How we met: Michael Portillo; Laurence Marks

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The Independent Culture
Tory MP Michael Portillo, 46, was born in London and lives there still, with his wife, Carolyn. As a member of John Major's cabinet, he was first Secretary of State for Employment, and then for Defence. After losing his seat in the 1997 general election, he has just made a triumphant return to politics, after being elected to be the Member for Kensington and Chelsea

Writer Laurence Marks, 50, was born in Islington, north London. Together with Maurice Gran, he created the comedies 'The New Statesman' and 'Birds of a Feather'. The pair received Baftas in 1992 and 1997. Their new comedy-drama, 'Dirty Work', will be shown on BBC1 early next year. Laurence lives in Oxfordshire with his wife, Brigitte

MICHAEL PORTILLO: I first encountered Laurence when I called at his house in Southgate to canvass him for the 1984 by-election. Then towards the summer of the following year he was beginning to put together The New Statesman with Maurice [Gran]. He wrote to me, as his local MP, and told me about this new series with Rik Mayall which was going to be based in and around the Houses of Parliament. He wanted to find out what life was like there. I didn't know much about Rik Mayall at this point, but my research-assistant, who had seen him in The Young Ones, raised an eyebrow when she realised I was going to get involved.

Laurence came to Parliament in August 1985, and the great thing was that it was shut up for the summer, so there was nowhere that was out-of-bounds to visitors. I showed him the tea room, the members' dining-room and the chamber itself. I thought it was great that they wanted to make the series and I was very happy to help. Laurence was terrific fun, and we hit it off immediately. Naturally, he and Maurice came back to tell me how the project was going, and I eventually saw The New Statesman. I thought it was very funny, but I was a bit bothered that it was about a Tory, and that people might think all Tories were like Rik Mayall's character.

As far as I can see, Laurence is sunny and cheerful, continually sparking with new ideas and interested in everything. Whenever we meet he's always probing - and I mean that in the nicest sense of the word. He likes to exchange opinions and impressions about all kinds of things, whether it be literature, music or a small point about Churchill or Chamberlain. We'll meet with our wives for dinner, or he, Maurice and I will get together for lunch.

I'm very curious about Laurence's work, and, fortuitously, I've entered a corner of his world while I've been out of Parliament. He's extremely interested in politics, too; very articulate about them without ever betraying to me exactly what his views are. I think it's fascinating that the same person who co-wrote Birds of a Feather went on to do a series on Oswald Mosley. That tells you a lot about Laurence's intellectual curiosity.

I sometimes feel stressed and under pressure, and I don't know if Laurence does too, but if he does, the cracks never show. I remember I went to a party at his place after I was defeated at the 1997 election, and he was very supportive at a time when I was wondering what to do with the rest of my life. There were a lot of BBC types there that night, and I was able to dis- cuss what I might need to do to make myself of interest to broadcasters.

Does Laurence inspire me? Yes, but not in a direct sense. I love his upbeat disposition and the fact that he always looks beyond the horizon.

LAURENCE MARKS: Michael's an old pro now, and he's got a minister's gravitas, but when I first met him I remember how young-looking he was. When Maurice, Rik and I went down to meet him at the House of Commons, he gave us a good two or three hours of his time, showing us all the nooks and crannies. You could have a laugh with him, and that was contrary to expectations, because everybody thought the Tories under Thatcher were mealy-mouthed, heartless bastards. Michael was very warm, and he made us realise we should judge the Tories individually, not collectively.

In 1984, our careers were at a similar level, and over the next 10 years, they moved at a similar pace. I could say, "It's great that you've just got into the Cabinet," and he could say, "It's great that you've just won the Bafta award," or whatever. It helped that we came from very different worlds. Had I been a politician, or had Michael been an actor, I don't think we would have been friends.

Frankly, if I didn't know he was a Conservative, I'd swear Michael was a socialist, too, but we tend not to talk about politics except in the abstract. One night in 1995, though, we were due to have dinner; eight people at my flat, including Michael and Carolyn. I was driving up to London and the news came on that Major had resigned. We didn't expect Michael to make it to dinner, but when we got to my flat there was a bouquet of flowers for my wife and a note from Michael saying "See you later." When he arrived I said, "We have to talk politics, Michael. Tonight could be the night when you decide whether you want to be Prime Minister."

Personality-wise, we're completely different. Michael chose a serious life in politics, but when I opted to go into comedy, I chose a more frivolous path. Michael has to abide by a code of conduct; I don't. I can be outspoken, say pretty much what I want if I'm feeling mischievous, and no Chief Whip is going to say "Do that again and you're out". Michael's also learned to be a great diplomat. When The New Statesman first went out, I asked him if he'd seen it and he said, "No, my video broke." How's that for a political answer?

I think it's natural to turn to friends during the downs, and professionally speaking, Michael's greatest down was when he lost Southgate. I remember thinking, "It's great Labour have won tonight," but I felt for Michael, too. I wrote him a letter of commiseration, and told him that life could be really good outside politics, as he found it to be.

Ironically, I think that losing in 1997 might prove to be a blessing in disguise for Michael, and I would hope that as he re-enters Parliament, he'll be as relaxed, humorous and invigorating as he was between losing Southgate and winning Kensington and Chelsea. During that period I saw the real Michael Portillo; a guy in an open-necked, denim shirt who could laugh without worrying what people thought. That person is really fun to be with.

Laurence Marks' 'A Fan For All Seasons' was published this week by Little, Brown, price pounds 14.99

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