The Annual Dinner of the Conservative Foreign & Commonwealth Council (CFCC) took place on October 30th at Franco’s in Jermyn Street SW1 for a talk and signing of his book ‘Unmasking Our Leaders - Confessions of a Political Documentary-Maker’ by Michael Cockerell. Lord Howell of Guildford, Patron of the CFCC, introduced Michael Cockerell; Gordon Tolland, Vice President gave the vote of thanks to the Speaker and Peter Friedmann thanked Bruno Giorgio for supplying the wines and other Italian delicacies as well as giving thanks to Jason, the Manager of Franco’s.
In introducing Michael Cockerell, Lord Howell, who himself served under many of the ten Prime Ministers ‘unmasked’ by Michael Cockerell over 60 years, described him as the ‘Prince of the Fourth Estate.’ He reflected on the detail of what unmasking can reveal giving as an example how Angus Maude (a colleague during his early days in Parliament) advised Ted Heath to split The Treasury into two. His son, Francis Maude, when a Treasury Minister in the government under David Cameron, had the opportunity to carry out his father’s suggestions but today it remains, of course, as before.
Michael Cockerell referred to Lord Howell as ‘the unsung living hero of the past 60 years having served under so many prime ministers and undertaking such a wide portfolio of ministerial positions - and still unmasked.” There is only one other who can match this record (Ken Clarke?)
Drawing off his highly amusing ‘confessional’ book, Michael galloped through British politics over the past 60 years ranging from his wife’s grandfather, Harold Macmillan, to the present- delighting the 50 CFCC Members present and inciting many questions. The anecdotes and quotes - and many others - can all be found in the book.
We learned, from his very special interview approach of ‘scratching the lacquer off spin’, that John Major has a great sense of humour and is not at all the ‘grey man’ as depicted on the Muppet Show; that Churchill, who publicly hated the very idea of Television interviews kept a secret TV screen test format which he would later order to be destroyed. Harold Macmillan gazed at his looks through windows ensuring that to maintain his image as SuperMac he did not appear as a skeleton. Then there was Harold Wilson who remade his image recognising that Television was good for the Labour Party and he could be presented as ‘an ordinary chap’ - cigars giving way to the pipe. The extent of Heath’s rudeness depended on the respect he had for one - the ruder the better. On the whole, he had charm but it was exhibited only occasionally.
Roy Jenkins, although never a PM, (and Michael Cockerell has made many programmes on interesting persons who probably should have made it to the premiership) when asked in interview about the effects on unity within the Labour Party and the Cabinet after Wilson had suspended collective responsibility and allowed Ministers to campaign against each other in the 1975 Common Market Referendum, said to much merriment amongst those televising him. ‘I hope this whole weferendum campaign can be conducted without any wancour on either side.
Thatcher had problems with the pitch of her voice and employed her media adviser Gordon Reece to arrange with voice coaches to have it lowered. This was successfully achieved (and much else to make her media savvy) so much so that when Michael Cockerell asked her in a pre-election interview how many Margaret Thatchers there were she responded by saying that there were three; the third she said in a low, flirtatious, intimate voice was ‘a home one’. ‘The interview went out live with Robin Day, the presenter, remarking ‘the untold story of the election campaign: Margaret Thatcher is having an affair with Michael Cockerell’.
In his first comment on Tony Blair during the 1982 election when the latter was standing for Beaconsfield, he described TB as ‘the kind of young man matrons would like to escort their daughters’.
Observations of Boris Johnson when interviewing him after having shown him films of his younger days are that he never remembers what he has said previously, never learns his lines and often gives the impression that he does not know what is going on.
Another interview-interesting government minister during the Thatcher era was the notorious Alan Clark. When asked about his Eton education Clark responded that Eton was ‘very brutal and you learned very early on about deceit and cruelty. These are essential components of politics. The enjoyment of pain of others …..’
The questions that followed covered a variety of people and topics with many more that could have been asked but could not be through lack of time. These include
- Robin Day
- Peter Mandelson
- Rishi Sunak.
On the BBC, Michael Cockerell does not believe it is biased. Regarding his own politics, he claimed that even he doesn't know how he votes as he purposely never looks where he is putting his cross on the ballot paper.
His career has been fascinating and his book is immensely readable.
Thanks to Melissa Crawshay for organising and securing the perfect speaker for CFCC’s annual dinner - a brilliant and enjoyable event.