John Stapleton on his encounters with Margaret Thatcher: “She knew all the tricks”

The veteran broadcaster and former TV-am presenter recalls a formidable interviewee who wasn't averse to a bit of theatrical fun

Former TV-am and Nationwide presenter John Stapleton has interviewed every Prime Minister since James Callaghan but says Margaret Thatcher made him the most apprehensive. He also recalls her as a media savvy politician, who displayed great poise during a crisis – and a sporting attitude when presented with a birthday cake live on air…

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“An extremely striking and powerful woman”

“She was an extremely striking and powerful woman who made her views abundantly clear to all concerned. Whatever you may think of her, she changed the way people in Britain thought, no question. That was quite an achievement, all the more so since she was a woman surrounded by men. Hats off to her for her determination.

“She wasn’t the easiest individual to deal with. She would come into the room where you were doing the interview and say, not in these exact words but essentially: ‘Well come on, get on with it.’ She had little or no desire to engage in small talk. You have to for a few moments while they switch the mics on, but she wasn’t remotely interested. She wanted to get on and get out. She was very quick to make her feelings clear if she thought your questions were unfair, biased or factually incorrect. She would slap you down in an instant. I’ve interviewed every Prime Minister since Callaghan and I was more on my mettle, and apprehensive, with her than with any of the others. It may have been something to do with her being a woman as well, I don’t know. She put me on my toes.”

“She knew all the tricks”

“On Nationwide in the run-up to the 1979 election I did Thatcher one week and Callaghan the next. They took questions from viewers in regional studios. That was my first major encounter with her. I was young – believe me, I was. That was pretty nerve-racking. She gave me a good run for my money. When I was trying to hurry her along, she would turn to the camera and say, ‘You see, I’m trying to answer your question but he won’t let me.’ She knew all the tricks. She was more media-savvy than her predecessors, hence her success. The mid and late seventies was the beginning of the age when television played an important role in helping people decide who they wanted to elect. She latched onto that with more skill than a lot of her opponents.

“There’s no question she struck a chord with people, touching on an anxiety that was clearly there in the country about the state of the unions and other issues. She was advised to do that, but she did well to take that advice.”

The Brighton bombing

“I was in Brighton in 1984 when the bomb went off, working for TV-am. You’ll recall the carnage. The easy thing would have been to postpone the conference, but she didn’t seem to give that a thought. She didn’t hesitate. At 9.30 that morning, right on schedule, she was on the platform saying terrorism wouldn’t defeat democracy. That composure and strength of character was remarkable.”

Happy birthday Mrs Thatcher

“On her birthday in 1983, up in Blackpool, we presented her with a birthday cake live on TV-am. It was agreed with all the party officials in advance of course, but as she came out of the lift we were there. She played surprised. We had a monitor there and down the line was Carol, her daughter. It was a very sweet item. She played that well. She played the game. She gave us everything we would wish for on an item like that: ‘Oh Carol darling! How are you? Lovely to see you!’ She did the business. It was theatrical but who cares? When the cameras stopped rolling she switched back into politician mode.” 

Interview by Jack Seale

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Margaret Thatcher dies, aged 87