Many words have already been spoken in remembrance of Tony and the common thread to many of them is the small, personal contact so many had the opportunity to have with such a prominent and important political figure.
Like so many others I have my personal memories of Tony Benn and I hope I do justice to his memory when recounting them here.
I used to produce and present my own podcast radio show called It’s a Mean Old Scene. It was a mixture of music, politics and culture. Having read an article by Tony Benn, in the Guardian, I noticed there was an email address at the end of the piece. I thought that this email address would be an agent run email but I sent a speculative request for an interview. To my delight two days later my phone rang and when I answered the unmistakeable voice of Tony Benn was on the other end.
I see in your email you’re a teacher. I believe you’re on half term next week so why not come round to the house on Tuesday afternoon?
Given this was a man who had changed the constitution of the House of Lords, a man who had helped to introduce Concorde, a man who had held senior cabinet positions, a man who had undertaken thousands of interviews with some of the most important journalists of the Twentieth Century I was amazed that he would find the time to speak to me.
My wife, who was also had a tremendous admiration for Tony Benn, agreed to come with me as photographer, and we walked along Holland Park Avenue until we saw the house with the red door and the commemorative plaque to Caroline Benn on the front wall. We approached the front door and saw a small, typed notice; I am working in my basement please come down the steps at the side. We followed the instructions until we got to the basement door. A fresh sign gave the instruction, I’m terribly deaf, don’t knock, just come in! We froze for a moment, considering it disrespectful to enter the house of such a well-known political figure without being formally invited in. After a minute or so we realised that we had to bite the bullet and turn the door handle. It was a strange feeling walking through the small reception corridor into the cluttered basement office that we’d seen so often during countless television appearances. In the back corner of the room we saw the familiar figure of Tony Benn, pottering about in the small basement kitchen.
Ah, come in, come in. I have the kettle on. Now, how do you take your tea? So nice of you to come and see me this afternoon.
Within seconds our nerves were dispelled as Tony made us feel welcome and safe in his territory.
What passed over the next two hours was one of the most enjoyable afternoons of my life. We spoke about politics, religion, socialism and teaching. The original plan was for me to interview and Rachael to simply take some photographs at the end. Of course Tony was not going to let her sit there and not be involved in the interview. He drew her into the talk with a warmth and a charm that matched his easy intellect. Although I had a list of pre-prepared questions it was easy to stray off the planned path and the discussion developed in a very organic manner. The off-tape chat that took place both before and after the interview belied the fact that this was the first time we’d met. It felt like we’d known each other forever. Having met a few political figures I’d always had the sense that they were always thinking about what they could get out of you or whom they would be talking to next. This was not the case with Tony Benn. He had a genuine interest in our jobs and our lives.
My second meeting with Tony came a couple of years later when I was in the initial stages of making a documentary about the attack on Iraq in 2002. I knew that Tony would be a central figure in the documentary; because of his role in the anti-war movement, because of his understanding of the historical perspective of the oil industry and because of the fact that he’d actually met and interviewed Sadam Hussain. This was a filmed interview and along with camera operators Paul Angel and Mick Sugden I was once again in Tony’s basement. Once again he was incredibly amenable to us moving items around his basement office to create the right mise-en-scene. Although he had not asked for a list of questions in advance he had prepared thoroughly and his incisive understanding of the hundred years that had led up to the contemporary situation in Iraq was fascinating, enlightening and thorough. He was friendly and courteous to every re-shoot, every tape change, and every fluff by me. The consummate interviewee!
As Paul and Mick broke down the equipment at the end of the filming Tony paid me a wonderful compliment by praising the quality and thought had gone into my questions. Building the compliment he said the two occasions I’d interviewed him were amongst some of his favourite interviews he’d been involved in. You can only imagine how proud this made me feel.
Two weeks later Tony was performing his one man show, An Evening with Tony Benn, at the Grand Theatre in Leeds. As Rachael and I approached the steps of the theatre we saw the familiar wisp of pipe smoke. There was no hiding away in a dressing room for Tony, he wanted to be out amongst his audience, meeting them, talking to them and finding out what was happening in the world. He had a gaggle of admirers around him but as we approached he eased himself up from his, self-invented, chair-case, thrust out a hand and said:
Gary, my old pal, how wonderful to see you!
Well, Tony, my old pal, you told me you wanted the epitaph you left behind to be: Tony Benn – He Encouraged Us. Tony Benn encouraged me. He encouraged me to be a more courageous campaigner. He encouraged me to be certain in my beliefs. He encouraged me fight for a more equal society.
I’ll miss my old pal Tony Benn and I will strive for the rest of my life to take his encouragement and turn it into positive action.