- Peter Hennessy and former Foreign Secretary Lord David Owen in the BBC Radio 4 Reflections interview studio
The political interview is an art form: the interviewer intrudes and seduces, shapes and moulds the conversation until his subject reveals more than they perhaps were really supposed to. At this craft Peter Hennessy is remarkably skilled. Reflections: Conversations with Politicians, written with his producer Robert Shepherd, compiles the best interviews from the BBC Radio 4 series of the same name into one book. With each interview being more an interim biography of the politician rather than a combat of words, Hennessy and Shepherd offer a rare, revelatory glimpse behind the public personas of British politics. What follows is the introduction to the book.
What Peter Hennessy points out by highlighting this past dialogue between Macmillan and Day is that an interview, when well executed, holds incredible sway over British politics. Indeed, as the world has modernised, the changing relationship between politician and interviewer has become a crucial one to cultivate. The political interview will continue to be necessary to ministerial life because it gives the interviewer the chance to directly bring up the concerns of the public while it allows the politician the opportunity to address these queries. It becomes important, however, when the interview develops into something more than simply a safety-first Q&A session as set by each party’s PR department. Maybe only then the interaction becomes truly useful to the viewer. And, in the wake of such political uncertainty following Britain’s exit from the EU, perhaps it is this kind of conversation which is needed most – not the fire of adversarial interviews, but talks which elucidate and reveal. We need more interviews which give politicians the chance to freely explain their choices while also making it clear that, in exchange, broadcasters will rigorously test their thinking. We need more interviews like those conducted by Peter Hennessy, at once captivating and illuminating. Scroll down to read more of Reflections: Conversations with Politicians.
The art of political interviewing
“The historian”, wrote EL Doctorow, “will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.”1 The job of the interviewer is to combine both in the same flight of questioning. It is a craft both intrusive and sensitive, requiring the skills of the inquisitor and the biographer. In the mid-1980s I took a stab at what I would call ‘combat interviewing’ of current politicians in a pair of series for Granada Television called Under Fire, a revival of a programme pioneered by Robin Day in the mid-’50s. I was wonderfully produced but not altogether at home in the genre, preferring the kind of interviews I was to conduct for 45-minute documentaries as a presenter of the BBC Radio 4 Analysis program.
I am not entirely without aggressive urges but the results of combat interviews can be rather more heat than light – and predictable too. If an interviewer’s style is almost all fast-bowling, interviewees will arrive mentally helmeted, padded up and determined to play endless defensive strokes in the manner of the incomparable Trevor Bailey of Essex and England when I was a boy in the 1960s.
Political interviewing of the non-combat variety came late in life, with three summer series of Reflections on BBC Radio 4, in 2013–15. The idea belongs to the controller of Radio 4, Gwyneth Williams, and it came to her during a discussion over tea at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in October 2012. The idea was a series of reflective conversations with a degree, one hopes, of bite but not bark – more an interim biography than an excursion into the combat zone, with the occasional burst of “now it can be told” revelation. To my great delight I was assigned as producer Rob Shepherd, friend over many years and political biographer of repute. The Reflections interviewees, I warmly hope, will have many more full and happy years ahead of them, hence the interim biographical approach. But there comes a time when a recollective rather than a confrontational conversation is the most fitting and, one hopes, productive approach. Of course, to be candid, there is a feeling, an incentive perhaps, to get the chat in with time to spare. Simon Schama caught it well when he wrote in Dead Certainties: “Historians are left for ever chasing shadows, painfully aware of their inability ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness however thorough or revealing their documentation. We are doomed to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot.”2
The series have been a great pleasure to make, though tinged with a dash of regret that Rob and I didn’t start earlier, for Schama-like reasons, in time to catch several of the now-departed post-1945 generation of politicians, some of whom such as Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Roy Jenkins, Quintin Hailsham, Tony Benn and Enoch Powell I spoke to as part of studio discussions for Analysis or in single interviews. Perhaps the greatest challenge would have been a 45-minute conversation with my special political hero, Clem Attlee, for whom brevity was a way of life. I would have run out of questions in five. But how I would have relished it. As for Winston Churchill, it would have been the glorious opposite. I would have been lucky to get four questions in the 45. The stuff of dreams.
Each practitioner comes to the microphone for the first time with ancestral voices and images shaping their approach. Though I did not see the programme as a youngster, political historians and interviewers agree about the broadcast that set the style and tone of interviewing now regarded as standard.
Robin Day himself began his memoir, Grand Inquisitor, with the critical moment that changed the British political cosmology: “The date was Sunday, 23 February 1958. The interview was live. I was sitting in a small studio at Television House, Kingsway, in London. On the other side of the table was the Rt Hon Harold Macmillan MP. TV cameras usually go to Prime Ministers at No 10 Downing Street. On this occasion the Prime Minister had come to the studios, which added to the tension.”3
The two protagonists were well met, each gifted with their own special histrionics (Day’s rasping voice; Macmillan’s Edwardian drawl) and props (Day’s heavy glasses and spotted bowtie; Macmillan’s moustache and slightly seedy, though no doubt once quite expensive, drapery). Both were born actors who liked to create little scenes around themselves.
“As we waited to begin”, wrote Day, “the Prime Minister derived considerable amusement from the seating arrangements.”
“He drily complained that he was sitting on a hard upright seat, whereas I was enthroned behind the table in a comfortable swivel chair with well-padded arms. This, said the Prime Minister, seemed to ‘symbolise the new relationship between politician and TV interviewer’… I offered to change chairs. But the Prime Minister, keeping up the banter, said, ‘No. I know my place.’”4
It was all over in 13 minutes but it shifted both men’s careers on to a different trajectory and set a new standard for the style and tone of political interviewing. There were banner headlines on the front pages next morning. As for Macmillan, his official biographer Alistair Horne called it his “first breakthrough as a television personality”.5
What was novel about the Macmillan–Day encounter? It was the first time a British PM had subjected himself to such an à deux interview or faced such vigorous questions courteously but not deferentially put.
It was Day’s line of questioning about the future of Selwyn Lloyd, Macmillan’s Foreign Secretary, that most excited the newspapers and the political commentariat:
Macmillan: Well, I think Mr Selwyn Lloyd is a very good Foreign Secretary and has done his work extremely well. If I didn’t think so I would have made a change, but I do not intend to make a change simply as a result of pressure. I don’t believe that it is wise. It is not in accordance with my idea of loyalty.
Day: Is it correct, as reported in one paper, that he would like, in fact, to give up the job of Foreign Secretary?
Macmillan: Not at all, except in the sense that everyone would like to give up these appalling burdens which we try and carry.
Day seized the moment with a level of cheek, normal to today’s eyes and ears, but shocking by the standards of the 1950s.
Day: Would you like to give up yours?
Macmillan: In a sense, yes, because they are very heavy burdens, but, of course, nobody can pretend that they aren’t. We’ve gone into this game, we try and do our best, and it’s both in a sense our pleasure and, certainly, I hope, our duty.6
The programme which carried the Macmillan interview, Tell the People, soon perished but Robin Day and his style bestrode the world of political interviewing for three decades.
The following year  saw the arrival, on the BBC’s screens this time, of the second weather-maker interviewer of that era. In my judgement, he’s never been surpassed, though he is less well remembered than Robin Day. John Freeman and his Face to Face series (1959–62) fused the Doctorow duo – he was partly historian, part novelist and, indeed, part shrink.
If you are interested in learning more about the political interview, or want to find out more of the surprising revelations Peter Hennessy encouraged some of the key figures in British politics to divulge, you can read on here.
Freeman had had what was called a “good war” as a Desert Rat – Montgomery described him as the “best brigade major in the Eighth Army”7 – and was regarded as among the cream of the fabled Labour intake into the 1945 House of Commons (Churchill wept after hearing his maiden speech saying: “Now all the best men are on the other side”).8 Freeman rapidly became a junior minister but resigned in 1951. As restless in his professions as he was elusive in his character, he tired of opposition following Labour’s defeat and was one of the bright young politicos recruited to the BBC by Grace Wyndham Goldie (others included Aidan Crawley, Woodrow Wyatt and Christopher Mayhew).9
The idea behind Face to Face belongs to its producer, Hugh Burnett, who later said of Freeman: “I wanted him because he was highly skilled at probing closely without causing offence. Walking round the block at Lime Grove [the long-gone ramshackle studios in West London] we discussed the series and the second time round the block he agreed. He also accepted the idea of sitting with his back to the camera, a tiny but important detail that gave rise to a brand new programme format.”10
From the very first interview of Freeman’s, with the famous trial lawyer and judge, Norman Birkett, broadcast on 4 February 1959, Face to Face was a critical and popular success. It met Huw Weldon’s description of the BBC’s mission as making “the good popular and popular good”,11 and it attracted a huge audience of 4.5 million.12
Freeman, himself a rather uncomfortable interviewee of Anthony Clare’s in 1988,13 reckoned that, “What was new about it was simply that, for the first time, the interviewer, the camera and the lights and the studio environment were all integrated in a single concentration on the individual who was being interviewed.”14 Freeman’s clipped, almost military, voice added to the effect.
The Hennessy family not possessing a television until 1962, the first Face to Face I saw was on another family’s set in October 1960, when Freeman’s subject was John Reith, first Director-General of the BBC, in the 1920s and 1930s. This huge, granitic figure almost burst out of the screen as he exhibited, under Freeman’s ever-courteous questioning, his agonising combination of excessive self-destiny and personal unease. This is the passage that has stayed in my memory from that day to this:
Freeman: Lord Reith, tell me how tall you are?
Reith: Six foot six when I stand straight.
Freeman: Now, how old were you when you grew to that height?
Reith: About 23.
Freeman: Did you at any stage outgrow your strength?
Reith: Never … I’ve got too much strength, and have had all along, I think.
Freeman: Do you look at other people and think, “Well, I’m bigger than he is”?
Reith: No, I usually wish I weren’t as big as I am. It’s awkward. Anything over six foot two is an affliction, Mr Freeman. Have you got that?
Freeman: Yes I have. Would you say of yourself – throughout your life – that you’ve been an ambitious man?
Reith: Ambition, as normally understood, absolutely no. I’m incapable of the techniques which ambition, in the ordinary sense, almost inevitably compels – the devices and expedients that it normally compels. I’ve been ambitious in this other sense – minded to do whatever came to one’s hands with all one’s might, both hands; better, to do whatever it was at least as well as anybody else could, and in shorter time. Is that clear? In other words to be fully stretched. Not ambitious for this or that position. Except insofar that this or that position would make one fully stretch, with all one’s capacities and intelligence and strength used.
Freeman: Can you remember how old you were when you first formulated that thought?
Reith: About 18.
Freeman: Was that when you first realised you had great powers of decision and ability to organise others, or were you younger when you first realised that?
Reith: A little bit younger than that.
Freeman: Can you remember the occasion vividly, or not?
Reith: Yes. On the top of Ben Macdui in the Cairngorms in Inverness-shire. I had just been climbing and climbing all day long and wondering whatever I was going to do in the world.15 And how’s this as a coda towards the end of the interview?
Freeman: Have you been happy, looking back on your 70 years?
Reith: Oh no.
Freeman: You’ve not be happy?
Freeman: Have you been successful?
Freeman: Well, in what does your lack of success consist, then? I mean, for instance have you ever wanted political power?
Reith: I have wanted to be fully stretched, Mr Freeman, and possibly the positions in which one would have been mostly fully stretched are political. Do you want me to be more specific?
Freeman: Yes, I would like you to.
Reith: I would like to be have been Viceroy of India. I would like to have been Prime Minister … But not for the power or patronage, or anything, but for the full stretching.16
Freeman conversing with Reith was probably the first proper interview on which I eavesdropped. Quite a place to start.
Freeman and the Face to Face series ended when his duties as editor of the New Statesman became too time-consuming in 1962, after 35 interviews. But John Freeman’s shade – like Robin Day’s – lives on. In their different ways, they struck gold first time round and its lustre shines to this day. It would be foolish for any interviewer to contemplate matching either. But there they remain as enduring gilt-edged standards.
Having not a sliver of psychological or psychiatric training, I am wary of invoking Anthony Clare. But the influence of his several series of In the Psychiatrist’s Chair accumulated such force that I can do no other. Like Freeman, his interviewees were widely drawn and included politicians. Both, for example, interviewed Lord Hailsham. Clare drew from him a fascinating reflection on those who make it to No 10 Downing Street. Hailsham, in a 1989 interview, was asked whether he regretted not winning the premiership when for a few days in October 1963 he came close to succeeding Harold Macmillan? He replied: “I’ve known every prime minister to a greater or lesser extent since Balfour, and most of them have died unhappy … It doesn’t lead to happiness.”17
Perhaps the greatest British tribute to the interviewer, the interviewer’s craft, and the value of the product was when Sir David Frost was admitted to the National Pantheon encased by Westminster Abbey on 13 March 2014, before some 2000 attendees at his memorial service.
The Frost technique ranged through all the keys between his ferocious youth as the front man for That Was The Week That Was to his prime position as interviewer of the international good, not-so-good, and occasionally great, with a play and film made out of his legendary interviews with the Watergate-stained former US president Richard Nixon.
It is, of course, impossible for any interviewer to penetrate what Lytton Strachey called “the secret chambers of consciousness”18 of another person (it’s hard enough to scrape the outside of one’s own). Yet we all carry an individual identity card in our minds, stamped by a myriad of experiences, hopes, fears, expectations, loyalties and resentments. Perhaps the best an interviewer can hope to do is to access different layers of a personality – what the master pollster Bob Worcester calls opinions, attitudes and values. Values, Bob reckons, are “The deepest of all … formed early in life and not likely to change”.19 And, of course, an interviewer’s own opinions, attitudes and values cannot be entirely set aside during a conversation, however hard he or she may try. This applies too to the best profile writers in the quality press: my palm for this version of the craft practised over many years goes to Terry Coleman of The Guardian, closely followed by Susan Barnes of The Sunday Times.20
For all the perils, the pitfalls and the difficulties, politico-historical interviewing will remain for me a thing of fascination and possibility. I admire and salute those who subject themselves to it. The 11 caught between these covers have my gratitude for agreeing to be interviewed and for permitting their transcripts to be reproduced.
1. “El Doctorow”, Obituary, The Times, 23 July 2015.
2. Simon Schama, Dead Certainties: Unwarrented Speculations, (Granta Books, 1991), p.320.
3. Robin Day, Grand Inquisitor, (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989), p.1.
4. Ibid., pp.1-2.
5. Alistair Horne, Macmillan 1957-86, p.149.
6. This exchange is reproduced in Day, Grand Inquisitor, p.4.
7. Hugh Purcell, A Very Private Celebrity: The Nine Lives of John Freeman, (Robson Press, 2015), p.30.
8. Ibid., p.62.
9. Charlotte Higgins, This new noise: the extraordinary birth and troubled life of the BBC, (Guardian Books and Faber, 2015), p.82.
10. Purcell, A Very Private Celebrity, pp.138-9.
11. Higgins, This new noise, p.52.
12. Joan Bakewell, ‘Introduction’, in Face to Face with John Freeman, (BBC Books, 1989), p.6.
13. Purcell, A Very Private Celebrity, p.2.
14. The transcript of the Clare-Freeman interview is reproduced in Face to Face with John Freeman, pp.9-21.
15. The transcript of the Clare-Freeman interview is reproduced in Face to Face with John Freeman, p.128.
16. The transcript of the Clare-Freeman interview is reproduced in Face to Face with John Freeman, p.134.
17. In the Psychiatrist’s Chair, BBC Radio 4, 16 August 1989
18. Lytton Strachey, Queen Victoria
19. Professor Sir Robert Worcester, ‘Public Opinion: Friend or Foe?’, Chancellor’s Lecture, University of Kent, 25 January 2015, p.14.
20. Terry Coleman, The Scented Brawl: Selected Articles and Interviews, (Elm Tree Books, 1978); Terry Coleman, Movers and Shaker: Conversations with Uncommon Men, (Andre Deutsch, 1987). Susan Barnes, Behind the Image, (Cape, 1974).