HOW WE MET

JANET BROWN AND SIR BERNARD INGHAM
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Janet Brown, 68, was born near Glasgow. She became an actress at 14 and shot to fame in 1975 as the first to mimic Margaret Thatcher when she became leader of the Conservatives. She is currently touring the UK in Charles Dickens's Hard Times. Widowed with one son, she lives in Sussex. Sir Bernard Ingham, 64, was born in Yorkshire. He served as press secretary to Barbara Castle, Lord Carrington and Tony Benn and as chief press secretary to Margaret Thatcher. He is now a columnist and broadcaster and has his own PR firm. Married with a son, he lives in Surrey

JANET BROWN: I first saw Bernard on television. It must have been in 1990, when the knives were out for Mrs Thatcher. She'd gone to Paris to sign papers and was about to make some remarks before coming back to this country, along the lines of, "I'm coming back and I'll fight." Bernard appeared at her shoulder and pushed somebody out of the way. I thought, "Oh I say, what kind of character is that?"

Then I was asked to make a speech at a hotel in Harrogate, for Yorkshire Wildlife. I discovered Bernard was giving a speech too. There were drinks before dinner, and we were introduced. He was being jolly and chatty and said, "I expect you're going to say something about me." Because of his aggressive image, I felt quite hostile, and said, "I don't know that I am saying anything at all about you." Then we sat next to each other at dinner and we started to talk and laugh and we never stopped. I found he had an enormous respect for women in business or politics or whatever, and I thought, "What a contrast from what I thought he was about." He said to me, "When you're back in town, we'll have lunch one day." I really enjoyed his company and thought that would be nice.

Before we got up to make our respective speeches, I told Bernard that I'd been invited down to Chequers one Sunday after I'd come back from the Falklands, where I'd been entertaining the forces. I had a lovely time with Mrs Thatcher and Denis, who was charming and a very good host. It was late in the afternoon. I said that I must go, and Denis said, "No, no, you must stop and have a bite of gin." I related this story to Bernard and he burst out laughing and said, "I haven't heard that line before - a bite of gin!" He made a little note and when he got up to make his speech, he included it in his lines. He'd told me that his speech was about serious issues, but he was so funny. When he sat down I said, "Well if that's a straight speech, I'd hate to follow a funny one."

When I went home, I thought, "Right, if we're going to have lunch, I want to know more about you." So I went out and bought Bernard's book, Kill the Messenger, and also Robert Harris's unauthorised biography. A couple of things stuck with me and I formed a pretty good picture of Bernard. In his earlier days, when friends of his got married and he had no money to buy them a wedding gift, he dug over the whole garden for them. I thought, "What a super thing to do - something from the heart." The other thing was that during the Falklands crisis, when there was an awful lot going on, his wife Nancy was very ill. He went to see her every day in hospital, but he also managed to be there for Margaret Thatcher. No matter what, he was still at work at 6.30am or 7am. I thought, "The stamina this man must have!" The third thing that I was interested in was his work with Tony Benn and for Barbara Castle - his loyalty was given to whoever he worked for.

Bernard is a very straight, honest character. There is not a lot of side with Bernard and I hope there isn't with me. I like the fact that we've both come from plainish working-class backgrounds - that's a strong meeting point. I always tease him because, when I took him to The Ivy, instead of choosing something very ritzy, he ordered fish and chips. We laugh a lot - our sense of humour is another meeting point. We discuss politics, we have chats about all sorts of things. I relate stories about speeches I've given as Margaret Thatcher at conferences, and he'll tell me something funny about his travels on the QE2 and we'll sit and roar.

Bernard has innate good manners. Whenever we've had lunch, he always gets up from the table, always comes outside with me, always gets my taxi and sees me into it. I think that's really charming, without being smarmy in any way. Not everyone does that, they say goodbye to you at the table and don't follow it through.

We don't meet a lot - two or three times in the year - but we have a lot of fun when we do. When we last met for lunch, I was surprised to see he's lost over two stone. He had a health thing that bothered him and he'd gone to be checked out and discovered that he was much more overweight than he wanted to be. He enjoys his whisky, but he decided to cut out alcohol and lose weight, and he did it and looks very good on it. That's an example of his tremendous discipline. Normally he would have been having a whisky and another whisky, while I piled mineral water into my glass - I'm teetotal. I've now got a companion who drinks mineral water, and we still laugh.

SIR BERNARD INGHAM: We met several years ago. We were speaking for the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's dinner in the Royal Hotel, Harrogate. I have serious doubts about appearing with luvvies. I think public entertainers should appear alone and more curious people like myself who are half and half, in the sense that they have to entertain, to make a speech interesting after dinner, should also appear on their own. I was apprehensive that I was appearing with this clearly very clever woman who might concoct something to have a go at me.

I spoke first and did my usual routine about what life was like with Mrs Thatcher. Then Janet did her talk and impressions of Mrs Thatcher, and it went down extremely well. Janet didn't make me feel out of place, as some people do. Indeed, I thought she was entirely untypical of the thespian fraternity and that is what warmed me to her. She seemed to be a genuine person - she doesn't have any side at all. I thought how astonishingly normal this person was after a life spent on the stage.

After that dinner, Janet took the initiative and rang me up and said, "Come and have lunch and talk, I so enjoyed your company." I said, "Absolutely fine." Over lunch, Janet told me that she had had reservations about appearing at the dinner with me, too. She didn't think she'd like it and she didn't think she'd like me. I don't understand why - probably my reputation.

We've been to all sorts of places for lunch. We once went to The Ivy, I've taken her to the Savoy Grill and The Reform Club. Janet is a vivacious woman, but she doesn't overwhelm you at all. She likes a good laugh and so do I. We don't meet very often, because it's difficult when she isn't in London. I haven't met her son and I never met her daughter either - sadly, she is dead now.

Janet was born in Scotland and was from a working-class home and came up the hard way. I think we get on so well because there is a common background, and we have a common link which is Margaret Thatcher - she impersonates her, I worked for her. We both have a fairly reliable eye for the absurd, the silly, the ironic and the funny, and we bat across the table what we think about things. We talk about Margaret Thatcher; and about the state of Britain very often - and exhibit all our prejudices! I find out what's going on in the theatrical world, what's she's thinking, what she hears people saying about politics - all of which is very interesting to me. I tell her anecdotes about Number 10, which help her in her future interpretations. It's a very social occasion, no business attached to it, just jolly good talk.

Janet is an extraordinary person, but she's a very ordinary person to get on with. She has a farm in Sussex, but of course when she's on tour she has to live in hotels. It isn't an extravagant lifestyle, far from it. The other thing I would say about her is that she is resilient. Having lost her husband and her daughter and carrying on working in her later sixties, she's obviously a pretty resilient person.

Janet is enormously talented as an actress and an impressionist. She has Margaret Thatcher to a T. She really does get the hauteur very well, and the eyes, the voice, the handbag. In a sense, she's built for it, because she's not a dissimilar build from Margaret Thatcher, although I think Janet is tinier. I would guess that Janet's got it so right because perhaps she has some - not all, but some - sympathy with the character.

Janet Brown's Margaret Thatcher is entirely credible, just as Private Eye's Denis Thatcher is entirely credible. I'm only glad Janet's never rung me up and put on the voice to catch me out. Over lunch, she tries little bits out when I provoke her into some extreme impression of Mrs Thatcher. We don't laugh at Mrs Thatcher's expense - I think we rather laugh with her, in so far as it is possible to laugh with Mrs Thatcher, who doesn't have a great sense of humour.

I think politicians enjoy being imitated, providing it isn't viciously cruel. My impression is that Mrs Thatcher rather enjoyed being impersonated by this extremely clever woman who wasn't in the business of laughing at her, looking down at her or being critical, but just having a good laugh. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, isn't it?

Mrs Thatcher hasn't commented a great deal on my friendship with Janet. Sometimes I've said, "I'm going to have lunch with your alter ego," and she'll say, "Oh really," but I don't talk a lot about it to people. Why should I? Everyone would just make fun of me for having lunch with Margaret Thatcher's impersonator. !

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