pullover and black velvet trousers.
Brett quickly dispelled my idea that he’s a walking fashion plate. “This is usually what I wear around,” he explains. “I’ll buy a couple pair of trousers, three pullovers and four shirts once a year.” Like Briers, he doesn’t want to invest a lot of money and effort on clothes. But somehow the end result is a lot different.
“What I like to do is open the cupboard and invent. But my selection is usually limited because most of my sweaters have holes at the elbow. If I find something I like I’ll flog it to death. You know, I still have my first suit I got when I was 17 and things like my father’s riding breeches. If you can just have a tiny little bit of flair you don’t really have to dress up.”
The one fashion item that really appeals to Brett are platform shoes. “I fall about and hit my head on doors (he’s 6ft. 1in. without them), but they’re fun. I have three brothers and now suddenly I’m the tallest.” He walks around the sitting room a bit shyly to demonstrate.
“I don’t like being a show-off,” he says. “I’m so bored with being a handsome something or other. For ages I didn’t mind being a glamour figure, but thank god I’m getting older (he’s 41).”
But he grudgingly admits, “Everything that’s an asset is useful,” which explains why he takes pains with his appearance when he thinks people will notice. “The least I can do is wear clothes I have well and not stuff 16 Kleenexes down one pocket.” There’s the difference. Kleenexes.
“I’ll invariably wear what I can see. All the things I hate are in the back of the wardrobe, and all the things with holes in them are stuffed in a dresser.” He mourns briefly over the two black cashmere pullovers he recently relegated to the dresser.