Margaret Thatcher: John Sergeant, Michael Buerk and John Humphrys on their encounters with the PM
The former Prime Minister is also remembered by documentary maker Michael Cockerell, Countryfile's John Craven and ITN political editor Michael Brunson
On the day of Margaret Thatcher's funeral, those who interviewed her in her political prime share their memories of the former prime minister...
Michael Buerk – former presenter of the Nine o'Clock News
“I interviewed her on a few occasions – and she was rather overwhelming in lots of ways. I did a big set-piece interview from Downing Street about the environment for a BBC2 programme. I remember boning up and boning up – but not boning up quite as much as she did. I remember asking the opening question and her answer ran to, I think, seven and a half minutes before I could struggle to get a word in edgeways. That was when I realised I was never going to be Robin Day.”
Was he nervous? “I don’t think so. She was obviously a formidable personality but I’d just come back from quite a long period in Africa – where I had been talking to dictators who kept the body parts of their political enemies in their fridge. So I don’t think Mrs Thatcher was terrifying in that sense. But she wasn’t the easiest person to interview.”
John Humphrys – Radio 4 Today presenter
"I remember interviewing her for television after a European summit. I was desperately nervous about getting my package back to London in time for BBC’s Nine O’Clock News. She’d arrived late. Then she fished into her handbag and pulled out her make-up. I said: ‘Honestly, we really are in a big rush. You look fine.’
“I immediately realised I’d said the wrong thing: Bernard Ingham, her press secretary, put his hand across his eyes and mouthed ‘Oh ****’ and she said, in the tones of :ady Bracknell, : ‘Oh I’m fine… How very gallant of you!’ “It made me realise that one was dealing with a woman as well as a prime minister.”
John Craven – Countryfile co-host
“She was on Saturday Superstore, which I presented with Mike Read in 1987. I had to meet her at reception, and I can remember her high heels click-clacking across the floor. She looked like a granny, carrying a wicker basket with prizes for the winners of our competition that week.
“The main part of the show was a phone-in. One girl asked where Mrs Thatcher would be if a nuclear bomb went off. That took everybody by surprise. She replied that the whole point of her policies was that this would not happen. But the caller was persistent: ‘Have you got your own bunker?’ She didn’t give a direct answer.”
Michael Brunson – former ITN political editor
“I introduced her to my wife, Sue, at a Downing Street reception. Mrs Thatcher asked: ‘What do you do?’ and Sue replied: “At the moment, I’m the support service for my husband at home.’ Mrs Thatcher said: ‘Thank goodness for that! If all women were like me, the country would fall apart!’”
John Sergeant – former BBC chief political correspondent
“From a reporter’s point of view, she was the dream prime minister. You were never sure what she was going to do next: she was an endless source of stories. Whatever you thought about her politics, she was the best Prime Minister I ever worked with, and I go back to Harold Wilson.
“People think of her as being strange and distant but she connected very quickly with you. Whatever the time of day she’d be up for an argument. As far as I could tell, she had no sense of humour. If anyone made a joke, or suggested she should make a joke, she’d not see the point of at all. And she didn’t have small talk.
“But she could be funny. I remember one occasion I went with her to Moscow. The reporters on the plane were told she wouldn’t come down to see us. Then, just as I was starting the main course and the vintage wine, she suddenly appeared at my side. I stood up, and all the food and crockery fell to the floor. She turned to me and said: ‘You stay where you are. I’ll sort this out.’ What she meant was: ‘You are an idiot male who can’t cope.’ She wanted to take advantage of you, embarrass you. But it was quite playful.”
Michael Cockerell – broadcaster and documentary maker
There were some things Mrs Thatcher would never say on camera. I filmed her when she visited the British Embassy in the United States in the late 70s. Peter Jay, who was then our man in Washington, asked: “What would you like to drink?” She made no reply, but out of sight of the camera wrote a brief note to the Ambassador. Later I discovered it read: “Whisky and soda.” She was certainly not going to be filmed asking for one, still less drinking it.
A favoured method of getting herself across was the big set-piece television interview. The PM had different ways of dealing with interviewers. Some she coated with honey – while she would bite the heads off others. As she put it: “This animal, if attacked, defends itself. So when I come up against somebody who is out to do a very belligerent interview, I say to myself: ‘By God, anything you can do, I can do better’ – and I’m belligerent back.”
By her own admission she would become very nervous before a high-profile TV appearance – and the tension inside Number 10 was palpable. When I asked Mrs Thatcher what she thought about big set-piece TV interviews, she replied: “I hate them, I hate them, I hate them.”
The PM would rehearse for interviews with her blunt Yorkshire press secretary, Bernard Ingham, who pulled no punches in playing the part of the interviewer. One time, as Robin Day set off for one of his major Panorama interviews with Mrs T in Downing Street, he said to me: “Why don’t I start the interview ‘Prime Minister, what’s your answer to my first question?’” Robin felt he knew that whatever he asked her, she would come up with the soundbites she had prepared earlier. But sadly, despite my prompting, he never did begin an interview in that way.