Photo © Gary Schwartz
In his latest book, Unmasking Our Leaders: Confessions of a Political Documentary-Maker, 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, reflects on what Lady Bracknell would describe as ‘a life crowded with incident’.
Since his first job in television (a three-month contract with the World Service) in 1966, Cockerell has climbed to the summit of British political broadcasting, making his name as a Westminster reporter before producing a series of beautifully written and edited profiles of the twentieth century’s most colourful politicians. 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 self-confessed ‘schmoozer’ – a consummate and trusted ‘insider’ who, antithetically, has spent a large chunk of his broadcasting career on the ‘outside’ as a freelancer, stripping the gloss off our political leaders.
Across 32 punchy chapters, Cockerell reflects on his encounters with the politicians, civil servants, and journalists who dominated post-war Britain and takes us inside remarkable moments in television history, most notably Winston Churchill’s secret screen test in 1954 when the Old Warrior did battle with the forces of ‘this thing they call Tee Vee’. Unmasking Our Leaders captures what increasingly appears to be a golden age of highly accomplished, multi-faceted politicians, with starring roles for the likes of Ted Heath, James Callaghan, and Margaret Thatcher as well as Enoch Powell, Barbara Castle, Michael Foot, and Alan Clark.
The literary equivalent of a ‘Greatest Hits’ album, Unmasking Our Leaders reminds us how many of Britain’s best known political anecdotes—including the revelation that Enoch Powell insisted on speaking on a full bladder and Margaret Thatcher’s belief that ‘every Prime Minister needs a Willie’—were Cockerell ‘scoops’. Now in his ninth decade and contending with an increasingly frantic 24-hour news cycle, Cockerell and his rigorous, ‘slow’ journalism continue to add texture to our politics, helping to explain how our most important institutions work and revealing the humanity of our politicians. As the historian and crossbench peer, Peter Hennessy, once said, ‘Cockerell is the Holbein of the televisual political portrait’.
In recent years, the long-form biographical, stand-alone programmes that Cockerell made in the 1990s and early 2000s have given way to shorter films as the Beeb has asked him to ‘bookend’ our leaders at the beginning and conclusion of their premierships. However, as recent Newsnight pieces on Theresa May’s legacy and Boris Johnson’s downfall demonstrate, this hasn’t diminished the fact that, as Nigel Farndale once wrote, ‘you are no-one in British politics until you’ve been Cockerelled’.
On the evening of Tuesday 10 October in the Studio (which is kindly sponsored by Wilsons Solicitors), Michael will be in conversation about Unmasking Our Leaders at Arundells, where he interviewed Sir Edward for several of his most acclaimed documentaries including a Very Singular Man: A Film Portrait of Ted Heath and How to be Prime Minister. In addition to showing unseen clips from his encounters with the great and the good of British politics and public life, Michael will be reflecting on his fifty-year career, explaining how he gained unrivalled access to the secret chambers of Westminster and Whitehall, and telling us what the ten former Prime Ministers (from Harold Macmillan to Boris Johnson) he has interviewed are really like.
You can buy your ticket for what promises to be a fascinating encounter with the man that Rory Bremner once dubbed the ‘David Attenborough of the political animal kingdom’ here: Unmasking Our Leaders – Michael Cockerell | Arundells