They won't keep mum any longer

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The Independent Online
THE MAIN picture at the funeral this week of Lady Caithness was not of her children, nor her husband, but of her parents. A few weeks earlier it was those parents who, in a lengthy interview, cast light on the background to her death.

This was a particularly tragic case, and I cite it only as the most recent example of a peculiar trend I have noticed over the past year, but rarely noticed before: the emergence of elderly parents of middle-aged people as interview material; people with strong opinions who are not going to be told what to say or when to say it by their children or children's spouses, no matter how adult or eminent.

It started last year with Mrs Lamont senior venting her spleen over the sacking of young Norman. There is a lengthy tradition in British politics of chancellors being sacrificed, but not of mums garnering the sympathy vote. The morning after could be a poignant time for family reminiscences in future cabinet reshuffles.

The next example I noted also followed a departure from office: the resignation of the England football manager, Graham Taylor. Taylor was a middle-aged married man, but it was his aged pa to whom the sports writers turned, and who uttered the rueful regret: 'I always wanted him to be a teacher.'

In 1992 there was David Mellor's indiscretion, which was rather more than that according to his father-in-law, who had no compunction in talking publicly about how his daughter had been wronged.

Readers will correct me if I am wrong, but I cannot recall parents playing these pivotal press roles in the great running news stories and causes celebres of the past. Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies presumably had mums, but they kept mum. John Lennon's celebrated Aunt Mimi was never any good for a quote. Mick Jagger's dad worked in the media, a BBC sports presenter, but never ventured a public opinion on his son's antics.

When I was a journalism student we would discuss at length the ethics of interviewing the children of people in the news, but never the ethics or otherwise of interviewing parents. It was never really considered an option. Frankly, it was never really considered at all. Parents of politicians, football managers and the like were seldom seen and never heard.

Why have things changed? Is it simply that people are living longer, or that the John Major generation of cabinet ministers is for the first time young enough to have healthy and vocal mothers and fathers? Is it perhaps that while we constantly philosophise about the characteristics of the Sixties generation who now control many of the seats of power, we have neglected to consider the Thirties and Forties generations, which are proving vociferous today? They are receptacles of a forthright wisdom that clearly will not be hushed.

Journalists will not be slow to take advantage of the trend. There has been considerable media interest in Presiley Baxendale, the giggly but deadly QC for the Scott inquiry, who has interrogated both John Major and Baroness Thatcher. She steadfastly refuses to be interviewed or photographed. But could her father resist saying how proud he was of her? He could not. No father could. And once you've asked him that, he might just be drawn on other small details, like her life story.

Parents also have a knack of speaking volumes with the smallest phrase or even inflexion. When I wrote a profile of the comedian Ben Elton I rang his father to ask if Ben had had a political bent as a youth. 'Why do you ask?' inquired Mr Elton senior. Because he tells political jokes. 'Does he?' he asked in genuine surprise, giving a two-word review that critics would have killed for.

Parents are good copy, knowledgeable, old- fashioned, frank, full of possible embarrassment for their famous offspring, and unfettered by the rules that surround the interviewing of children. The potential is enormous. If a chancellor's mother can comment on his sacking, why can she not comment on his Budget? Did the education secretary do his homework studiously and regularly? Was the home secretary ever in trouble with the police? Let the older generation speak.

In fact, as they are speaking, should not their existence and their characters become a matter of greater public interest? Politicians, as we all know, often include pictures of their spouses and families on their election addresses. But only, I venture to suggest, their nuclear families.

I would like to see the extended-family election address. As the elderly parents are likely to give a public view on some issue pertaining to the offspring's career, we should all be able to know who they are and what they look like. Perhaps even a few lines about their parenting skills.

Politics, of course, is only one area of inquiry. Woody Allen, I read, visits his nonagenarian parents every week. He has had a year of vicissitudes. And I'm sure they have views. Perhaps they even have an Eltonesque quote to give. Your son makes films of great wit, contemporary relevance and insight into the urban condition. 'He does?'

There is another side to the coin. Increased parental exposure may remind public figures, and those who write about public and semi- public figures, to consider that actions and the words that describe them can wound more than those immediately involved.

In the Austen Donnellan case of the alleged date rape (of which he was acquitted), I found the most poignant quote the one line uttered by the girl's father. He said that he did not find it 'comfortable' to sit and listen to the story of his daughter's sex life.

University, again, is a place where parents are not meant to exist; and their ignorance of what goes on is probably convenient for all concerned. But as the press are finding out, people have parents. On Monday the EastEnders actress Gillian Taylforth should learn whether she has won or lost her libel action at the end of a case that has proved the most popular read of the past week.

I understand that when a video of Miss Taylforth making hay with a sausage was shown to the court the actress herself managed to keep a poker face. But her mother, who as bad luck would have it had chosen that day to lend support to her daughter, went a whiter shade of pale. Actresses, like politicians, have mothers, and it will be the quote of Taylforth the elder that I will be keenest to read.

Robert Winder is away.