Thursday, 5 February 2009
Tony Benn is something of a legendary figure in British politics - I don't know how much of his Wikipedia entry is true, but his status as a National Treasure (words often preceded by the phrase "I don't agree with a single one of his policies, but...") is beyond doubt. We filmed him for a comment on street protests and whether they're causing too much disruption in London. He lives on a main road in a well-to-do part of West London. The laminated sign on the front door of his 4 story townhouse said, "Please use the downstairs entrance", so we trooped down some dilapidated stairs to be confronted with another laminated sign attached to the door-knocker: "The door is open, please come in". We knocked and went in (bringing the sign with us), and there was the man himself. I've met Tony Benn before, when he came into the studio to discuss something or other on a BBC Radio 5 live show I was presenting, but to meet someone in the context of their own home (especially a living legend) changes the game entirely. Knowing of his privileged upbringing, I expected a tastefully furnished mansion populated by various family members, and staff, including a devoted housekeeper who would spend her time fussing over him and an earnest young man acting as his secretary/PR wallah. But no, we were welcomed by a sprightly 84 year old, working in what frankly looked like conditions of genteel, and slightly eccentric poverty. The office he directed us into to set up the interview was cold and damp (which he apologised for). Whilst he was busying himself elsewhere and the cameraman did his lighting, I had a good look round. One wall of the office was wholly taken up by his own writings and recordings - file after file of the Benn diaries and audio CDs. Below them was a vinyl-tablecloth-covered desk holding two switched-off TVs which were connected to VHS recorders. In the corner of the room was a bookshelf holding a good chunk of leather-bound books, including a few of his own - the backdrop for the interview as "suggested" (ie directed) by him. On the desk beneath the window was a functioning Amstrad email/phone thing. This appeared to be the most advanced technology in the room - there was no computer present. The shabby mantelpiece had a 25 year old framed commons sketch above it - Margaret Thatcher was at the despatch box and every MP's features had been caricatured. Alarmingly, on its side, on the mantelpiece itself, was a whole, iced, and clearly ancient cake. It looked like it had been there years, and had various tapes and books packed around it - with what looked like a large decoration from the cake propped up on one of the books. It would be a disservice to the vitality of the place to draw comparisons with the living habits of Steptoe and Miss Havisham, but it is potentially going that way. Still, at the age of 84 you're hardly going to give two hoots are you? And I've been in considerably worse bachelor pads. Men just don't clean up much when left to their own devices. By far the most impressive part of the whole package was Benn himself. Still intellectually fiery, argumentative and grippingly lucid he answered every question cleverly and persuasively. He wore a lapel microphone for us and another connected to an audio cassette machine. "I hope you don't mind." he said as he pressed record "I'm an archivist." I don't mind my interview being in the Benn archive one bit... Delightfully uninterested in doing set up shots, he was more than happy to pose for a photo (see below) and we had a chat about my BlackBerry. I showed him my iPod touch, and said he'd probably get on better with an iPhone. He was worried about switching from Orange and having to change his number. I said I was pretty sure it was a painless process nowadays. We chatted about progress - how when his father was born there were no cars at all, when he was born no television and women still didn't have the vote, when his son was born no computers, when I was born, no mobile phones and when his granddaughter was born - no internet. He was minister for technology in the 60s I think and has a genuine interest in that sort of thing, even if he doesn't quite buy into it himself. I have a theory that to continue doing something over a period of time, provided it's done for the right reasons, has a moral value to it, no matter the impact it makes on the world, and I think that is why we celebrate people like Tony Benn (you could put him in the same bracket as John Peel). He's dedicated his life to politics, and has showed us, by example, the value of sticking to what you believe in. Even the cameraman was impressed.