Sorting the men from the suits

Television: Michael Cockerell got Alan Clark's wife to spill the beans on her errant husband. He tells Charles de Lisle how he finds the passion in the politician
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The Independent Culture
On a beautiful spring day in 1993, Michael Cockerell arrived at Saltwood Castle in Kent to interview the libidinous diarist and former Tory defence minister Alan Clark for a BBC portrait. Clark was not at home. "Terribly sorry," said Jane Clark, a woman for whom the cliche "long-suffering wife" might have been invented. "Alan's in London with his publisher. Probably back for lunch."

So Cockerell and his producer set to work on Jane, who had previously declined to be interviewed. As the crew filmed scenes of the castle, the lady of the house wandered around the grounds, feeding her peacocks. She spilt a lot more than grain. Asked about Alan's "peacock-like qualities", she volunteered - to camera - startling information about her husband's infidelities, culminating in the admission that there had been three of them on the couple's honeymoon. "Almost the most extraordinary moment of my interviewing life," says Cockerell. "Maybe `having a conversation with your publisher' has a particular meaning for Alan Clark."

Love Tory remains the most memorable, if not necessarily the best, of the 13 individual political portraits Cockerell has made since 1989. He's a broadcaster who can be relied upon to get under the surface of his subjects, and has turned out balanced and amusing profiles of most of the surviving major figures in post-war British politics: the Labour quintet, Roy Jenkins, Barbara Castle, Denis Healey, Jim Callaghan and Michael Foot; and former Tory ministers Cecil Parkinson, Lord Hailsham, Willie Whitelaw and Enoch Powell.

In 1994 Cockerell, who has a knack of enticing politicians to say a good deal more than they tend to in their often dull and depressing memoirs, made his only portrait of a figure still in office. Ken Clarke, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, took the chance to build up his profile as a future Tory leader. Like many other Cockerell subjects, Clarke now appears a lost premier.

Now Cockerell has turned his perceptive eye on the jobs these politicians do: "the central madness of these great offices of state". For his latest programme, How to be Foreign Secretary, he talked to all eight living ex-foreign secretaries save John Major, who only held the post for three months. The present incumbent, Robin Cook, gave two set-piece interviews as well as allowing the cameras in as he was being briefed and going into international meetings.

For Cockerell, as for Cook, the programme is important. Earlier this year, both had to look on as Gordon Brown, whose relationship with Cook is famously cool, gave STV's Network First unprecedented access for its fly-on-the-wall documentary We Are the Treasury. Cockerell's How to Be Chancellor suffered a little by comparison. He had access to six ex-chancellors, but none to Brown, even though the Labour Government's first budget, in the summer, was the peg for the show.

But Michael Cockerell's experience and depth of knowledge help keep him apart from most competitors, most of the time. He became a BBC journalist when William Hague was in short trousers. He was born and brought up in wartime London, by left-leaning middle-class parents. Professor Hugh Cockerell, who died last year, was a barrister-turned-academic with what his son calls "the best-stocked mind" he has encountered; Fanny Cockerell, an author, playwright and activist, campaigned vigorously for social reform as far back as the 1930s.

From Kilburn Grammar School Michael Cockerell proceeded to Oxford. He was already hooked on politics, but did little work - he got a third in PPE - concentrating instead on "the fast set, playing poker, parties, girls, playing the drums, student journalism and cricket".

He joined the BBC in the Sixties as a radio producer on the African Service. Then, from 1970, he became a familiar face (framed by a Terry Wogan-style haircut) on television, principally as a political reporter on Newsnight's many predecessors. He interviewed Margaret Thatcher on the night she became Tory leader in 1975. In 1984, he infuriated her by fronting Maggie's Militant Tendency, an edition of Panorama which alleged that the MPs Neil Hamilton and Harvey Proctor had links with the far right. Legal action followed, with Proctor settling out of court and Hamilton, to Cockerell's disgust, being paid pounds 20,000 damages by the BBC. Even now, the incident raises Thatcherite blood pressures. "Cockerell was not popular," says Charles Powell, then a senior No10 aide. "In fact he's regarded as rather sinister by some of us. He tends to sink the pin in fairly deep."

Douglas Hurd, who makes some of the most telling contributions to How to Be Foreign Secretary, disagrees. "Michael's work is good," he says, fresh from presenting the BBC's The Search For Peace. "He's a professional in a slightly old-fashioned sense. Being interviewed by him is a pleasure rather than a penance."

How to Be Foreign Secretary is scheduled to be shown on the first Sunday of the new year. Three-and-a-half weeks earlier, Cockerell is in a cramped editing suite at BBC Westminster's Millbank offices. For a man in the thick of the nerve-shredding process of finishing a four-month project, he is relatively relaxed. Unlike many reporter-presenters, Cockerell is very hands-on - obsessively so, hardly missing a minute of the intense four-week edit. As he finds an extra chair for me, he introduces Alison Cahn, producer, Phil Reynolds, film editor, and Melanie Fall, assistant producer.

It is 12.40pm on Thursday 11 December and the edit has reached its final stage: the next day, the 50-minute programme must be ready for final viewing by Anne Tyerman, Editor of Political Documentaries. Five days later, it needs to be finished completely. In between, Cockerell must write his commentary, his final opportunity to communicate his own personality to viewers. Visually, he will scarcely figure: "You don't want to get in the way. I am a window through which people can see, not a door which they have to go through."

The script, over which Cockerell spends three painstaking days, is ready by Tuesday night, and dubbed on Wednesday. That night, 20 copies are made for the BBC's publicity department; while his colleagues unwind, Cockerell starts work on a familiar PR routine. An article is written, for publication later this week. Hard news stories - on foreign secretaries and MI6 - and juicy nuggets - on foreign secretaries falling asleep at international meetings - are readied for journalists.

Political observers will pay close attention to passages dealing with the often tense prime minister/foreign secretary relationship, particularly in the case of Cook and Tony Blair. In the cutting room, the question is: where to place a clip of Cook - flannelling unconvincingly about his relations with Blair - in a telling sequence of much franker, incisive remarks by his predecessors. Is it more powerful to include it, or to omit it? Cockerell is noted for his neat and witty cuts ("I would quite like to have been a satirist"), but he strives "never to put out on the air something which I know is a lie except when the lie itself is so blatant that viewers will realise it's a lie". In the end, Cook's flannel is left on the floor.

Over a sandwich, Cockerell discusses how, with charm and guile, he persuades his interviewees to spill beans. His desire, he says, has always been "to strip away the image of men in suits. I want to bring out their human side, their passions. Will they fill 50 minutes of airtime?" His programmes are in many respects a spin doctor's nightmare - yet, says Cockerell, "Peter Mandelson has said that the programmes do the greatest possible service to politicians, by showing them as human beings."

In creating his portraits, Cockerell's method is to have eight sittings, lasting up to two hours each, and often to run through the life chronologically. A final sitting, "often the most profitable session of all", is then held, in which the subject is filmed watching old and previously unseen footage of themselves. By the end of the film, as one reviewer put it, the hostage has usually fallen in love with his captor.

What does he like about politicians? "I don't think any politician has a conversation with a journalist that doesn't have a purpose," Cockerell says. "I am fascinated by the relationship between politics, presentation and personality."

He has never been tempted to become a politician himself. "I prefer to be on the outside trying to reveal what's going on than on the inside trying to conceal what's going on." In any case, he wants to spend time with his considerable family: Cockerell is the father of six children, and his long-term partner, BBC producer Anna Lloyd, is about to have their third baby. They live in a flat in Notting Hill; next door Chris Evans rattles around an entire house.

And what does he most dislike about politicians? Suddenly a note of vehemence creeps in. "Politicians telling you one thing off the record when the cameras are switched off, and then telling you completely the opposite [when on air]. And they know that they are putting you in a completely false position because they know that you know they're lying."

! `How to Be Foreign Secretary' will be on BBC2 on Sun 4 Jan at 7.10pm.