EXCLUSIVE: ‘He didn’t want a reporter in there:’ Behind the scenes of the David Cameron documentary

Written by Caroline Frost on 26 September 2019 in Editorial
Editorial

Of the many complaints laid at David Cameron’s door since he pulled the lever on the EU Referendum and inadvertently triggered the country into the current chaos, one of the biggest is his apparent indifference to the state of affairs since he left Downing Street in July 2016, a sangfroid lamented by Danny Dyer and others.

For Denys Blakeway, the veteran filmmaker tasked with bringing us the former Prime Minister’s most intimate thoughts after three silent years in BBC documentary ‘The Cameron Years’, the opposite is true:

“He’s a man who has thought very profoundly and deeply about everything he’s done. He’s not in any way superficial.”

Blakeway has made similarly up-close-and-personal films with three previous premiers – Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major – and he says that while they share a toughness with his most recent subject, nonetheless

Cameron has personal qualities that set him apart even in this elite company:

“Margaret Thatcher was rabid with revenge on those who had betrayed her, and John Major was clearly exhausted. But Cameron is a very centred figure,

deeply thoughtful and caring, not as cool as Obama, but a lot younger than those other British leaders, and so that may have given him strength. He’s a grounded character.

“When you film with prime ministers, they are totally committed to being the best and doing their interview better than others. They don’t hang about and it goes for all of those I’ve interviewed. When I did Maggie Thatcher, she came up to me, wagged her finger and said, ‘This will be good,’ and she meant it.

David Cameron obviously felt the same. He made a proper commitment to doing it and doing it well.”

Despite Blakeway’s filming pedigree, his eventual sit-down with Cameron took place between March and May this year only after months of the director making approaches to the former premier and his people, who were considering a number of approaches to coincide with the publication of his long-awaited memoirs. Even when Blakeway finally had a reply to an email, it was only an invitation to come with his begging bowl in person.

“I went and saw him in a café in Chelsea, and he sort of informally interviewed me, as well as a number of other producers, and finally I got the gig.”

Why Blakeway and not somebody more familiar to viewers, someone more immediately associated with all the workings of Westminster?

“He wanted someone he could trust and somebody who wouldn’t get in the way of telling the story,” explains the director. “He didn’t want a reporter’s voice in there, or some presenter who would try to interpose their personality in front of the camera and guard the view. He liked my approach, to try to create a glass through which we could view these events and people. I’m not meant to be a character, not a presenter, just someone who occasionally prompts.”

Despite Cameron’s famously suave style and good manners, Blakeway is under no illusion that it was important for Cameron whether the director held him in high regard, either politically or personally: “He took my professionalism for granted. He wanted to come across as well as he could, and my professionalism was one of the tools he could use to do that.”

The film features other big players from Cameron’s time in office, including his Chancellor George Osborne - “we held a referendum we should never have held… I made a case against it, but it wasn’t heard” – and his Deputy and coalition partner Nick Clegg, who clearly still has beef. Even the diplomatic Blakeway concedes of this former alliance, “They had a professional rapport, the coalition became very close, but I don’t think that closeness exists anymore.”

Throughout his film, though, all the subjects are studiously tempered in their language, even when their most damning memories are being excavated, such as Clegg’s contempt for Cameron’s lack of control over the Tory party, and for Osborne’s “back of a fag packet economics” in defence of staying in Europe.

This all amuses Blakeway. He reflects, “Politicians have a rapport, and they can continue to get on, even when difficult things are exchanged. It’s not an ordinary life. Brickbats can get exchanged, but they can somehow still get on…”

But with every rule there are exceptions, and the most searing part of the film comes with Michael Gove’s deceptively detached explanation of why he chose politics over friendship. Blakeway succeeded where other interviewers have failed, in coaxing out Gove’s probably painful memories of long conversations with his former great friend Cameron  - what he describes now as “attempts on his part to reassure himself that our friendship would mean that I wouldn’t stray from the fold”.

For Blakeway, Gove’s contribution is one of the most significant parts of his documentary, and he thinks a brave gesture on the part of a man with a public image of personal backstabbing, to explain events now. He says:

“Michael Gove is one of the most courteous people you can possibly imagine, he was so kind to us. A producer forgot a recording card and we had to keep him waiting, hanging around for ages, but he didn’t make one complaint, not a bristle. Then when we finally interviewed him, no question was too difficult, he was utterly courteous, tremendous.

“I was so grateful to him, he gave us an interview and it was a very courageous thing to do.”

Even when giving his side of the chasm that created such a feeling of personal betrayal, as well as his considered “regret not remorse” at the whole cascade of events since that fateful day he made the decision to take the question of Europe to Britain’s people, David Cameron is a man to be admired for his temperament, says Blakeway:

“I never got a sense of real deep bitter fury or rage. There is something about him which is pretty stoical, such as his reaction to Boris not coming on side. He doesn’t appear to be someone who vents fury or speaks in a way that releases pent up emotion, he’s either a grown up or someone very much in control of their emotions.”

Or someone who has faced other life events to keep all things in perspective. The loss of his eldest child Ivan is something he talks about in the second half of the documentary, to be aired next week. But Part One supports Blakeway’s reading of David Cameron: “I had no sense of a broken man, his emotional trauma is well below the surface. There’s no doubt he did suffer (during and after the Referendum), but it’s not something he wears on his sleeve.”

What does David Cameron wish for his audience to take away from this unabashedly intimate encounter with him after three years in exile, almost total silence and now a cascade of thoughts, reflections and hopes? For Blakeway, it was a sense of pride in the rest of his legacy that has, for the last three years, gone unmarked.

“He’s very proud of his achievements if you put Brexit aside - running the coalition, in his view saving the economy, bringing work to millions, bringing about social reform, compassionate conservatism in action with gay marriage, the Olympics went very well, he believes he has a very good record, and that when the clouds of Brexit clear, people will see the achievements of the coalition government.

“Brexit is going to define his premiership for some years to come, but I’m sure that’s not what he wants.”

‘The Cameron Years’ part 1 is on BBCiPlayer. Part 2 will be aired next week.

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