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Unmasking Our Leaders: Confessions of a Political Documentary-Maker by Michael Cockerell

Short of a Christmas present for a friend who is interested in politics? Buy this book.

Michael Cockerell, born in 1940, has asked nine of our leaders, beginning with Harold Wilson,

“Do you have any doubts about your ability to fulfil the role of Prime Minister?”

A simple but brilliant question, for the respondent is in danger of avoiding insufferable arrogance by veering into the admission of inadequacy.

Edward Heath just said: “No.”

Boris Johnson, at the time Mayor of London, replied:

“I think people who don’t have doubts or anxieties about their ability to do things probably have something terrifyingly awry. You know, we all have worries and insecurities. And I think it’s a very tough job being Prime Minister. Obviously, if the ball were to come loose from the back of a scrum – which it won’t – it would be a great, great thing to have a crack at.”

Cockerell had induced Johnson to go further than ever before, and the bit about the ball coming lose from the scrum became a big story.

How does one encourage a politician, or indeed anyone else, to reveal bit more of themselves? A contradictory set of qualities is required.

Many political interviews are sterile because the interviewer has an agenda; wishes to be regarded by colleagues, and also by viewers and listeners, as a noble seeker after truth, never afraid to pose the tough, newsworthy questions.

The interviewee has a different agenda; is determined to stick to the line previously agreed with colleagues, and to give no hint of frailty or division.

These two agendas seldom bring out the best in each other. Self-righteous stridency intensifies official obduracy, which in turn provokes greater stridency.

How is the interviewer to handle a politician who has decided exactly what to say, regardless of what he or she may be asked? Cockerell recalls,

“On one occasion, as Sir Robin Day set off for one of his major Panorama interviews with Mrs Thatcher, he said to me: ‘Why don’t I start the interview, “Prime Minister, what’s your answer to my first question?”‘”

Wit helps, and so does a kind of sympathy with the subject. If one simply belabours a politician, one is unlikely to understand much about them, or to receive much in the way of confidences.

Cockerell is mischievous, and his programmes are so enjoyable to watch because he sees that politics is often a theatre of the absurd, but he also has a kind of fellow-feeling with his subjects.

Heath could be wonderfully rude. On one occasion he asked Cockerell, “do you have any training at all for this?” Cockerell arranged to interview him in Broadstairs, where Heath was born and brought up.

Rather unusually, Heath was in a good mood: “Smell that air – wonderful isn’t it – the best in the world,” he says as he steps from his car. Cockerell goes on:

“He had never before talked publicly about his girlfriend from Broadstairs. She was Kay Raven, the daughter of the local doctor, who went out with Heath before the war and for six years waited patiently for his return from the front. Heath did take up with her again after the war and his friends expected the couple to marry. But he never got round to proposing. Why was that? I asked. ‘She decided she would marry someone else, but I don’t discuss these things,’ said Heath.

“‘Did you get over it?’

“‘Yes.’

“‘It was said you kept her photograph by your bed.’

“‘Yes.’

“‘Did you?’

“‘Yes,’ and Heath looked away, as if he was close to tears.”

This goes a long way beyond conventional political interviewing, as do all Cockerell’s documentaries. He wants in each of them to find the person as well as the politician.

But this book also works as a survey, delightfully brief and unportentous, of our politics since the 1960s: a sort of “greatest hits” compilation, and none the worse for that.

There is always a temptation to regard the embarrassments of the present day as the most dreadful we have ever had to endure.

“The worst since the Second World War” and “the worst since Suez” are two phrases indispensable in the reporting of any diplomatic setback.

And the present Prime Minister’s failings are quite frequently discussed, by his critics, as if these eclipse the failings of any previous holder of the post, and public life has fallen to the lowest level ever known.

Cockerell reminds us that after Harold Wilson called the 1970 general election, he appeared on a BBC TV programme, Election Forum, which had solicited questions from viewers, and Robin Day began the programme by saying:

“This question represents an angry theme running through many of these cards. In view of your past record of lies and broken promises, do you really expect the electorate to place any reliance on your word?”

Wilson’s Press Secretary, Joe Haines, suspected BBC dirty tricks, for the studio was “intolerably hot”, which meant sweat was pouring down Wilson’s face and he seemed untrustworthy, whereas the studio had been so cold for his opponent, Edward Heath, the floor manager had to send out for a cardigan.

Lies, or alleged lies, are by no means a new feature of British politics, nor is suspicion of the BBC.

In the “hysterical era” of the late 1960s, “all kinds of lurid rumours about conspiracies against Wilson were circulating, many involving high public figures such as Lord Mountbatten”.

Cockerell gives an enjoyable account of the 1975 referendum on whether Britain should stay in Europe. The big money, some of it supplied by the European Commission, favoured staying in, so Cockerell asked Alistair McAlpine, Treasurer of the Yes campaign, who ran things from a top-secret headquarters in the Dorchester Hotel, whether his lot were in danger of being seen as fat cats who wanted to stay in Europe.

“We were the fat cats,” McAlpine said. “But we were the intelligent cats.”

McAlpine explained how they set out “to depict the anti-Marketeers” – figures such as Enoch Powell, Tony Benn and Dr Ian Paisley – “as unreliable people, dangerous people who would lead you down the wrong path.”

David Cameron remarks that because of what Europe was doing to his party, “Not once during 11 years as Conservative leader did I feel secure for any length of time.”

This sense of transience ought to be felt by every Prime Minister. We have the right to throw the rascals out at any moment of our choosing.

But not, one hopes, before their oddities have been recorded by Cockerell.