Heaven and Hell: Michael Cole

Journalist Michael Cole

Journalist Michael Cole - Credit: Supplied by Michael Cole

Michael Cole was a BBC reporter for 20 years in 56 countries, latterly court correspondent accredited to Buckingham Palace. His reports won two Royal Television Society awards. He resigned from the BBC to join the Harrods Group as a main board director in 1988. On retirement he presented The Michael Cole Show, Living TV’s most popular programme, and set up his own PR consultancy. Michael writes newspaper articles and broadcasts on royal topics. He and his wife, Jane, live near Framlingham. Here he talks to Gina Long...

Today the Queen will be honoured with her official birthday celebrations at Windsor Castle. What are your memories of Trooping of the Colour?

Our mother took my sister and me to the Trooping the Saturday following the Coronation in 1953 but we saw nothing, not even through the cardboard-and-mirrors periscope. At the BBC, I went to several Troopings but never witnessed one. I had to be on standby in the 'Scanner' --  the TV mobile control room  --  in case there was an 'incident' when I would take over the commentary. This rule was made after a youth fired blanks near the Queen as she rode from The Mall into Horse Guards one year. Fortunately, when I was on duty, nothing untoward ever happened, apart from the occasional Guardsman fainting.

What advice would you give Prince Harry?

Don't burn the bridges to your brother. You will never have a better friend than Prince William. You were the most important men in the world to your mother and, to my certain knowledge, she loved you both equally. Think what she would wish and rush to reconcile yourself with Prince William. A wise BBC cameraman I worked once said there was no more terrible sight than brothers fighting. Stop it now and make the much-missed and never-to-be-forgotten Diana proud of you.

What are your thoughts on Meghan and Harry's name for their newborn daughter?

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It's good to see that Diana's name is one that has been given. As for 'Lilibet', it's a diminutive of Elizabeth and there are so many of those - Lizzie, Betty, Bess, Lisa, Elsa, Beth. I think it's always better for parents to give a child a real name and let her or him shorten or change it later as they wish. Naming a child Lilibet (the Queen's name for herself as a child), might be taken as a compliment. 

What's your connection to East Anglia?

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My maternal grandfather was born at Itteringham, near Aylsham, and we always had our summer holidays  --  never more than the week we could afford  --  in East Anglia. The connection was renewed, and forever, when I was best man at a wedding in Lowestoft and my wife, Jane, was the chief bridesmaid. If you want to be corny, do it right, eh? Jane and her mother ran a very chic dress shop opposite Lowestoft harbour. It was called 'Jane…'

Those three dots were important though I forget why… We married at St. Mary’s, Somerleyton, on September 11, 1967. It was a Monday. Saturday was too good a day for business to waste on getting married. It’s lasted 53 years, so far.

What is your EA heaven, what you love most about East Anglia?

The peace and  --  if you want it  --  the solitude. True East Anglians wouldn’t dream of bothering you or even speaking unless they’ve known you for at least 40 years. This is an admirable trait, although it presented problems when vox pop street interviews were popular on About Anglia and I had to ask the always suspicious denizens of Norwich their opinion on the important issue of the day.

What do you hate most about living in East Anglia?

The roadside litter and the filthy road signs that all need straightening. People don’t seem to realise how precious the beauty is that we’ve inherited. But it’s fragile and there’s a real danger of it being destroyed by pressure of population. Witness the awful commuter villages being brutally imposed on our ancient market towns. Sadly, speculative builders have little trouble selling houses that reflect nothing of East Anglia’s rich architectural heritage.  

What's your favourite local restaurant?

The one we’ve missed most is The Plough and Sail at Snape, always a favourite before a concert. The brothers who run it, and their other good restaurants, do a superb job with their talented teams. Everything’s good and fairly priced and they cook fish almost as well as Jane does, local skate wings a speciality. 

Do you have a favourite East Anglian landmark?

The true answer is our five-bar front gate but let me be more outward-looking: “I Must Go Down to the Seas Again/To the Lonely Sea and the Sky”, wrote John Masefield and we learned his poem, Sea Fever, at primary school. It stuck. The sea changes every minute and its sound is always seductive. Yes, the North Sea (once known as The German Ocean) is more ginger beer than the pellucid blue of a South Seas lagoon but you cannot stand on Gun Hill in Southwold without hearing the cannons roar during the Battle of Sole Bay.

What's the best thing that happens in East Anglia every year?

Whoops of delight and laughter when our three grandchildren arrive with their parents for summer or at Christmas. At Christmas 2020, our daughter, Annabel, and I exchanged Christmas presents in Tesco’s car park in Baldock. 

What is your specialist Mastermind subject?

My old friend and colleague, John Humphrys, from whom I took over in Washington in 1974, never invited me to sit in his chair and it’s too late now. As I have been paying close attention since the age of four, I would choose every important news story that has happened since 1947. Or I could try the American Civil War. I know the difference between the two battles of Bull Run and why the South still call both those bloody confrontations Manassas. I almost  --  but not quite  --  missed my trans-Atlantic flight one Thanksgiving because I spent so long at Gettysburg.

What is always in your fridge?

Milk. It’s marvellous stuff. And so cheap. We have it delivered. Everyone should. We don’t want milkmen to go the way of high-button boots and disappear.  It’s a great shame that most of East Anglia’s dairy farms are no more. 

What’s your philosophy of life? 

I tend to leave philosophy to unshaven Frenchmen in Left Bank cafes but, if forced to trespass on the territory of Jean-Paul Sartre, I would just quote my father: “Be nice to people. You may not get a second chance”. That’s all the profundity you’ll get out of me though it is still deeper than the Seine.

Your favourite film?

From Here to Eternity. It appealed to me at 10 years old because it was about soldiers. But it’s not about war. It’s about love and loss; life really. Four stellar performances, from Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra, the greatest saloon singer who ever lived. I also love Some like It Hot, starring my late good friend Tony Curtis who acts Jack Lemmon off the screen by doing less.

What was your first job?

I was an eight-year-old milk boy for Jim Buchanan, our milkman whose feet never fully recovered from his being marched across Poland as prisoner-of-war of the Germans in the terrible winter of 1944/5. I could run between the doorsteps. I got half a crown every Saturday. But the big thrill was holding the horse’s reins. The horse always defecated at the same points on the round. The housewives would rush out with their shovels and buckets to gather the horse apples for their roses or rhubarb. Jim wept when his horse was taken away for slaughter and an electric float was plugged into the stable wall. 

Your most treasured possession?

My father’s Art Deco gold cufflinks, a present from my mother when they married in 1937, only 12 carat but priceless to me.

Who do you admire most?

My wife, for putting up with me. At one time, I was making at least 12 long-distance trips a year for BBC TV News. Some stories went on for months. No cell phones. Communication was uncertain and expensive. Jane never complained although she sometimes said, when people asked how long we’d been married, “Well, 32 years but we’ve lived together for only 12”. Our daughter never missed a treat or had an unhappy day, whether I was there or not. 

What do you like about yourself?

That I don’t easily give up. My parents endowed me with stamina. Talent is the most valuable thing in the world but persistence wins. I told one editor of Television News that job advertisements ought to specify physical stamina, as well as all the other stuff, because you couldn’t do a reporting job without it. I think it’s still in BBC job specifications.  

What’s your worst character trait? 

I am a classic egotist. But I couldn’t have done what little I have achieved otherwise. And I have always believed Noel Coward was right when he said: “Work is more fun than fun”.

Where is your favourite holiday destination? 

We have stayed in many lovely hotels in beautiful places but we shall never again endure airport hell for the sake of a summer break. This country is great in summer with East Anglia at its best. But I shall sneak away for my annual week skiing in Tyrol in January, Austria hasn't closed its borders to us again.

Best day of your life?

I have already mentioned my wedding day so let me nominate the magical morning of Annabel’s graduation from Cambridge University. Seeing her kneel in her gown in Senate House to receive her degree elevated me to a cloud high above the filigree pinnacles of King’s College Chapel.

Favourite breakfast?

I have eaten the same breakfast for 50 years: half a grapefruit, compote of stewed fruit, muesli with semi-skimmed milk, sliced banana on top, fruit juice. That’s all, folks. It’s part of my 'South Kensington Diet', from when he had a house there. Diet sheet on application.

Favourite tipple?

Any decent wine but not too expensive. I don’t wish to become used to things I can’t afford. I have not touched a drop of spirits since 1977 when I contracted hepatitis in the jungles of Guatamala while reporting that country’s confrontation with Belize, of Belic if you are a Guatamalan nationalist. Our doctor, Arthur Brown, assured me that giving up Tanqueray Gin Dry Martinis would extend my life. Working so far.

Do you have a hidden talent?

I am not a bad mimic because I have a good ear for voices. But this was put sorely to the test when I was more or less forced to 'do' Prince Charles for Princess Diana. She was kind enough to laugh but only smiled at my imitation of her father, Earl 'Johnnie' Spencer, singing her praises. 

When were you most embarrassed?  

I have got a brass neck and am not easily embarrassed but I was taken aback when I was unexpectedly summoned aboard the Royal Yacht in Hong Kong and told  --  “It’s Black Tie, Michael”. I had been assured that dinner jackets would not be required for the Queen’s trip to China. It was Saturday, the shops were closed, but fortunately I knew the general manager of the Mandarin Hotel. He loaned me his Swiss banqueting manager’s brand new tuxedo. I was the last man up the gangplank of Britannia but I got to the reception on time, just.

Earliest memory?

Being held in my mother’s arms in our back garden in Wembley to see the aircraft getting into formation for the VE-Day Flypast over the Mall in 1945. I was two years and 5 months old. 

Which song would you like played at your funeral?

I’ll Be Seeing You but it has to be the version by Jimmy Durante.

Is there something people don't know about you?

Very little, after this extended strip-tease in print. But perhaps that I am six feet one and a half inches tall. Everyone I have ever met for the first time has said, “You’re taller than you look on television".

What's the worst thing anyone's ever said to you?

 I have been insulted by experts so I am pretty bulletproof now. But one thing that is always weaponised against me is my hair, variously described as 'bouffant' or 'pompadour'. The truth is that it grows like this, without aid or encouragement, and a hair dryer has never been near my now grey locks. 

What do you want to tell our readers about most? 

It’s only one life. Make the most of it. Take every opportunity for any activity that’s legal, amusing and doesn’t frighten the horses. I would have taken more time to smell the roses along the way had I not always felt the pressure of Kipling’s “unforgiving minute”, with another deadline that had to be met.

If you have a story email gina@hallfarmfornham.com or follow Twitter: @ geewizzgee1 Instagram: @ginalong_geewizz

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