After two years of becoming increasingly smug about not having Covid, last week the 'rona' finally caught up with me. So, dear reader, this review of the legendary – he stresses not 'veteran', fearing it makes him sound like he should be 'selling matchsticks on a street corner' – political interviewer, Michael Cockerell's latest book, Unmasking Our Leaders: Confessions of a Political Documentary-Maker
, is written from my Covid bed!
Part memoir of Cockerell's journey into broadcasting, part reflection on his remarkable back catalogue, Unmasking Our Leaders
is made up of 32 punchy chapters, largely based around his biographical profiles of the 20th century's most colourful politicians. While Cockerell has interviewed Liz Truss's 11 predecessors as Prime Minister, his book also touches on remarkable moments. These include Winston Churchill's secret screen test – in which the Old Warrior did battle with the forces of 'this thing they call Tee Vee' – and features a cast of later titans including Enoch Powell, Barbara Castle, Michael Foot and Alan Clark.
The child of an academic (and Bletchley Park codebreaker) and a novelist who was once censored by the Lord Chamberlain's Office, Cockerell is a talented cricketer, a consummate and trusted 'insider' who has spent a large chunk of his career on the 'outside' working as a freelancer, and something of a pioneer who confirmed that journalists should strip the gloss off our political leaders. Motivated by the thought of what if historians were able to consult recordings of Gladstone and Disraeli in their pomp, Cockerell has spent half a century investigating how British politics really works and, more recently, making long-form films about has-been and would-be Prime Ministers.
For the first time, Unmasking Our Leaders
collects all of Cockerell's great 'scoops' in one place and confirms his status as one of – if not the foremost – formidable political journalists of our times. From the revelation that Enoch Powell insisted on speaking on a full bladder as well as his ability to speak for 'not a second more than agreed', to Margaret Thatcher's observations that she couldn't 'bear Britain in decline' and that 'every Prime Minister needs a Willie', it is remarkable how many of Britain's best known political anecdotes were 'scoops' that Cockerell teased out of his subjects.
In an increasingly desperate political climate – in which the cream of the crop is, as Otto English tweeted recently, 'insipid, utterly unconvincing, unlikeable, muddled and quite clearly completely out of her depth' – Unmasking Our Leaders
reminds us of why British politics can be so fascinating. Populated by highly accomplished, multi-faceted and, in one or two cases, uniquely unlikeable characters, the book captures what increasingly appears to be a golden age of talent rising to the top of Westminster and Whitehall. This was a time when its author had almost unlimited access to film the likes of Ted Heath, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, and, more recently, Boris Johnson.
If it was needed, Unmasking Our Leaders
is perhaps the ultimate proof that, as Nigel Farndale once wrote: 'You are no-one in British politics until you've been Cockerelled'. For Andrew Marr, in the media honours system, 'to be Cockerelled – getting a full film biography, beautifully written and edited – is the Order of Merit and the Privy Council rolled into one' for our elected representatives.
During a recent conversation at the Mile End Institute, Cockerell told me that he thinks it unlikely that he will make a long-form film about Liz Truss – noting that, in recent years, the Beeb has typically asked him to 'book-end' our leaders at the beginning and conclusion of their premierships. It is a happy coincidence that Unmasking Our Leaders
opens with Cockerell explaining that he typically begins an interview with a would-be Prime Minister by asking a 'deceptively simple question' about whether they have any doubts about their ability to fulfil the role of Prime Minister.
After the pound dropped to its lowest level for 200 years and YouGov, Survation, Techne, Deltapoll and R&W forecast Labour's highest opinion poll lead since 2002, it does not take a giant leap of the imagination to picture a Cockerell voiceover noting that it is increasingly evident that the public, the markets and even a smattering of Tory MPs, if reports are to be believed, have severe doubts in Truss's ability to govern.
However, given her utterly unconvincing performances on national television and regional radio in the week in which she torched her own premiership just three weeks into the job and her penchant for taxpayer-funded photographers, it seems probable, as Cockerell himself admitted to The Times
last September, that 'in this new world where images are so carefully projected it would be very difficult to get the same amount of access as I've got over the years'.
Amid an increasingly frantic 24-hour media, Cockerell's style of documentary-making – 'slow' political journalism at its best – seems particularly valuable. While political scientists and historians stress the importance of institutions in our politics, Cockerell's films add texture to our understanding of how public life works and move beyond the day-to-day caricatures to reveal the humanity of our politicians.
As his friend and one-time co-author, Peter Hennessy, once said: Cockerell is the 'Holbein of the televisual political portrait'; for Rory Bremner, Cockerell is the 'David Attenborough of the political animal kingdom – endlessly fascinated and fascinating'.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh