Media: Thatcher: candid on camera: For once, You-Know-Who could not be in the driving seat. Owen Slot talks to the programme makers who were

For someone who was no stranger to news management, Baroness Thatcher has been unusually trusting in the making of Thatcher: The Downing Street Years, the four-part television series to accompany her memoirs which starts tonight on BBC 1.

The former prime minister sat through more than 50 hours of interviews for the series, but had no editorial control over the finished product.

Julian Seymour, the director of Lady Thatcher's private office and one of her chief advisers, says that editorial control was neither sought nor desired. 'It would mean the programmes wouldn't have any credibility. If it became public that we had any editorial control, they would be a laughing stock.'

The programmes - made by Fine Arts, an independent production company of which Hugh Scully (best known for Antiques Roadshow) is managing director - are unlikely to be simply paeans of praise. They include the reflections of Ken Livingstone and Lords Lawson and Howe, and the interviewing technique is bold.

'We were under contractual obligation not to reveal what was in the memoirs,' says Denys Blakeway, the series producer. 'But we intimated that she was absolutely frank and they'd better be frank in response.

'For instance, we were interviewing Geoffrey Howe and we said to him that it's well known that Margaret Thatcher had no time for the Foreign Office at all, and indeed her views on it are extremely strong. And he said: 'Absolute rubbish. How can you say such a thing?'

'Then we turned the cameras off and I said, 'Look, she is not going to be shilly-

shallying about the Foreign Office.' And he said, 'Oh well, in that case . . .' and he gave a proper, measured response. He changed his tune totally.'

Scully made his first approach to Lady Thatcher's office in March 1992, having read about the memoirs. He was one of a number of interested programme-makers, including the BBC. He was asked for a proposal, then summoned the following May for a meeting during which he was quizzed on a curious pair of subjects: his programme- making history, most notably last year's acclaimed series The Falklands War (also appreciated by Lady Thatcher); and - of all things - the Franco-Prussian war.

'She really wasn't interested in the programmes. I would have expected a lot of questions about what was involved. I went away thinking the meeting hadn't gone well.' However, the following day he had a call to say the contract had been awarded to Fine Arts.

'To this day, I've never really understood why,' Scully says. 'Money was only discussed after the initial agreement.'

Lady Thatcher's office confirms Scully's suspicion that it was the nature of his proposal that won the contract. Much of the competition, he believes, came from big-name interviewers whose proposed formats favoured extended one-to-one interviews.

'Margaret Thatcher doesn't watch television but she knows enough to realise that that would be rather boring and would probably be confined to the twilight hours.' The magnanimity of Fine Arts' proposal, and the intention to analyse Lady Thatcher's image abroad (interviews with Reagan and Gorbachev) also seem to have struck a chord. 'They were pretty well head and shoulders above the rest,' says Seymour.

Lady Thatcher's 'television memoirs' are the climax to a year of politicians trusting the camera. 'I didn't seek reassurances and they didn't seek to soothe me at all,' says Neil Kinnock of the makers of the four-part Kinnock: The Inside Story (LWT). 'In my view it was clear they had no interest in hagiography or in some sensationalist condemnation. I thought I could rely on them to be fair. I thought it was a good idea then and I still think it was.'

Kenneth Baker, who presented and rewrote the script for Kenneth Baker's Memoirs (BBC 2), similarly has no regrets. 'I did not consider it a risk because in effect I was in charge of the programmes. But I was prepared to be deprecated. Ken Clarke was delightfully rude about me.'

The results have not always been as happy. As Alan Clark, one of Mrs Thatcher's ministers, discovered in June when he was the subject of Love Tory, you can get your fingers burnt.

'I breathed a sigh of relief the first time I saw the programme; it really wasn't as bad as it could have been. But then I watched it a second time and I hated it. I didn't question its integrity, but I felt a marked distaste for the character who was portrayed,' he says.

'When I found to my horror and true anger that they were going to repeat it on BBC 2 I tried very hard to get it pulled, saying it's far too soon and extremely embarrassing, but there was nothing I could do about it. I don't even get a royalty for the second showing. It's miserable.'

(Photograph omitted)