Unmasking Our Political Leaders: Confessions of a Political Documentary-Maker by Michael Cockerell (Biteback, £20).

There are some reporters whose writing or broadcasts catch the essence of their subject. Richard and David Dimbleby fronting the BBC General Election coverage. Monty Don and Percy Thrower before him are the masters of the garden. Trooping the Colour has not been the same since Huw Wheldon retired. Kenneth Clark was civilisation. Jonathan Charles and Kate Adie had only to say good evening, and you knew there was a war somewhere. Nature, surely, did not exist before David Attenborough. And what Attenborough is to nature, Michael Cockerell is to politics.

Michael Cockerell has been rootling around the Westminster undergrowth for over half a century. His voice, for we rarely actually see him, has come to embody the corridors of power he stalks so successfully. Softly spoken, almost diffident, he combines the essential qualities necessary for the successful political journalist – the ability to seduce, the willingness to be patient, the ability to be ruthless, and the desire for perfection. 

Not for Cockerell is the aggressive confrontation of a Jeremy Paxman or a John Humphreys. He charms and seduces his subjects into allowing him to access all areas or sitting in a studio where he ever so politely but persistently presses them on the most personal questions most have ever faced.

I once witnessed his obsessiveness perfectionism. I had been invited to a lecture Cockerell was delivering that was due to be filmed. (Please note not a filming of a lecture but a lecture that was being filmed, the filming being incidental to the lecture).

A distinguished and sizeable audience gathered in anticipation of the talk. Cockerell walked on at the appointed hour and started his remarks. After a couple of sentences, he stopped. This happened three or four times, by which the audience was becoming restless. So intent was he on delivering the perfect on-camera performance that he had forgotten the audience. Despite the growing murmuring, he persisted until he was satisfied. 

As a young journalist starting out at Westminster I noted firmly that resolution to do the very best that was possible.

The seduction, of course, comes in persuading people to allow him to interview and film them. Perhaps the single most dangerous thing to do at Westminster is to allow Cockerell behind the scenes of your life. Perhaps too, you have not really risen to the top of British politics until you do. Every British politician knows this.

From the early days of Harold Wilson, through the resolute toughness of Margaret Thatcher, to the end line-ready camera-friendly quick quippery of Boris Johnson, every recent Prime Minister has succumbed to Cockerell’s charms. 

Cockerell has come closer than anyone before or since to penetrating what makes Boris tick, yet it is another interview that sticks in my mind. It is the one with Ken Clarke. Cockerell used the same device with both Clarke and Johnson, that of sitting them in front of big screens, playing footage and then asking questions from off-camera. Neither talks much about the family or personal life, yet in Clarke’s interview his defences were penetrated and it made for very moving viewing.

In Unmasking Our Leaders, Cockerell takes us through his career in a wonderfully lucid narrative. He provides endless insights, reminds us of his scoops, and even if, like me, you have had the joy of seeing much of what he has produced, the stories are still fresh and fun. 

Taken as a whole, his encounters with our leaders make up a truly remarkable set of perspectives of our leaders. Cockerell is never cruel, but his dry wry commentary can be very sharp indeed. Unmasking Our Leaders would make a good TV series, but of course, this is really the book of the many TV programmes Cockerell has delivered for our joy, entertainment and information. 

Since he first picked up a microphone and stood in front of a camera, much has changed in Britain and British politics. Yet somehow, what propels people into politics and in front of Cockerell’s microphone remains the same endlessly fascinating and compelling story has always been and always will be.

We must hope that Cockerell has many more interviews to do with many more of our leaders.