So Michael Foot, the former leader of the Labour Party, has died at the age of 96.
The British press is giving him the kind of respectful obituaries that he deserved and his memory should be honoured by all of us, whatever political opinions, I was going to say prejudices, we may hold. I was lucky enough to meet him at an important moment in his career so, in all humility, I feel I should remember that today.
He was undoubtedly a very nice man and also a very clever one who lead his party, disastrously some would say whilst others would disagree, after its defeat by Margaret Thatcher and through the early years of her long period in power.
I was a young television researcher at the time, working on a live weekly half-hour regional political programme for Granada Television in the North-West of England. In the days when ITV made a strong tranche of, so-called, public service broadcasting programmes and took its responsibilities to its region seriously whilst also making World-class programmes for the national network which have become famous and which have been shown round the World many times.
My job was to work out each week who we should have on the show to be interviewed about the major political story of the moment. Often I had to book busy and reluctant politicians to come up from Westminster to the Manchester studios late on a Friday night to be grilled and criticised when I am sure they would mostly have preferred to have gone home for a stiff drink and a bit of relaxation.
Amazingly, many key politicians agreed to make the journey almost always as a result of a telephone call when I had to convince them, one to one, that what we were trying to do was worth their journey.
So I found myself having conversations with cabinet ministers, former ministers and senior opposition figures on a regular weekly basis.
With the arrogance of youth and, can I admit to it, a gift of the gab, I established a bit of a reputation with my bosses for delivering the goods.
So this brings me to Michael Foot.
After James Callaghan’s Labour government was defeated by Margaret Thatcher, the Labour Party fell into the kind of decline and internal fighting that occurred in the Conservative Party after Margaret Thatcher was ousted from power a decade later. Callaghan stood down as leader and an aggressive and passionate leadership election campaign began with two main candidates: the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right-of-centre heavy-weight, Dennis Healey and the out-sider, maverick, left-wing and, by this stage, politically elderly Michael Foot.
I was instructed by my bosses to see if I could get the winning leader onto our show which had the annoyingly confusing title, A Week On Friday. On many occasions I thought I had made myself clear to some senior politicians that I wanted them to come up to Manchester this Friday then to have to explain several times that I didn’t mean a week on Friday.
With Michael Foot, the reverse was true. I began talking to his secretary about booking him for the programme a few weeks before the final ballot. She said that he was free to come up on the date I suggested, the Friday after the final ballot. I then had a long telephone conversation with the man himself. He was interested in appearing and said that I was the first person from television to ask him on.
He said, I suspect you would only want me though if I won the election.
I suppose there is a gambler somewhere in my persona, some may call it bull-shitter in me, but I had decide what to do there and then.
Of course we would still want you, Mr. Foot, I said without consulting the programme’s producer or editor and feeling that nasty sinking sensation in my stomach that was predicting my imminent sacking.
Well, Michael Foot made it to that final ballot, still the under-dog as far as the press was concerned.
My bosses quizzed me and quizzed me again. He will never win, they said. We can’t have him on if he loses and even if he wins he will never come up to Manchester because he will get booked everywhere.
I pretended to be confident. I think he will win, I said. I know he will come up because he promised that he would. I think I hid my anxiety even in the face of my bosses’ cynicism and veiled threats.
The final ballot was on the Monday of the week that Michael Foot had agreed to come up for our Friday night live show.
So if he loses, I was asked, how will we fill the programme?
I fudged and enthused and tried to work out how we could make an exclusive interview with a loser interesting and news-worthy. I was a young relative new-comer to television in those days but I was given a lot of responsibility, something television researchers would not have today. In those days I met Margaret Thatcher, she even invited me to a drinks party, and I talked to all the members of the Government as well as all the leading opposition politicians. It was a fascinating time.
I was in London on the day of the Labour election – oddly enough I was in the press office at the Conservative Party’s Smith Square Headquarters in fact pursuing other political stories. I was talking to the press people there when they turned the radio on for the Labour Election results.
Margaret Thatcher was doing badly in the polls, she had yet to win, single-handedly in seemed, the Falklands War which boosted her poll-rating through the ceiling but on this day, there was gloom in Conservative Central Office. If the obvious candidate won, the politically formidable Dennis Healey then, they thought, they would be in trouble.
It didn’t happen of course. Michael Foot, loved by his party more than he was by the country, was elected by an amazingly large margin and a brief political sensation was born. The Conservative Press Office cheered and opened a bottle of wine….I was, in equal measure thrilled and relieved. I had had my job and my bacon saved in one wonderful moment. Cheers I said to those Conservatives even though we were celebrating two very different causes.
So, after an all-important phone-call, I rushed back to Manchester.
There was panic in the office. So he won but he will never honour his agreement, will he? Can we rely on Wolfie to have got it right? I had put in a call to Michael Foot’s secretary as soon as I got away from the Conservatives. Yes, she said, we have you down for Friday but, as you can imagine, it would be difficult to speak to him today with all the news breaking. No problem I said – just as long as I can rely on him coming up on Friday.
Then he did what no one had predicted. He took a fall and broke his leg. I remember the tears forming in my eyes. I don’t believe it…I can’t bear it….so near and yet so far.
I rang his secretary. Yes, he has broken his leg and he is not doing interviews with the press. My heart sank. I said that it would be a disaster if he didn’t come up to Manchester on Friday. That it was already being advertised, that I had promised my bosses….that I would drink my own vomit if he came…well you know what I mean. She said she would ask him.
Moments later, I was put through to him. I made an agreement Wolfgang. He said. You promised to have me on whether I won or lost and I will keep my word.
He then went on to discuss the arrangements. His broken leg was a problem. He could not come up on the train. No problem Mr Foot, we will send a car for you. Good. The press were a problem. He was being portrayed as an old dithering man and, he said, all the papers will want a picture of me on my crutches – a lame duck leader, he laughed, I can see the headlines now. It is important then, he said, that I can come up to the Granada Studios without being photographed on my crutches. I told him that I would make sure that his car would take him right into the secure zone at our studios and I would make sure the press got nowhere near to him.
So we had a deal.
It was an amazing thing that the new Leader of the Opposition, in theory the next Prime Minister could discuss all of this with a relatively junior television researcher but that is just what happened.
Michael Foot didn’t do any interviews in the newspapers or on television until he came to do our programme. I arranged for his car to be driven straight into our loading bay and then I wheeled him in a wheelchair to our studio.
The interview, a World exclusive, as they say these days, then made it to the national evening news and when I had returned Mr. Foot to his car, it was driven out into Granada Television’s back car park which was not crowded by reporters and photographers from the national press.
The next morning his picture was in all the papers and, in at least one national newspaper, there is also one young wolfiewolfgang saying goodbye to a very nice and deeply honourable man as he was about to be driven off to the political jungle that is Westminster politics.
So, I for one, will always honour your memory Michael Foot. If only I could believe that your successors had half of your integrity.