Journalist and broadcaster John Sergeant talks about interviewing Margaret Thatcher, his career in television, and why he left Strictly Come Dancing.
After performing in a series of sketch shows written by Alan Bennett in the 1960s, John Sergeant trained as a journalist and went on to become the BBC’s Chief Political Correspondent. In 1990 John Sergeant won the British Press Guild award for most memorable broadcast after being shoved aside by Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary, Sir Bernard Ingham, while trying to ask for her reaction to the first ballot of the 1990 party leadership contest. It now seems like Sergeant has ‘gone full circle’ and is as well known for his comedic moments as his journalism, appearing on Have I Got News for You?, QI and Strictly Come Dancing.
How did you differentiate, because you had several different interests, comedy, theatre and journalism, how did you know what it was you would dedicate most of your time to?
I suppose I had a choice between being a comic actor of some kind and being a journalist and I always thought that journalism would be more exciting. I thought we would travel the world, which in those days it was quite difficult to do. If you wanted to go to Vietnam for example, it was quite difficult to do that if you were an ordinary person, whereas if you are a reporter it was often horribly easy to find yourself in Vietnam because that was the big war that was going on and there were a lot of reporters involved.
Were you ever scared?
Lots of times I was scared and also I was persistently not brave. I think the mistake is to imagine that just because you have been to a war zone that makes you brave. No, it probably makes you frightened, it makes you nervous afterwards.
Were there any moments when you felt you were witnessing a particularly important moment in history?
I think there were lots of times when you knew it was an exceptional moment. I suppose the one that surprised me looking back was being there when Martin Luther King was making his ‘I have a dream’ speech in Washington. That was back when I was a student, that was before I was a student, that was before I was a journalist, and that sort of crept up on me. I did not know who Martin Luther King was and of course it wasn’t a famous speech until very much later and it really became important, curiously enough, after he died, which was five years later.
How important was that period in Washington for you as a student, in terms of getting your head together?
I think it was very important because I then realised, if I hadn’t before, that I was pretty obsessed by politics and I was also very determined- I still am really- to try and work out what’s going on and why, so I suppose that stayed with me. There was an intense curiosity and that is what took me to Martin Luther King’s speech, it was no coincidence that I was there. I had spent the whole summer thinking about race relations and the tensions in the American South and I was only 18 turning 19 so I suppose it was the realisation that this was a political obsessive in the making.
When you joined the BBC, most of your colleagues in radio had not gone to university and would have had to work up through journalism. Do you think you can be a broadcast journalist now without having a degree?
No, I think it is very difficult to be a broadcaster now without some kind of degree but then there are lots of different sorts of degrees aren’t there? I always thought the main thing is for people to be quick witted and work hard and it’s very difficult to do that if you’ve not been at university. If you have managed to avoid university, it’s quite a clever trick but I’m not sure what you would have been doing between the ages of 18 and 21 if you had that kind of application, and concentration too, in order to be reasonably successful in broadcasting.
When was the last time you spoke to Margaret Thatcher?
The last time I spoke to her, sadly, was in the 2001 General Election and she didn’t know who I was so that was sad. It was hardly a proper conversation, she did speak to me, I did speak to her but I don’t think she was really able to work out where I was or how it all fitted in.
If you could ask her a question now, what would it be?
I suppose you would just want to go back over her feelings really, that is when she was at her best I think, when she was talking about what it was like at various points. I remember, right at the beginning of her time as Prime Minister, someone asked her if she would ever get over the excitement she said: “You can’t be on cloud nine all the time; you’ve got to have some kind of discipline and habits.” The way she responded was exactly as if she was some sort of housewife, she was very good at that, and she lost that towards the end of her time in Downing Street because she then tended to go on auto-pilot.
Do you think she became too confident in herself?
I think they get cut off and they get tired and they tend to find that the easiest evening for them is to perhaps talk to a group of people and just have a set speech which they then repeat to groups. They’ll say: “well what I’m thinking about at the moment…” and she’ll suddenly launch into a lecture about North Sea oil and how it’s refined and I’ll think: ‘Why I am I being told this?’ It’s because she didn’t want to talk about anything else and she did not want the conversation led by somebody else. She would want to make sure she was leading a conversation and that was the easiest way to do it, but it’s irritating if you want a conversation with someone.
So you would want to get back some genuine feeling?
Yes you would want to get back some of that freshness and you would try to ask her anything such as “what was the first day like?” or “what do you feel about that?” and she would reply.
Was anyone particularly difficult to interview?
Lots of people are difficult to interview, John Prescott could be difficult. He was often annoyed with you or certainly annoyed with me. Denis Thatcher was impossible to interview, he thought I was a communist so that made it more difficult. I worked for the Bolshevik Broadcasting Company so that was trouble. There were times with Margaret Thatcher; her first interview as PM was at 3am in the morning and I was at the back of a crowd of two hundred people and I realised the only way to get it – this was a radio interview – was to literally crawl under the feet of all these people, but I did it and I rose up in front of all these people and she went “oh, surprising” and we went straight to the interview; so that’s a difficult interview but on the other hand one of the interviews I am particularly proud of.
Do you feel you have now gone comedy – journalism – comedy?
Yes, but in ordinary life people are often funny and then serious and people make jokes and then they relax; people can accept that in an ordinary conversation so I don’t know why people can’t accept it when it comes to someone like me who makes their living by talking.
Difficult though when you are covering politics because initially your superiors weren’t particularly keen on you doing things like Have I Got News For You? were they?
That’s right, so you’ve got to be very careful about what you are actually doing at any given moment. So if you are doing serious politics you can’t be larking around because the audience won’t trust you, which means you’ll be bad at reporting politics, and I was pretty determined to be good at it and that did not mean fooling about in the middle of Downing Street. Whereas if you are on a comedy programme and you are not fooling about in Downing Street then you’re no good, so you’ve got to be very careful to make sure you are doing the right thing for the right programme.
Do you still think leaving Strictly was the right thing to do?
Oh yeah, absolutely it was the right thing to do. The atmosphere was turning and you don’t want to do something which is really going against the grain of the audience, why should you? It wasn’t as if I had set my heart on winning Strictly Coming Dancing, it wasn’t one of my great ambitions but having some fun and enjoying it was an ambition and I think I succeeded.
Have you done much dancing since Strictly Come Dancing?
No, no, it’s not the sort of thing you can just go and do and also it’s not like traditional dancing, you are learning a routine, so it’s not really the same as going along to some dance hall and saying ‘will you dance with me?’ I probably wouldn’t know what to do.