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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 June 2007, 15:50 GMT 16:50 UK
Sedgefield's decade in the limelight
By Michael Wild
Producer, Tony, Sedgefield and Me

As Tony Blair steps down after 10 years in power, for his friends and neighbours in Sedgefield, County Durham - where he is the local MP - it is the end of an extraordinary decade in which world leaders and media have descended on their remote corner of the North East.

John Burton looks on as Tony Blair is greeted by supporters at Trimdon Labour Club
Tony Blair received hugs at Trimdon Labour Club as he prepared to announce his resignation

In 1983, Mr Blair was desperately looking for a seat and ended up in Sedgefield, a new constituency looking for a candidate.

John Burton, now Mr Blair's constituency agent, was then an influential member of the party in Trimdon as well as a local councillor.

When Mr Blair went to his house to meet him and a few of his Labour Party friends, hoping to eventually be selected as their candidate, he certainly didn't get special treatment.

"He phoned me up and asked if he could come," recalls Mr Burton of his first meeting with the young barrister who wanted to become a Labour MP.

"We were watching a football match on the TV so he sat down. Unfortunately it was a draw at full time and went on to penalties and he sat there for about two and a half hours, I think."

'Cabinet material'

When they did finally get to talk, John and other members of the local party were impressed.

"There was something special about it. We could never have said he was going to be prime minister obviously, but we knew he was certainly Cabinet material... very special."

As a result of that meeting they agreed to put his name on the shortlist and the local party chose him as their candidate a couple of weeks later.

Holly Brooks
Everyone was cheering and clapping and that was our cue to be very nervous and start smiling
Holly Brooks
Met Blair aged six

John became Tony Blair's agent and closest confidante, always on hand to offer down-to-earth advice.

And from the very start there was a bit of showbiz surrounding Tony Blair.

Coronation Street star Pat Phoenix - who played Elsie Tanner - was Cherie's stepmother and joined him on his first ever campaign in the North East.

'Pied piper'

"Everybody was following this with great fascination," recalls Toby Horton, the Conservative candidate who fought Tony Blair in Sedgefield in 1983.

"It was a bit like the pied piper taking his little troupe around the constituency. The hard, raw policies didn't seem to interest him."

Rachel Thompson and Holly Brooks first met their local MP when they were just six years old.

I was trying to get my tongue around saying 'Mr President' all the time
Lily Burton

They were waiting at Darlington railway station in 1994 with a handful of red roses as Tony Blair returned from London after being elected Labour leader.

"Everyone was cheering and clapping and that was our cue to be very nervous and start smiling," remembers Holly, who is now 18.

Rachel adds: "We were both given roses and I didn't actually know what was happening until we were pushed in front of the camera."

Security stepped up

Today they still live in Trimdon and are close friends of the family, attending the christening of Leo Blair at the local church.

"When I'm older and have children of my own, it will be something I can tell them about," says Rachel.

"They'll go to school and learn about Tony Blair in their history class and I'll be able to say I can help them out and tell them a few things!"

Rev Martin King
It distresses me that the two most notable warmongers - in this part of the world anyway - are two people who claim to be church people
Rev Martin King
Local vicar

Once Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997, security was dramatically stepped up around his Trimdon home.

World leaders like French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin would drop into the local pub for lunch. But no event was bigger than the visit of George Bush.

While protesters gathered outside to heap abuse on the two men for their involvement in the Iraq war, inside friends and neighbours were sharing small talk with the US president.

Lily Burton, John's wife, recalls: "I was trying to get my tongue around saying 'Mr President' all the time.

"That was funny but he was a very nice man. I just asked him how his father was and how his girls were coping with him being president."

Others - like the local vicar, the Rev Martin King - felt very differently:

"When President Bush visited Sedgefield, we felt it was very important to make as much of a protest as we could," he recalls.

"While I'm not in any position to make any judgment about him in the eyes of God, it distresses me that the two most notable warmongers - in this part of the world anyway - are two people who claim to be church people.

"That saddens me very much because it is normally very much the last resort and we were not at the last resort when we went to war."

The people of Sedgefield tell their story in "Tony, Sedgefield and Me" on Wednesday June 20 at 1930 BST on BBC Two.




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