MICHAEL COCKERELL's memoir is brimming with priceless indiscretions

The Tory minister who boasted of sleeping with Joan Collins: His TV interviews lay bare the secrets of our leaders. No wonder MICHAEL COCKERELL’s memoir is brimming with priceless indiscretions

On a cold, bright morning in the spring of 2013, I filmed Boris Johnson playing tennis doubles, partnering his sister Rachel against his brothers Leo and Jo.

He was wearing red shoes, black socks, below-the-knee cargo shorts and a beanie hat bearing a Union Jack. He is a take-no-prisoners player who leaps in the air to smite the ball, grunting like a gorilla.

He was pretty good – especially as he was playing with a warped wooden racquet that must have been old when Fred Perry was young. It had the advantage, though, that it despatched the ball at wildly unpredictable angles – rather like Johnson himself.

I remember talking to Brown and seeing that his fingernails had been gnawed down to the quick. I felt that he was being eaten up from the inside by his years of bileful resentment against Tony Blair, and he was eating himself up from the outside

When Jo Johnson, then a Tory MP, had to leave early, I took his place.

Boris said to me later that he was very worried about the film I was making about him.

‘Why?’ I asked.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘I kept trying to hit the ball very hard straight at you to knock your head off when you were at the net – and you were somehow getting it back. You might cut the film to make it look as if you were better than me.’

‘Perish the thought, Boris,’ I said.

His premiership so far has been like no other I’ve filmed over the years. It has been like a Netflix series penned by a scriptwriter on speed, blending Shakespeare, Monty Python and The Sopranos.

As a TV interviewee, Johnson differs from all the other politicians I have encountered on camera.

While they are endlessly concerned to ensure they do not have a hair out of place, Johnson starts an interview by ruffling his blond mop and goes on doing so.

He is also never afraid of seemingly playing the fool, most notably during his celebrated zipwire trip to promote the London Olympics.

When we replayed the video to him, he became almost hysterical with laughter as he viewed himself dangling in mid-air.

‘That was far more painful and frightening than you might think,’ Johnson said with tears of laughter in his eyes. ‘It was jolly high up, and after you were stuck up there for a while, things started to chafe.’

‘Where was it chafing?’

Working in television for over half a century, I have been lucky enough to make films about all the past 12 Prime Ministers. Pictured, Michael Cockerell

‘I don’t want to go into details,’ he said.

‘But,’ I countered, ‘in your book about the London Olympics, you said: ‘There was chafing in the groin area.’

‘Did I? Oh, right.’

‘That’s what’s so difficult about interviewing you, Boris,’ I said. ‘You can’t even recognise your own words.’

‘I can never remember what I’ve written – but if it’s in my book, it must be true.’

I always thought that Chafing In The Groin Area might be a good title for a Boris biography.

Johnson’s own last book was about his hero, Winston Churchill, whose contempt for what he described as ‘this thing they call Tee Vee’ was immense. Making it sound like a communicable sexual disease, Churchill once said: ‘Television is a tuppenny ha’penny Punch and Judy show.’

His Labour rival, Clement Attlee, agreed, believing that it would have been better if TV had never been invented. It was, he said, nothing more than an idiot’s lantern that would turn politicians into entertainers.

Surprisingly, such views were shared at the time by the BBC.

How things have changed.

Working in television for over half a century, I have been lucky enough to make films about all the past 12 Prime Ministers. I have also specialised in making candid profiles of many other politicians who never quite made it to the top of the greasy pole – including Barbara Castle, Enoch Powell, and Denis Healey, as well as the libidinous Alan Clark.

I have three criteria in choosing what some people call my ‘victims’, and I call my ‘subjects’.

They need to be or have been at the top of politics; they have to know where the bodies are buried and be prepared to talk candidly; and they have to have what Healey famously called ‘a hinterland’ – an existence beyond politics.

When I prepared a TV portrait of David Cameron, I was struck by the fact that every previous leader I had made a film about had become leader and then got themselves a spin doctor. Cameron was the ultimate identity bender: the spin doctor who became leader.

When he was still Leader of the Opposition, I asked him my favourite question that I put to seekers of the top job: do you have any doubts about your ability to fulfil the role of Prime Minister?

‘Look,’ he replied, ‘if I had major doubts, I wouldn’t have put myself forward to lead my party in the first place. You have to be absolutely ready to take the difficult and big decisions you would have to take as Prime Minister, including sending troops to war. And I decided I was ready for that.’

Of all the future Prime Ministers who answered that question, Cameron was the least self-doubting.

BY COMPARISON, when Gordon Brown finally got the job he had always craved, he was temperamentally completely unsuited for it. For much of the time he seemed swamped by the range of demands on a modern Prime Minister – there being one notable exception: the great banking crash of 2008.

About a year before Brown moved into No. 10, a very senior mandarin who had worked closely with him said to me: ‘Gordon will hate being Prime Minister, it’s everything he loathes: making quick decisions, going on daytime TV, sucking up to foreigners.’

Brown became increasingly indecisive. According to one of his top officials, he virtually never completed his red box papers and big issues would pile up.

Brown’s Chief Whip, Geoff Hoon, said: ‘Gordon wants to interfere in everything.

‘He’s temperamentally incapable of delegating responsibility. So he drives himself demented.’

About a year before Brown moved into No. 10, a very senior mandarin who had worked closely with him said to me: ‘Gordon will hate being Prime Minister, it’s everything he loathes: making quick decisions, going on daytime TV, sucking up to foreigners’

I had been seeking to make a genuine access film about Blair from almost the moment he was elected Labour leader. It took six years for him and his chief spin doctor Alastair Campbell to agree

I remember talking to Brown and seeing that his fingernails had been gnawed down to the quick.

I felt that he was being eaten up from the inside by his years of bileful resentment against Tony Blair, and he was eating himself up from the outside.

It was painful to watch.

I had been seeking to make a genuine access film about Blair from almost the moment he was elected Labour leader. It took six years for him and his chief spin doctor Alastair Campbell to agree.

We were given unprecedented access to both men and the No 10 media operation for three months. They made no prior conditions and had no editorial rights over the finished film.

As filming went on, Campbell became increasingly concerned about the decision to give us access.

‘I had the nagging feeling that letting Cockerell in was a mistake,’ wrote Campbell one week in his diary. He followed it up by saying: ‘TB [Tony Blair] is very sensitive to the possible thesis that he could not do anything without being directed – that he couldn’t cope without me.’

Probably the best spontaneous moment came when we filmed the shirt-sleeved Prime Minister coming into the smartly suited Campbell’s office in No 10, looking rather like a nervous schoolboy entering the headmaster’s study.

As Campbell put it in his diary: ‘I was behind my desk with TB looking on a bit anxiously. It looked like I was the boss and he was explaining himself, which got me worried.’

The image of Campbell as the dominant partner in the relationship with Blair was one that the impressionist Rory Bremner had already seized on. By chance, I was playing in a charity cricket match with Bremner on the day after the documentary was broadcast and he told me: ‘I’ve been studying your programme frame by frame.’

His TV sketches impersonating Blair and Campbell became deadly accurate in terms of the way they spoke and their body language.

But having filmed over three months in No 10, I got the sense that the two men each increasingly felt about the other: ‘I can’t live without him, but I can’t live with him.’

According to The Times, when Margaret Thatcher fought the 1979 General Election campaign, she had in her earlier days come across on TV ‘with all the charisma of a privet hedge’.

At first as the new Tory leader, she reacted to the sight of a TV crew almost in the manner of a superstitious tribesman faced with a white man’s camera – it was as if she thought it might somehow take her soul away.

But from the outset she was concerned not to become a casualty of the cameras and appointed as her media adviser the former TV producer and advertising man Gordon Reece. Under his guidance, she was given a complete makeover.

After leaving office, she revealed: ‘He said my hair and my clothes had to be changed and we would have to do something about my voice. It was quite an education, because I hadn’t thought about these things before.’

His advice included: ‘Avoid lots of jewellery near the face. Edges look good on television. Watch out for background colours which clash with your outfit.’

But Reece’s focus group findings showed that while many voters welcomed the strength of her free-market convictions, on television, Mrs Thatcher often came over as shrill, domineering and heartless.

He arranged for a voice coach from the National Theatre to teach her techniques to lower her pitch. One was to practise humming; the other was to keep repeating the sound ‘ngakokka’.

He told her to get as close as she could to the microphone as it would make her voice sound ‘more sexy, confidential and reasonable’.

Mrs Thatcher was determined to counter Labour’s charges that she was dogmatic and uncaring.

In an interview with me during the campaign, she assumed a kittenish persona.

I put it to her that there sometimes seemed to be two Mrs Thatchers: one toured supermarkets and factory floors, exhibiting endless fascination about the minutiae of people’s lives and jobs; the other was the platform politician, full of passionate conviction.

‘How many Mrs Thatchers are there?’ I asked.

She smiled and replied confidingly: ‘Oh, there are three at least. There is the intellectual one, the intuitive one, and there’s the one at home.’

In her last interview in 2003, she said: ‘If you are in politics, you expect to be knifed in the back. What I will never forgive is that it wasn’t by Parliament that I was thrown out. I was away in Paris signing treaties for my country for the end of the Cold War.

‘And this was after nearly 11 years when I had taken Britain from the slough of despond to the heights. I shall never forget that. I shall never forgive.’

According to The Times, when Margaret Thatcher fought the 1979 General Election campaign, she had in her earlier days come across on TV ‘with all the charisma of a privet hedge’

A decade after the first female British PM was clapped into No 10, she was clapped out.

For Ted Heath, who had scarcely spoken to her since she had defenestrated him, it meant what he himself called ‘the longest sulk in history’ – his own – was over.

I said to Heath: ‘I heard that when she fell from power, you rang your office and said ‘Rejoice! Rejoice!’

These were the famous words Mrs Thatcher had used to celebrate early progress in the Falklands.

Heath responded: ‘I said it three times – Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice! She only said it twice.’

And his shoulders heaved with laughter.

Of all the leading politicians I have made films about, the trickiest to deal with was Ted Heath.

He was a man of many moods. Sometimes when you made the pilgrimage to film him at his breathtakingly beautiful house that resembled a mini-chateau in the grounds of Salisbury Cathedral, he would be jovial and ebullient; at other times he would be in a total grump and monosyllabic in his answers.

His customary mode of greeting was to try to destabilise you before you had even started. As we sat down for one interview, he said: ‘Have you got your usual list of boring questions?’

Yes, exactly the same, I replied.

‘Oh well, we’d better get it over with.’

I thought the interview went reasonably well, and when it was finished I asked if he thought the questions had been as boring as usual.

‘Oh yes,’ he replied, ‘but infinitely more irrelevant.’

While Heath would talk fluently about the political influences on him, he was notoriously guarded about his private life. The one exception came when we arranged to film him in Broadstairs, Kent, where he was born and grew up.

He had never before talked publicly about his hometown girlfriend. She was Kay Raven, the daughter of the local doctor who went out with Heath before the Second World War and for six years waited patiently for his return from the front. Heath took up with her again after the war and his friends expected the couple to marry. But he never got round to proposing.

He claimed his second undeclared paramour was the actress Joan Collins – of whom Clark said: ‘If she is the age she says she is, she wasn’t born when we made love’

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.

He also talked so movingly about the death of his beloved mother that I felt we had crossed a barrier and when we next met he would be more forthcoming.

The opposite happened. It was as if he had decided to give me just a single glimpse – but never again.

Heath cut a lonely figure in No. 10. One of his closest acolytes, Cabinet Minister Peter Walker, told how he never left a meeting in No. 10 without a sense of sympathy, even pity, for Heath.

‘If I make a speech,’ said Walker, ‘my wife is always there to mutter, ‘Wonderful speech, darling; such a pity your fly buttons were undone.’ Ted has absolutely no one in his life to say those things.’

At the launch of his biography in London, I asked Bob Hawke, the Labour Premier of Australia, a question that I would not have put to a British Prime Minister.

I said I had heard that when he was a student at Oxford, he had a white van that he used when he dated young women – and it was called ‘the shag wagon.’ He replied: ‘Jeez, if you are in politics, you expect to be insulted! But it wasn’t called ‘the shag wagon’. We had more class than that. It was called ‘the fornicatorium.’

Boris Johnson is Britain’s 20th Old Etonian prime minister. With the school having produced a third of all the country’s PMs, the Tory Alan Clark told me that he felt his own schooling there was the perfect apprenticeship for life at the top of the Tory Party. ‘Eton was very brutal and you learned very early on about deceit and cruelty,’ he said. ‘These are essential components of politics.

‘The enjoyment of the pain of others, the sound of the tumbrils, a few people in trouble or going to be sacked or in scrapes or a bad performance or losing their ratings. I think everybody enjoys that.’

Alan Clark was the subject of one of the most jaw-dropping political profiles I ever made. A mega-rich Etonian, he had inherited a castle full of old masters and Impressionist paintings and was wealthy enough to live on what he called ‘the income on his income’. He wrote the most revealing, outrageous and painfully funny political diaries.

Clark himself revealed to me that he’d had two other love affairs which had never been made public

Clark was a notorious sexual swordsman. In my TV profile, which we called Love Tory, he talked about his serial infidelities, including one with three women – a mother and her two virgin daughters – whom he called the ‘coven’ and for which, he said, he deserved to be horse-whipped.

His persistent philandering proved too much for his long-suffering wife, Jane, who told me: ‘All his girlfriends are like bluebottles; it’s just this latest one was harder to swat.’

Explaining why she moved out of their home, Saltwood Castle, for a time, she said: ‘I wanted to teach Alan a lesson. He is impossible – absolutely dreadful half the time and I could cheerfully kill him. But I still think he’s lovely.’

Clark himself revealed to me that he’d had two other love affairs which had never been made public. ‘But,’ he added, ‘I’m telling you because they are a matter of mild historic interest.’

One was with Pamela Harriman – the aristocratic English femme fatale who bedded many of the world’s richest men and who was once married to Churchill’s son Randolph.

He claimed his second undeclared paramour was the actress Joan Collins – of whom Clark said: ‘If she is the age she says she is, she wasn’t born when we made love.’

Clark died in 1999 of a brain tumour. He left a farewell letter to his wife, describing her as ‘the sweetest, kindest, most percipient, intelligent human being I would ever encounter. A hundred times I ask myself how I could have been so cruel to you. Fool, Clark, fool. Nasty fool too.

‘What is the use of my saying you are and will always be the only true love of my life. If you should ever need me, I will, I hope, be possibly at certain known localities in the grounds of each property. Love, love, love from A xxx’

© Michael Cockerell, 2021

Unmasking Our Leaders by Michael Cockerell is published by Biteback on September 28 at £20. To order a copy for £18 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before October 3. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.

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