The news of Denis Healey’s death has prompted many a seasoned political interviewer to recall their encounters with the “Labour giant”.
The former Labour chancellor passed away at the age of 98 on Saturday. Two political broadcasters at the Cheltenham Literature Festival have been sharing the times they felt the full force of Healey’s charisma.
Historian, Radio 4 presenter and former Whitehall correspondent Peter Hennessy remembers Healey as a master of disarming an interviewer – and not just with words.
“The most devastating one, and he’s on our minds today, is the great Denis Healey,” he said when discussing charismatic politicians. “I interviewed him for a Granada Television series in the 80s. Not only did he use repartee, he also knew when the camera was on me and not him, and he’d pull faces! Which made him extremely difficult to interview.
“I bear the scars of Denis, and I shall miss him terribly,” Hennessy added.
Sky News Tonight presenter Adam Boulton has scars of his own from a more confrontational encounter with Healey in 1987, while working as political editor of ITV early morning show TV-am.
“It was four days before the General Election, and I was working with Anne Diamond on TV-am,” Boulton recalled. “The Sun headline that day was that Denis’s wife had had private medicine, and Diamond asked him a rather innocuous question, ‘What do you think about this headline?’
“He at that point stood up, still attached to his microphone, and said ‘This is a TV-am dirty trick’,” Boulton remembered. “‘You’re a s**t,’ he said to Anne, before turning to me, ‘You’re a s**t too’. He punched me.
“Which we would have hushed up except [gossip columnist] Nigel Dempster was sat in the green room, so that got into the papers, and I had to go into hiding for the last few days of the election, which was a bit awkward if you were a political editor.
“That said, I did meet him [Healey] subsequently when I moved to Sky in a hotel corridor. He came up to me and said, ‘Ah Mr Bolton, Sky television. I understand you can receive it on dustbin lids. Most appropriate.’”