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Kebabbed: Part 1
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Sunday, 26 March, 2000, 04:01 GMT
Kebabbed: Part 1

Clement Attlee: Short on words
In a new four-part series for BBC Radio 4 Ian Hargreaves tells the story of the political interview. Part one of the series sees politicians forced to embrace the television age.

In 1955 Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party, was called back from a lecture tour of the United States to prepare for a snap general election.

Greeted at the airport by a BBC reporter, Attlee was asked if he would explain Labour's plans for the campaign. "No" he replied and scuttled away to a meeting of party officials.

As interviews went, it wasn't much. But it was typical of the period. Although the BBC had already been around for three decades, it had not thought fit to breach the conventions of polite deference towards politicians. It didn't ask difficult questions.

That was an activity reserved for Parliament, which still had rules tightly restricting the broadcasters' rights to cover its activities.

The idiot's lantern comes of age

It took the arrival of ITN, the news arm of commercial television, to shake things up. Robin Day, lawyer turned broadcaster, was the young star who in 1958, at the age of 34, confronted Harold Macmillan in the first substantial one-to-one interview of a prime minister on television.

Day, having discussed the matter with his editor, decided to ask the question all the papers were gossiping about.

Would Macmillan dump his unpopular Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd.

Macmillan wasn't too dismayed by the question, but the next day the papers behaved as though Day had committed an act of treason, probing the prime ministerial mind on such a delicate topic.

"The idiot's lantern is getting too big for its ugly gleam," wailed the Cassandra column in the Daily Mirror.

New techniques

As Robin Day and a handful of others established themselves as household names and celebrities, politicians struggled with the lantern's ugly gleam, coming across as too loud, too defensive, too fidgety or too arrogant.

Others recognised that the television age demanded new techniques and that the rewards of mastering them would be considerable.

Harold Wilson: "I feel like a drink"
The master was Harold Wilson, who set out to charm Robin Day into submission, addressing him as "Robin" and developing a matey, conversational style designed simultaneously to disarm the interviewer and appeal to the audience.

Asked on the eve of the 1964 election how he felt, Wilson replied, brilliantly: "Quite honestly, I feel like a drink."

In return, interviewers searched for new techniques and new types of question, unimaginable across the gangway of the House of Commons.

David Frost famously confronted Wilson's rival Edward Heath with the question: "But do you like Mr Wilson" and asked it three times, before extracting the implied negative he was looking for.

But as the politicians recognised the importance of televisual skills, they also became more dependent upon the broadcasters to get their messages across.

Ian Hargreaves is professor of journalism at Cardiff University. Part 2 of Kebabbed will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 2 April at 10.45pm.

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