Michael Cockerell has interviewed most of the great politicians and learned many of their secrets

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BOOK OF THE WEEK

UNMASKING OUR LEADERS

through Michael cockerell (Biteback £ 20, 352 pp)

When the current Prime Minister was in Eton he loved to play but didn’t always care to learn his lines.

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

Johnson responds: “As a general tactic in life, it’s often helpful 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 ‘not be able to tell the difference.’ It’s pretty revealing, isn’t it?

Michael Cockerell wrote a dissertation which also gives an overview of modern British politics. Pictured: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson

It has often been said of politicians that until prominent BBC broadcaster and documentary filmmaker Michael Cockerell introduces you, you haven’t succeeded. Andrew Marr put it this way: “I have sometimes thought that there was a system of honors in the media that worked alongside the official system. Being a guest on Desert Island Discs is the equivalent of a CBE, while This Is Your Life is chivalry.

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

Now, in this shiny new book disguised as memory but in fact as thrilling as a history of modern British politics as you will find anywhere, we can see the scale of Cockerell’s accomplishments.

It’s been at the forefront of more or less every important event in modern politics – and in the company of all the major players – so it’s richly stuffed with anecdotes and gags and as compelling as a Jack Reacher thriller, but with fewer corpses. In politics, violence can be just as deadly, but not so bloody.

Cockerell tells us about the techniques he uses to put his subjects at ease: he likes to film them looking at images of themselves in the early days because it encourages them to open up.

He has previously shown famous womanizer Alan Clark news footage from decades before his marriage to Jane, the daughter of a colonel who was just over half his age. “God, it’s me,” said Clark. “What a dreadful man and what a complete mess of a beautiful girl.”

He also likes to ask any future prime minister if he has any doubts about his ability to fulfill the role of prime minister. The answers are uniformly interesting: only Heath responds with a single word “No”. Johnson revealingly says that if you don’t have doubts or anxiety, you “probably have something terribly wrong.”

Initially, politicians hated television: Churchill called it “Tee Vee” as if it was a nasty, communicable infection, and walked straight past the cameras or put his hand on the lens. Harold Macmillan was equally hostile: “Walking into a television studio is like walking into a twentieth century torture chamber,” he said, while admitting that “we old dogs have to learn. new towers “.

Cockerell relates the fierce feuds between key members of Wilson's kitchen cabinet in one of the most mind-boggling passages of his book.  Pictured: Marcia Falkender and Harold Wilson

Cockerell accounts for the fierce feud between key members of Wilson’s kitchen cabinet in one of his book’s most mind-boggling passages. Pictured: Marcia Falkender and Harold Wilson

The Labor Prime Minister of 1964, the always cunning Harold Wilson, knew how to present a picture. He was smoking Havana cigars away from the camera, but a pipe on the television. This prevented him from gesturing towards the cameras with a closed fist, which his team said looked threatening. He would put his left hand on his cheek which showed his wedding ring, unlike Tory leader Ted Heath, who was single.

In one of the book’s most mind-boggling passages, Cockerell recounts the fierce feuds between key members of Wilson’s kitchen cabinet: on the one hand, the highly influential Marcia Falkender, and on the other his press officer. Joe Haines and LSE. academic Bernard Donoughue.

“Wilson was afraid of Marcia,” Donoughue told Cockerell. “It got tough when she attacked him. . . and he grabbed the brandy bottle. The Prime Minister was becoming ill from the stress and his personal doctor, Joe Stone, was always on call.

“Dr Stone came into my room one day,” Haines told Cockerell, “saying he was worried about the stress Marcia Falkender was causing Hiccup. He said something had to be done about it. . I said, “Joe, I tried, 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 certificate of The Spin Doctors decline the offer, appearing more worried about the headlines – “Murder at # 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 uncomfortable. When he sat down for an interview, he asked, “Do you have your usual list of boring questions? That’s a good sign, Heath’s private secretary told Cockerell. “If he’s rude to you, it means he likes you.” “

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

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

Heath won the leadership of the opposition Conservatives in 1965, defeating Enoch Powell, who invited the new leader to dinner at his house to show there was no grudge. There, Heath met the family hamster, the pet of Jennifer’s daughter Powell. She tells Cockerell: “The hamster loved Heath and sat on his lap and washed his little face. It’s the best compliment a hamster can give to a human being. . . we later realized that this was a momentary lack of judgment on the part of the hamster.

Across from the political spectrum, Labor’s Barbara Castle – the woman who for many years had a foreboding to become the first female Prime Minister – had a good appreciation of her market value on camera.

In the middle of an interview, she tells Cockerell: “You are covering so much more ground than I expected, if you want to do more you will have to increase the fees.” They did it. And it was Castle who refuted Powell’s famous doctrine that political careers end in failure. “Political careers don’t end in tears,” she told Cockerell. ‘They end in fury.’ Many modern politicians would undoubtedly agree.

Although how many would score for being Cockerelled is debatable. Cockerell seeks three main criteria: his subjects should be or have been at the top of politics; they need to know where the bodies are buried and be prepared to talk about it; and they should have a hinterland – a world beyond politics.

One character who eminently ticked all the boxes was the great Labor murderer Denis Healey, who ultimately lost to Jim “Crisis, what crisis?” Callaghan. A great 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 at the age of 98 in 2015 and has been described by David Cameron as a “great figure in post-war politics”.

Michael Cockerell – a man rarely weighed down by self-doubt – has also been an important figure in modern politics. In his films, and now this funny, gripping and utterly enlightening book, he not only reveals what our politicians really look like, but also offers a glimpse into the larger nature of the human condition.


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