Michael Cockerell interviewed politicians and learned their secrets

Murder plot at No 10! Michael Cockerell interviewed most major politicians and learned many of their secrets — none so shocking as the proposal to bump off Harold Wilson’s right hand woman, Marcia Falkender

  • Michael Cockerell has penned a memoir with insight into modern British politics
  • Documentary-maker has interviewed politicians including Boris Johnson
  • Eases subjects by filming them watching footage of themselves in earlier days
  • Recounts feuding among the key members of Wilson’s kitchen cabinet



by Michael Cockerell (Biteback £20, 352 pp)

When the current Prime Minister was at Eton, he enjoyed acting but couldn’t always be bothered to learn his lines.

Performing in a Moliere comedy, he hid behind a pillar reading them out, which was probably funnier than the actual words. Knowing this, author Michael Cockerell asks Boris Johnson if he had learned a lesson about the advantage of not learning your lines.

Johnson replies: ‘As a general tactic in life, it is often useful to give the slight impression that you are deliberately pretending not to know what’s going on — because the reality may be that you don’t know what’s going on, but people won’t be able to tell the difference.’ Pretty revealing that, no?

Michael Cockerell has penned a memoir which also gives insight into modern British politics. Pictured: Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson

It has often been said of politicians that until the eminent BBC broadcaster and documentary-maker Michael Cockerell has profiled you, you haven’t made it. Andrew Marr put it this way: ‘I’ve sometimes thought there is a media honours system running in parallel to the official one. Being invited on to Desert Island Discs is the equivalent of a CBE, while This Is Your Life is a knighthood.

‘If so, to be Cockerelled, getting a full film biography, beautifully written and edited, is the Order of Merit and the Privy Council rolled into one.’

Now, in this brilliant new book masquerading as a memoir but in fact as enthralling a history of modern British politics as you will find anywhere, we can see the scale of Cockerell’s achievement.

He’s been ringside at more or less all the significant events of modern politics — and in the company of all the main players — so it is richly stuffed with anecdotes and gags and as compelling as a Jack Reacher thriller, though with fewer dead bodies. In politics the violence can be equally lethal, just not so bloody.

Cockerell lets us in on the techniques he uses to put his subjects at ease: he likes to film them watching footage of themselves in earlier days as it encourages them to open up.

He once showed the noted philanderer Alan Clark newsreel footage from decades earlier of his wedding to Jane, a colonel’s daughter who was just over half his age. ‘God that’s me,’ says Clark. ‘What a dreadful man and what a complete waste of a beautiful girl.’

He also likes to ask any would-be Prime Minister if they have any doubts about their ability to fulfil the role of PM. The replies are uniformly interesting: only Heath replies with the one word ‘No’. Johnson says revealingly that if you don’t have doubts or anxieties, you ‘probably have something terribly awry’.

Initially politicians hated television: Churchill referred to it as ‘Tee Vee’ as if it was an unpleasant and transmissible infection, and would walk straight past the cameras or put his hand over the lens. Harold Macmillan was equally hostile: ‘Coming into a television studio is like entering a 20th-century torture chamber,’ he said, though he did admit that ‘we old dogs have to learn new tricks’.

Cockerell reports on the ferocious feuding among the key members of Wilson’s kitchen cabinet in one of the most eye-watering passages in his book. Pictured: Marcia Falkender and Harold Wilson

The Labour Prime Minister from 1964, the ever wily Harold Wilson, knew how to present an image. He smoked Havana cigars away from the camera, but a pipe on television. This stopped him gesturing to cameras with his fist clenched, which his team reckoned looked threatening. He would put his left hand on his cheek which showed up his wedding ring, in contrast to the Tory leader Ted Heath, who was a bachelor.

In one of the most eye-watering passages in the book, Cockerell reports on the ferocious feuding among the key members of Wilson’s kitchen cabinet: on the one side was the hugely influential Marcia Falkender, and on the other his Press secretary Joe Haines and LSE academic Bernard Donoughue.

‘Wilson was frightened of Marcia,’ Donoughue tells Cockerell. ‘He became difficult when she was attacking him . . . and he reached for the brandy bottle.’ The PM was becoming ill with the tension, and his personal doctor, Joe Stone, was always on call.

‘Dr Stone came into my room one day,’ Haines tells Cockerell, ‘saying he was worried about the stress Marcia Falkender was causing Harold. He said something had to be done about it. I said, “Joe, I’ve tried it — he won’t get rid of her.” Then Joe Stone said: “I could dispose of her. I’m her doctor. And I would write the death certificate.” ’ The spin doctors decline the offer, seemingly more worried about the bad headlines — ‘Murder in No. 10’ — than the morality of a doctor trashing the Hippocratic Oath.

Meanwhile, Heath was an image-maker’s nightmare. He hated television and wanted to make his interrogator feel ill at ease. When he sat down for one interview, he asked: ‘Have you got your usual list of boring questions?’ That’s a good sign, Heath’s private secretary tells Cockerell. ‘If he’s rude to you it means he likes you.’

UNMASKING OUR LEADERS by Michael Cockerell (Biteback £20, 352 pp)

Heath won the Tory leadership in opposition in 1965, beating Enoch Powell, who invited the new leader to dinner at his home to show there were no hard feelings. There Heath met the family hamster, the pet of Powell’s daughter Jennifer. She tells Cockerell: ‘The hamster liked Heath and sat on his lap and washed his little face. That’s the greatest compliment a hamster can pay to a human being . . . we subsequently realised that was a momentary lapse of judgment by the hamster.’

At the opposite end of the political spectrum, Labour’s Barbara Castle — the woman tipped for many years to become the first female Prime Minister — had a keen appreciation of her market value on camera.

Halfway through an interview, she tells Cockerell: ‘You’re covering so much more ground than I thought you would, if you want to do any more then you’ll have to up the fee.’ They did. And it was Castle who refuted the famous Powell doctrine that political careers end in failure. ‘Political careers don’t end in tears,’ she tells Cockerell. ‘They end in fury.’ Many modern politicians would doubtless agree.

Though how many would make the grade to be Cockerelled is questionable. Cockerell looks for three main criteria: his subjects should be or have been at the top of politics; they should know where the bodies are buried and be prepared to talk about them; and they should have a hinterland — a world beyond politics.

One figure who eminently ticked all the boxes was the great Labour bruiser Denis Healey, who in the end lost out to Jim ‘Crisis, what crisis?’ Callaghan. A keen lover of poetry, music and photography, and a decorated war hero, Healey was still swimming 20 lengths at 96 when Cockerell interviewed him.

‘It’s not the swimming that’s the difficulty — it’s getting into the pool.’ He died aged 98 in 2015, and was described by David Cameron as a ‘huge figure of post-war politics’.

Michael Cockerell — a man rarely burdened by self-doubt — has also been an important figure in modern politics. In his films, and now this funny, riveting and utterly illuminating book, he doesn’t just reveal what our politicians are really like, but offers great insights into the wider nature of the human condition.

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