Episode 5: Sir Humphrey and the celebrities
Consorting with celebrity is, of course, one of the great weaknesses of the modern politician.
No matter how high their star ascends, most can’t escape the reality that they were hideously unpopular and uncool in their youth. Landing a genuine A-lister pal is their form of redemption. From Wilson chumming up with the Beatles, to Blair hosting his Britpop parties at Number 10, it was ever thus.
Civil servants too — many of whom are similarly damaged by their geeky past — can’t resist getting involved in the action too.
At Education, for example, a visit by Dolly Parton to promote her literacy campaign led to a long line of overheated, balding policy officials clustering on the eighth floor, all coincidentally deciding they had urgent business in the Secretary of State’s private office at exactly the same time as she arrived.
A similar phenomenon occurred with the female contingent at the Department of Health when a certain Hugh Grant dropped in to talk to Andrew Lansley about his campaign to improve research funding for pancreatic cancer, a disease which had killed his mother a few years earlier.
I fretted at the time that the collision of such extreme forces of charisma and anti-charisma in the same room might trigger some dreadful astronomical event. Fortunately, the universe survived their meeting, though I’m not sure any meaningful policy emerged out of it.
The Olympics aside, my own brushes with stardom were more modest.
I was thrilled to meet several icons of my youth through my work in the health and social care world, including Esther Rantzen who I remember watching on That’s Life! every Sunday throughout my childhood, and Floella Benjamin whose stellar contribution to my early year’s education speaks for itself.
Most satisfying of all was a very brief and lucrative (for one of us) relationship with another true legend of broadcasting and personal hero of mine: Sir Michael Parkinson.
It all came about because of the fixation at the tail end of the last Labour government with bringing on board celebrities as advocates for certain policies: a recognition, I suspect, that the British public needed a dose of sweetness to digest the stodgy and stale remnants of a once vital policy agenda.
So it was that Parky had been lured in to become one of several so-called “Dignity Champions” whose job was to improve standards of dignity and compassion in the UK’s care homes through the magic of something called “a social movement” — a largely homeopathic remedy routinely doled out by policy makers in lieu of providing adequate funding.
As part of this, Sir Michael had toured a number of care homes and then worked with the department’s officials to develop a thoughtful, in-depth report based on his experiences. My job was to take this 50-page opus and boil it down into a 1,000-word newspaper article that captured the voice of a genuine British treasure in all his glory.
Having not got the chance to speak to the great man himself, I checked a few old YouTube videos and diligently knocked out the required 1,000 words in my best approximation of his charming, no-nonsense style, reciting my words back to myself in a thick Yorkshire accent to the amusement of colleagues next to me.
I assume he was fairly happy with the result; the newspaper in question was certainly satisfied and my eyes widened when the features editor got in touch to ask how he was to get a very sizeable writer’s fee across to Sir Michael.
Gracefully, Parky said that he wanted to donate the money to a charity related to the cause. Rather less gracefully, I discovered that the charity wasn’t me…