I t’s been a quite a week for mistaken identity. It
began with my partner sounding very excited on the telephone. ‘At last a chance to make some money,’ she said. ‘The Independent has a story about dodgy dealings by companies in Iraq — one of them is run by Tim Bell. And they’ve printed a photo of you, captioned Lord Bell.’ I emailed Bell: ‘Have you seen the Indie piece which accuses you of making squillions trading with Iraq? They illustrated it with what purported to be a pic of you but it was me. Should you sue or should I?’ Ping! came the reply. ‘As long as you don’t want a share of the squillions, I’m happy to be you.’ I suspect that the picture desk had grabbed a publicity still of Bell and me taken for a documentary I had made and in the rush they had flipped the transparency, so we had changed places. Could happen to anyone.
The man with a thousand identities, Rory Bremner, rang to ask if I would appear on his show. Who do you want me to be? I asked. Just yourself, he replied. He was planning to do his David Cameron impersonation and he wanted me as the straight interviewer to lend verisimilitude. I asked the ersatz Cameron why he had chosen to wear a tie for the interview: ‘Well, Michael, wearing a tie is a matter of choice for people, so it’s important that a politician does both. Maybe one day I won’t wear a shirt. And if I want to appeal to the Liberals, maybe I’ll wear nothing at all’.
In real life, the big interviewers are concerned about how to question Cameron. He has developed a smart style of turning their techniques against them. In his recent Today encounter with John Humphrys who was in full interject mode — Cameron stopped him in his tracks, saying, ‘John, you’ll interrupt yourself in a minute.’ And he turned the tables on Jeremy Paxman during the Tory leadership election, when he said, ‘The trouble with these interviews, Jeremy, is that you treat people like a cross between a fake and a hypocrite. You give no time to anyone to answer any of your questions.’ That was a line Cameron later admitted he had prepared earlier. After the interview was written up as a triumph for Cameron, Paxo — a more sensitive plant than his screen persona would allow — went into soul-searching mode. Would he need to change his technique for the new man — would a more considered approach produce greater dividends? When I was making a recent BBC documentary about Tony Blair’s sixmonth presidency of the EU, I discovered another striking example of political crossdressing. Blair invited his counterparts to Hampton Court for an informal summit. To create an atmosphere of intimacy the 25 leaders alone sat in Henry VIII’s Great Hall, with no officials or interpreters present. Their discussions were relayed to the interpreters in another part of the Palace by hidden, miniature television cameras that had been specially hired from the Big Brother television show. ‘Don’t worry,’ Blair told his fellow leaders, ‘we are not on reality television — at least not yet.’ I’ve seen no mention since John Profumo’s death of his start in politics — as the Tories’ early Alastair Campbell figure. Just after the war Brigadier Profumo became the party’s first broadcasting officer. For my book about television and No. 10, he told me that Winston Churchill was convinced that the BBC was ‘honeycombed with communists’ and asked Profumo to produce evidence of left-wing bias. ‘I couldn’t think how to do it,’ said Profumo. ‘I decided to put an advertisement in the Daily Telegraph saying I was looking for long-term patients in hospital with radios. When people replied we asked if they would agree for a small payment to monitor the programmes we selected. I still remember one programme about tapestries, of all things — and the commentary went, “To think these beautiful tapestries hang on the walls of the rich, yet they are woven in the humble hovels of the peasants.”’ It’s reported this week that MI5 is planning to modernise its image by dropping its Latin motto, Regnum Defende. But such exercises in rebranding are not that easy to achieve, as its chief, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, recently admitted. She said that when MI5 first published its telephone number, most of the calls it received were from people wanting to purchase flatpack furniture.
The England cricket team’s exploits in India have triggered a vivid dream which has me selected to make my Test debut. But the Indians take a hat trick with the first three balls of the match and I have to go in to bat very hurriedly. I only realise as I am about to walk out in front of a packed crowd that I am trouserless. And I know it will take more than two minutes to rectify this, by which time the umpire can deem that the team is refusing to bat and close the innings. So, in my very first Test, I face being responsible for England being all out for nought in the first over. I wake up trembling.
Ioccasionally think that television is taking too great a hold over my life when at the end of some of my dreams the credits roll. But I have never yet managed to catch the name of my dream Executive Producer.