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Filming Bill Deedes

Blog | By Michael Cockerell | Feb 13, 2019

Denis Thatcher (left), with Bill Deedes, discussing divot etiquette

Bill Deedes was not a man who liked to say ‘no’. I felt reasonably confident when we met for lunch some years ago at Paradiso e Inferno, a restaurant he favoured in the Strand, that he would agree to my making a television portrait of him.

But he was not at all keen on the idea. ‘The past is gone, you can’t have it again: tomorrow is more important than yesterday,’ he told me. But he had seen and quite enjoyed some of the other TV profiles I had made. A couple of bottles of Verdicchio and eighteen grilled king prawns later, Bill agreed; but on condition that the film reflected his present life and concerns and did not dwell unduly on the past.

Bill Deedes was then eighty and well established in his latest incarnation. The former war hero, Cabinet minister and Daily Telegraph editor had become the paper’s oldest roving reporter – with a penchant for world trouble spots – and its best-loved columnist.

‘I believe there is a future life,’ he told me, ‘but I do not let that

discourage me from getting the best out of this one.’ What kept him going as a journalist, he said, ‘is not being sure what lies around the next corner.’

Deedes was already a legendary figure and the inspiration for two comic literary characters: Henry Boot in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop and the eponymous recipient of the ‘Dear Bill’ letters that Private Eye attributed to Sir Denis Thatcher. The magazine (then edited by The Oldie’s own Richard Ingrams in his previous incarnation) had also provided Deedes’s character with a catchphrase based on his singular speaking style: ‘Shome mishtake, shurely? – Ed.’

‘Yes, I am a bit of a slurrer,’ Bill told me. ‘If a policeman ever stops me in my car, he takes the breathalyser out almost instantly, because he thinks I must be drunk. And occasionally I get abusive letters saying why can’t you pronounce words properly? But there is nothing I can do about it. I’m encouraged by the thought that Winston did it. ’

It seemed important to find out how close to the mark were the ‘Dear Bill’ letters – which depicted Bill Deedes and Denis Thatcher as dyed-in-the-gin reactionaries. Although the pair were golfing partners and the closest of friends, they had never been filmed together on a golf course.

Denis Thatcher at The oldie of the Year awards in 2001

Bill agreed – but how to persuade Sir Denis? His policy was to turn down all media requests and according to Private Eye saw all journalists as ‘reptiles’. Bill told me: ‘Denis has very pronounced views about the BBC which he sees as the strongest held Marxist citadel of the lot.’

I was pondering the best way to Sir Denis when I bumped into him at John-Paul Getty’s cricket ground, where I was playing. He was not, I suppose, expecting to be approached by a reptile in flannels. But when I told him about the film and asked if he would appear, he responded: ‘I’d do anything for Bill.’

When we filmed them playing golf, the pair discussed the etiquette of replacing divots on different courses round the world. ‘In Japan,’ said Sir Denis, ‘they have these little caddy girls with spades who replant the divots – they are very highly trained.’

Both men played well. Sir Denis told me later how pleased he was that the Daily Telegraph TV critic wrote he had a better swing than Bill, who would each morning hit a hundred golf balls in his practice net at home.

I asked Sir Denis how accurate the ‘Dear Bill’ letters were. ‘oh, not at all. In the beginning they were quite amusing; after a year or two they got a bit boring – in my opinion. But they didn’t do Bill any harm and they didn’t do me any harm.’

Deedes claimed that the ‘Dear Bill’ letters had transformed his own social standing and had actually done his friend some good. ‘It established an image of Denis as a genial buffer playing golf and drinking gin – an image which he had every right to dislike. But it made it impossible for the press to pin the label of éminence grise upon him when Margaret was at number 10.’

Among the many elements to the lifelong Deedes–Thatcher friendship was their shared experience of the Second World War. Both had ended up as majors with distinguished records. In 1939 Deedes had swapped Fleet Street for the front line – and was soon leading a company of riflemen. ‘You had to look after young soldiers who found it very difficult to keep awake through battle exhaustion. I was twenty-seven, nightclub-hardened, and broadly could go a couple of days and nights without sleep. But anyone around eighteen or nineteen, just out of school, it was very difficult to keep them awake.’

I found Bill, like many of his generation, extremely reluctant to talk about his battle experience. He sought to shrug off the MC he won, as his Company tried to take a bridge near Arnhem in 1944, as ‘a survivor’s medal’. But when I read him the official citation, he told me – with characteristic understatement – what had happened: ‘It was a hump-backed bridge, so the tanks couldn’t lower their guns to give us any covering fire. That’s asking for trouble. About halfway across the bridge we reported rather heavy casualties, and I was told, “You’d better come back”. Well, getting back was worse than going out, because we had to collect the wounded and carry them back. So it was a rough day.’ In fact, the citation says that Deedes had displayed ‘a complete disregard of his personal safety’.

Half a century on, that characteristic was on display when we filmed with the eighty-year-old Deedes in an African war zone. His age in no way seemed to have dulled his appetite for travelling to some of the nastiest and most difficult war zones and famine areas. He prided himself on being able to get into places other journalists could not reach.

He was convinced there was a good story to be found in Angola – where a particularly brutal, but virtually unreported, civil war was raging. The Foreign office was advising against travel to Angola and, in any case, the Luanda government was refusing journalists entry. But Bill had a way in. He was a dedicated fundraiser for relief charities – and wearing that hat was able to secure us visas.

Flying into the besieged city of Lubango was a stimulating experience. our hired plane circled the military airport from high in the sky, then, to avoid enemy guns, made a sudden dive straight down to the runway. on the ground we found a wretched picture of corruption, brutality and malnutrition.

We watched a government helicopter arrive at the airport, filled with wounded civilian women and children: the raw flesh hung off their open wounds. ‘The sight of those wounded being carried off the helicopter reminded you of what a cruel war this is,’ said Deedes.

Deedes and Thatcher – ‘Follow me!’

I asked him why he had returned to foreign reporting in his seventies and begun work for international charities. ‘When you are as close as I am to giving an account of one’s life to St Peter at the heavenly gates, I don’t much fancy being able to claim nothing more than fifty years of newspaper journalism.’

Bill never flagged while filming in Angola, despite the boiling sun and the dawn starts to our day. He told me what kept him going: ‘If I can get into a dangerous country and get out alive to tell the tale – that remains truly exciting. It’s better than sex,’ he laughed.

‘And if you can guess right, or guess partly right, what’s going to happen tomorrow – where the story’s going to be – there’s enormous satisfaction.’ So it keeps you young? I asked. ‘oh yes, absolutely. I like a warm climate too.’