Honest John

What is the reason for John Cole's 'love affair' with politicians? Why does he believe them to be fundamentally decent? James Rampton grilled him on 50 years at Westminster

john cole is very much his own man. How else could he have got away for so many years with That Coat? Anyone else would have been collared long ago by the BBC Image Police for wearing such a naff herringbone number come rain or shine. "He didn't give a damn what the BBC types thought about it," laughs David Wilson, the producer of A Progress through Politics, Cole's appealing leaf through his scrapbook of 50 years on the political beat. Three years after retiring as the BBC's Political Editor, Cole is still wearing it as he stalks his old hunting ground of College Green and Downing Street for the documentary.

More importantly, he is still held in enormous affection by viewers. What else could explain the sale of 25,000 copies of his memoirs, As It Seemed to Me? The book has remained in the Sunday Times Top 10 Bestsellers List since it was published at the beginning of April. On promotional tours around the country, Cole has been mobbed as if he were the lead singer of Take That - albeit in a funny coat. It's enough to make you think that politics is the new rock'n'roll. Robin Oakley - his successor as the BBC's Political Editor - had an impossible act to follow. So just why is Cole still famous enough to be regularly accosted by what he calls "the green ink brigade" on the Tube? Why is he esteemed so long after he has stopped receiving the oxygen of publicity generated by almost daily television appearances?

Wilson puts it down to a rather outdated concept in both journalism and politics: "I don't want to sound too much like a form teacher, but he's transparently honest, that shines through. He's a very moral man, upright in a rather old-fashioned way. Maybe that comes from his branch of Protestantism, Presbyterianism. He isn't a table-banging Paisleyite, he's much more like Cromwell - 'I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.' He's striving to do the right thing - a 17th-century Protestant ideal."

In political interviews, Cole certainly played it straight, neither adopting the bully-boy tactics of a Paxman nor bowing and scraping a la David Frost. In one memorable exchange in the film, Cole takes issue with Geoffrey Howe over unemployment. "I was riveted," Wilson remembers. "There was John telling a former Foreign Secretary and Chancellor, 'It's just not good enough'. Geoffrey was perfectly happy afterwards because he knew where John was coming from. He wasn't just there to ambush Geoffrey. Politicians trust John. He never reveals his sources. They talk to him because he would never say where the bodies are buried."

Cole's outmoded sense of fair play even extends to the virtually unthinkable: he believes most politicians are fundamentally decent. Forrest Gump's doctor catches the prevailing mood when he says at the beginning of that film that Gump's back is "as crooked as a politician".

"I don't share the view that all politicians are crooks, as bad as estate agents, or even journalists," Cole muses down the line between book-signings and Harold Wilson obituaries last week."Most politicians come in with a sense of idealism. They make inevitable compromises - the party system imposes compromise - but most of them retain a reasonable amount of their original intention to do good. Frankly, compared to other jobs, the money and the working conditions of an MP are not such as to be terribly attractive, so I must assume they have a sense of public purpose.

"I do also find them amusing company," he continues in this unfashionable vein. "I'd prefer to be reporting the doings of politicians rather than those of City men or businessmen. Some of them are wise, too - and I don't widely use the word wisdom. Harold Wilson made many mistakes, but when you were just sitting and chatting to him about ordinary things, you were always getting sound advice. You wouldn't necessarily say that of everybody you met on the Tube. That's the reason for my love affair with the species."

Not that he's lived happily ever after with every politician. "Broadcasting is all on the record, and that's where awkwardness can come in," Cole explains. "You're asking politicans to do things they may not think are to their advantage. Gerald Kaufmann, for instance, makes his own rules about broadcasting. He doesn't like entrusting himself to soundbite-ism, to the fact that I choose 45 seconds from a 10-minute interview with him. The more suspicious want to set the agenda. Gerald can be awkward in that respect."

Mrs Thatcher could be awkward too - no surprises there - but Cole did once succeed in catching her off-guard. "The difficulty about interviewing her," he reflects, "was that she was the supreme professional. You had to work hard to get news out of her. I was once walking over to No 10 with Glyn Mathias from ITN, and he said, 'What questions are you going to ask her?' I said, 'If you ask her about the weather and I ask her about her horoscope, we'll both get the same answer: Government economic policies are working.' You had to surprise her, get under her guard. When I interviewed her after she'd announced the 1987 election, she was burying me in statistics when I saw a chink for an old man to ask a woman no longer in the first flush of youth whether this would be her last election. She replied, 'Oh no, I intend to go on and on and on.' This was not such welcome news to some of the electorate, nor to some of her younger colleagues. Kenneth Baker said in his memoirs that she regretted it."

Those are the sort of moments for which Cole will be remembered. For an apparently untelegenic older man - he's now 67 - with a wiry hairdo and bottle-bottom glasses, he had tremendous presence. His appearance with a microphone outside No 10 always guaranteed compelling viewing. This was allied to a cogency not always manifest in political reporters. In his own phrase, Cole aimed to provide "politics for grown-ups". Cole was also immune to Westminster Fever. "When things got paranoiac during Mrs Thatcher's time," Wilson says, "John always kept his feet on the ground. That's why he kept ahead of the pack in Thatcher's leadership crisis - journalistically his finest hour - because he was rooted in real politics."

We could not, of course, close this bulletin without mentioning Cole's accent, the harsh Ulster brogue so incessantly sent up by Spitting Image, Private Eye's "Hondootedly" column and countless budding impressionists. As with everything, Cole is sanguine about being a figure of fun."I don't object - that would be too strong - but I do find it ludicrous that when we're nearly in the 21st century, people around this diverse country of ours are still surprised to hear a Scots, Geordie or Irish accent rather than Received Pronunciation English."

Even on the subject of his mockers, though, Cole manages to deliver a rallying-cry for a Cromwellian sense of decency. "The Spitting Image puppets are good, and the impressions are OK, but they haven't a political thought in their heads. I don't think those guys believe in anything. It's the same with Private Eye. If you believed Private Eye's politics, you'd be looking for a guy on a white charger to ride in and rescue you. We already had him. He was called Mussolini."

'A Progress through Politics', Sun 9.10pm BBC2

Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past