10 May 2013 at 09:00
This is an extract from my new book MEMORIES OF MARGARET THATCHER, which is published this week. A new extract will appear at 9am every day this week. The book contains 215 such essays by people from all walks of life who encountered the Iron Lady. You can order a signed copy of the book HERE
By Michael Cockerell
The death of Britain’s first woman prime minister received what might be called Thatcheration coverage across all media – print, digital and electronic. But relatively little attention focused on how she learned to use television to become the country’s first and most formidable small-screen premier.
In the early days as leader it was not like that at all. According to ‘The Times’, she came over on TV ‘with all the charisma of a privet hedge’. I interviewed her on the night in 1975 when she won the leadership and she seemed as fragile as porcelain as she said: ‘It is like a dream – to follow in the footsteps of the great Winston, of Harold Macmillan and of Ted Heath. I almost wept when they told me – in fact I did weep’. She bit her lip and her eyes glistened.
From the outset Mrs Thatcher was concerned not to become a casualty of the cameras. She knew that her predecessor Ted Heath’s unappealing TV manner had helped bring him down. And the new leader would react to the sight of a TV crew almost in the manner of a primitive tribesman faced with a white man’s camera – it was as if she thought it might somehow take her soul away.
But she appointed as her television adviser advice a colourful character called Gordon Reece. He was a diminutive former TV producer, who looked rather like Ronnie Corbett. He ran on champagne and smoked huge Havana cigars. Mrs T later knighted him for services to her TV image.
Under his tutelage, she underwent a complete makeover in her appearance for television.
At the time she played down Reece’s contribution. When I asked Mrs T in 1979 how important he was to her, she responded wide-eyed: ‘Gordon Reece? Do you know I think he comes to me for advice not the other way round. And it’s always been that way’.
Mrs T was being economical with the actualite. After she left office, Lady Thatcher was more candid: ‘Gordon was absolutely terrific. 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. He was a real professional’.
And she quoted specific advise Reece had given her about what she should wear for TV: ‘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 told him that while many voters welcomed the strength of her free-market convictions, on television she often came over as shrill, domineering and uncaring. Specifically Mrs Thatcher’s voice put people off – it was perceived as too high pitched.
Reece 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 word ‘ngakokka’. When I asked about her new voice, she said: ‘when you ask me a question, I say to myself think low’. I wasn’t sure whether or not that was a comment on my interview technique.
Reece also taught her was to stop worrying and love the boom microphone. He told her that recorded snippets of her conversation could make her sound more down-to-earth and in touch with voters. In later years she could never see a microphone without offering some seemingly spontaneous comments to people she met -whether it was another political leader or someone in a factory or hospital – knowing that TV people cannot resist ‘natural sound’.
But there were some things Mrs Thatcher would never say on camera. I filmed her when she visited the British Embassy in the States in the late seventies. Peter Jay who was then our man in Washington asked: ‘what would you like to drink?’ She made no reply but out of sight of the camera wrote a brief note to the Ambassador. Later I discovered it read: ‘Whisky and soda’. She was certainly not going to be filmed asking for one still less drinking it.
Reece also arranged for Mrs Thatcher to appear on TV programmes that were outside the political leader’s usual round of current affairs and news – like ‘Jim’ll Fix It’, starring the late and unlamented Jimmy Savile. When Tory critics claimed her appearance on the programme was demeaning, Reece responded: ‘Rubbish. I simply encourage her to appear everywhere she can to the best advantage. It’s the most ludicrous intellectual snobbery to say that a politician shouldn’t appear on general interest programmes because the viewers are supposed to be on a lower level of humanity than the people who watch ‘Panorama’. They have votes too and if she talked down to them they would soon rumble her.’
Mrs T had become very media savvy as I saw when I filmed behind the scenes during her 1979 general election campaign. Reece had introduced the photo opportunity, beloved of American presidential hopefuls, into British elections. Until 1979 no previous aspirant to Number 1O had given an election campaign press conference clutching a two-day old calf in a meadow.
When I asked her about it at the time, she said: ‘The press said they did not want a picture of me with a load of bullocks. There was this tiny calf. The photographers have their job to do and I am very conscious of that.’
In the campaign Mrs Thatcher was determined to counter Labour’s charges that she was dogmatic and uncaring. In an interview with me, 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 zealous 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.’
Her voice was so low and breathy, her manner so intimate – even coquettish – that the late Sir Robin Day, watching in the studio when the filmed interview went out, joked: ‘the untold story of the election campaign: Margaret Thatcher is having an affair with Michael Cockerell’.
As a schoolgirl, Margaret Thatcher has wanted to become an actress. And as Prime Minister she was to play many different roles on television: Iron Lady, tearful mother, simple housewife, world statesman and war leader.
A favoured method of getting herself across was the big set-piece TV interview. The PM had different ways of dealing with interviewers. Some she coated with honey – while she would bite the heads of others. As she put it: ‘this animal if attacked defends itself. So when I come up against somebody who is out to do a very belligerent interview, I say to myself: By God, anything you can do I can do better — and I’m belligerent back’.
By her own admission she would become very nervous before a high-profile TV appearance – and the tension inside Number 10 was palpable. When I asked Mrs Thatcher what she thought about big set-piece TV interviews, she replied: ‘I hate them, I hate them, I hate them.’
The PM would rehearse for interviews with her blunt Yorkshire press secretary Bernard Ingham, who pulled no punches in playing the part of the interviewer. One time, as Sir Robin Day set off for one of his major Panorama interviews with Mrs T in Downing Street, he said to me : ‘why don’t I start the interview “Prime Minister, what’s your answer to my first question?”’ Sir Robin felt he knew that whatever he asked her she would come up with the soundbites she had prepared earlier. But sadly, despite my prompting, he never did begin an interview in that way.
In 1984 Margaret Thatcher became the first prime minister to agree to appear on a chat show. The timing was no coincidence. The miners’ strike was at its height. Although the opinion polls showed that a large majority of people blamed Arthur Scargill for the violent confrontations with police that dominated the TV screens, the attacks on Mrs Thatcher as dictatorial and callous were getting through. She and her advisers calculated that she would benefit from appearing on a programme that showed her human face.
Michael Aspel asked whether both living and working at Number 10, she ever got the chance to relax. The grocer’s daughter replied: ‘I started life living above the shop. Do I ever relax? No, I am always on the job’. The studio audience fell about with laughter. Mrs Thatcher beamed with pleasure at the audience response without ever seeming to have understood what she had said.
Some time later I reminded the PM that when I had first filmed her as leader the TV cameras seemed to fill her with dread and she wished they would go away. ‘Over the years’, she replied, ‘I’ve learned that what you people want is a positive answer and that is what I always give you’. And in a way she always did – even when she was saying ‘no, no, no”.
The last time I interviewed Mrs Thatcher as Prime Minister was when she was celebrating her tenth anniversary in Number Ten. It was a pretty surreal experience. She talked to me looking into the middle distance almost as if she were Joan of Arc, hearing voices.
I had earlier asked Willie Whitelaw, her recently retired deputy PM, how long he felt Mrs Thatcher would continue in office: ‘Oh, she is very fit, very strong. I hope she’ll go on for a very long time’, he replied. ‘But she is not immortal’, I’d ventured to suggest. ‘No she is not immortal’, responded Whitelaw, then added, ‘but perhaps she is’. In Number Ten, I recounted this exchange on camera to Mrs T. Reviewing the tape today is revealing.
On freezing the frame at exactly the moment she hears my intimation of her mortality, a remarkable look comes over her face for an instant: an apparent mix of alarm and blinding revelation. Within a few frames it is gone and she recovers her composure when I tell her that Whitelaw has said perhaps she was immortal: ‘What a sweet thing of Willie to say – no, I am not immortal and I don’t know how long I will go on – and no-one does.’
The next year she was gone from Number 10. Her departure left a huge hole for political journalists. Once you had Margaret Thatcher in your viewfinder she rarely failed to produce riveting images and powerful quotes. The modern media which in any case tends to magnify personalities had for the fifteen years of her Tory leadership been faced with a giant-sized one. Disraeli, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill became Prime Ministers before the age of television. Happily the late Lady Thatcher did not.