Gordon Burns describes his exclusive interview with Margaret Thatcher and how she kept a promise to his co-producer

Probably the highlight for me (on Reports Politics) was when I got to interview the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. That was an interesting and strange experience, by the way it came about.

My co-producer, David Kemp, who had also worked for World in Action, had made a documentary about Mrs Thatcher when she ran for the leadership of the Tory Party against Ted Heath, who was the current leader, and nobody believed in those days that a woman could ever – especially in the Tory Party – become leader; it would have to be a man – and Ted Heath was the red hot favourite. But David Kemp made this film about Mrs Thatcher, followed her on the campaign trail to be the leader, talked to him, he interviewed her in her home surroundings, all that sort of thing, and she knew how to put it across to be the caring women, the housewife but politician who understood people’s needs and so on, and she did very well in that programme – it opened people’s eyes to a side of Mrs Thatcher they didn’t know, because she wasn’t very well known at the time. She had been education secretary or something like that, but nobody knew very much about her, she wasn’t a big name, and a few days after that, the election happened and she had beaten all the odds and beaten Ted Heath to become leader, and the rest is history.

But she had always said after that, and said it to David Kemp when she next met him, that she believed that that programme was the turning point, and that when people saw her as she was it swung a lot of support around her, even in the Tory Party, and that’s how she narrowly won the vote against Ted Heath, which wasn’t exactly music to David Kemp’s ears, as David Kemp worked in World in Action, which I hope you will forgive me for saying, but in those days was a hot bed of lefties, of which David will I am sure put himself amongst, and for him to carry the blame, as far as lefties were concerned, of the future Thatcher years, was a lot for him to bear – and he was reminded regularly by his leftie friends about it. But nonetheless, he carried on manfully, and in the programmes he made he was always fair, reasonable and balanced. But she had always said, “I owe you a favour, David, and any time you need a favour, let me know.” And in due course, she became prime minister, and one day we thought wouldn’t it be a great coup if we could have the prime minister on our local politics programme and do an interview with her – because she never gave interviews to regional programmes – never, ever. She wouldn’t entertain the thought of a regional programme, obviously it’s not enough widespread coverage for her.

But David put in the application, and was told by Downing Street people that there was no chance he would get the interview, but it went to Mrs Thatcher who said, “I owe David a favour; I will do the interview.” So we were astonished, amazed and elated – we were getting the prime minister! This was a great coup against our BBC rivals! And it was set for, I believe, a Monday – I may be hazy on this, but I had a feeling it was on a Monday, so we were going to go to Downing Street and do the interview. And then over the weekend prior to the Monday, all hell broke out on the world’s stage when there was a hostage situation in Iran, they had taken hostages there – I think American hostages – and the Americans had flown in their top-notch commanders in helicopters to carry out a rescue operation, and I sort of remember it, the helicopters, I think, crashed into each other, but they certainly crashed, and a number of the commanders were killed, and the mission failed, therefore. But President Carter, the American President at the time, went on television across the world, really going to town in Iran and calling on Europe in particular to help impose major sanctions in Iran and actually called on Mrs Thatcher to lead the way, as she was not an established European politician.

And we groaned, because we thought that was the end of our interview, the whole world would want to interview her – and they did. Everyone’s application went in – Panorama, News at Ten, you name it, they all went in for it – so we expected the regional station to be cancelled. And in due course, Downing Street issued a statement saying it would a busy day that day for Mrs Thatcher because of what had happened, she had conversations to have with President Carter, she had a statement to make to the House of Commons, and because of all that she was doing no television interviews or radio whatsoever, so they were all sort of put on the back burner. So we groaned as we listened to this, only to hear the final sentence, she’s not doing any except for Granada Television’s politics programme “because she had promised to do it,” and, she says, “she always keeps her promises.”

So we were put back quite a few hours from 11an or something to 4pm to do the interview while she went to the house and made her statement – but suddenly my interview changed from local politics; I had to go in – obviously – with the big question, because everybody had booked my interview – News at Ten, ITV, BBC, the whole lot – the newspapers had booked the transcripts, so I was expected to be asked, and obviously I had to do it – and I was shaking at the responsibility of this big interview, the only one to get it – thanks to David. And we were in Downing Street in the lounge upstairs, you’ve got those stairs when you go into the front door, past all the pictures of the past prime ministers, which is very impressive when you’re in that building, all that history beside you, and you go into the big lounge, which I had been in before – I had interviewed Ted Heath in there for Ulster Television when he ended up losing his temper and shouting at me, but that’s another story.

So I went in there, and we sat and waited and waited, because she was about 40 minutes late, I think, and the tension rises, the camera crew were there, and I think all, I would have to say, of a leftie persuasion, but nonetheless they were our camera crew, and in the end, the door opened, and an entourage swept in. When I did Ted Heath, he’d shuffled in on his own, and looked a very sad and lonely figure, and he wasn’t a very nice man either. Very difficult to get on with or have any conversation with. But this entourage came in – aides and PR people and so on – and she then appeared in the midst of it. She came walking over very efficiently, and I leapt forward and said, “Prime Minister, my name is Gordon Burns, I think you know David Kemp, the pro…” “Oh, David, dear! Lovely to see you again,” blah, blah, blah. And I said, “This, of course, is our crew…” and then she went round each member of the crew and shook their hands, and although I think they may have been lefties, I think they were actually quite pleased that they had shaken the hand of a Prime Minister in Downing Street. So she knew what she was doing. So she came in and sat down, and she said, “Right. There’s a vase of flowers just over my shoulder. Will that be in shot?” And we said, “If we pull into a wide shot, it will be, Prime Minister, yes.” “Take it away,” she said to her entourage. “Take it away. I saw an interview with myself on French television a week ago, and that looked like it was growing out of my ear – it was very distracting. Take it away.” And then she chose something else to be put in its place, and then she looked down on the coffee table in front of us, which had all the daily papers on it, and she said, “Will this be in shot?” “Yes, Prime Minister, in a wide shot it could well be in shot.” Then she reorganised the papers so that the Times, the Telegraph and the Tory papers were all prominent and the other types of papers were all tucked underneath – it was fascinating how she organised everything. And then when she felt ready, she turned to her aides and said, “Do I look alright? Is my hair in place? And the microphone hasn’t pulled my dress one way or the other, has it?” And they all assured her she looked fine – which is actually, people may say, is very fussy, but it’s actually exactly the right thing to do – because there is nothing more distracting on television than somebody with a hair out of place that’s sticking up in the air, and everybody at home is looking at the hair out of place, and start saying, “You think somebody could have combed her hair for her,” or whatever, so she was absolutely right to get everything super right.

And then I launched in – this was my big moment. Gordon – go for it. I’m going to make every national bulletin that night, so I waded straight in. “Prime Minister, the president of the United States has called upon you to lead the way in imposing sanctions on Iran. So let me ask you straight: are you imposing sanctions on Iran?” And she went into a, “First let me say how brave those American commandoes were, and what a tragedy it was…” – etc., etc. – “… trying to save those innocent people who had been taken hostage by these terrible people,” and blah, blah, around the houses she went. And of course, I then leap in and say, “But Prime Minister, that’s not answering the question. The question was are you imposing sanctions, as President Carter has asked you to do?” And she said, “I thought I answered that question, but let me tell you again.” And off she went, around the houses and I leap in in the middle saying, “Prime Minister, you’re not actually answering the question. Are you imposing…” She said, “Don’t interrupt! Did I interrupt your question? No, I didn’t – so don’t interrupt my answer!” I said, “But you’re not answering.” “If you’d listen, you’ll get your answer.” So I was handbagged, metaphorically speaking, by the prime minister, and I tried three or four times, and no way was she going to answer the question, which you have to leave in the end, because you hope that people listening have decided that she’s not imposing sanctions against Iran but she’s not going to embarrass President Carter by saying so on television, so she’s batting it out of play. So it was a fascinating experience for me. I have interviewed her three times in my career, but that was the most memorable. She was quite a formidable lady.

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