By Dunstan Hadley

09 Mar 2016

Former private secretary Dunstan Hadley recalls how an encounter with the fifth Beatle at Abbey Road studios led him to compromise his professionalism... 

Private secretaries have clearly defined roles when accompanying ministers on official visits. Most of them are not glamorous. You must ensure the visit runs on schedule, keep abreast of what happens all day – taking notes of meetings – and also stay in touch with the department to make sure there's no trouble brewing. But perhaps most important of all is acting as a ministerial minder, bouncer and bag carrier for the day.

There's always someone trying to “grab a few minutes with the minister about something very important”, and the private secretary needs to see them off in advance. If your minister is cornered, it's the PS’s job to intervene, make excuses and get the minister back on schedule. 

All of which brings me to how George Martin was responsible for me failing to do my job properly on one visit. 

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I'll set the scene: the minister I was working for was due to launch a new music scheme, which a number of government departments and arts groups had collaborated on. The launch was to be at Abbey Road studios. As a massive music fan (and failed rock musician) I made absolutely sure that I would be the PS who accompanied the visit. The event would be held in the famous Studio 2 – the actual room where the Beatles had recorded their albums. I’d been to Abbey Road before, but only to stand outside and gaze at the famous white building. I'd never actually been inside.

The morning came and we arrived at Abbey Road. I was giddy with excitement but did my best to keep a professional face on. We entered, walked down a corridor and were suddenly in Studio 2. I tried to soak up the atmosphere – imagining Paul and John at the piano, working out “A Day in the Life”. I remembered some old film I'd seen of Pink Floyd recording Dark Side of the Moon in this room – the room I was now standing in. 

Still, I had a job to do. I made sure the minister had the right briefing to hand, checked in with the organisers that the programme schedule hadn't changed and gave the minister instructions about where he had to sit, when he was speaking, and where he needed to be afterwards.

We sat through a nice event: some worthy speeches from senior figures from the arts world, a couple of squeaky performances by school children and some ministerial speeches. Once it finished, the minister agreed to do a couple of interviews for radio. To my amazement these were to take place in the Studio 2 control room – the small room where George Martin had sat and given his orders to the Fab Four. We went in and at this point my professionalism started to slip. As the radio guys fumbled around getting the equipment ready, I thrust my phone towards the minister and said: “I need you to take a photo of me in here – really, you have to do this.” He agreed and we spent a few minutes faffing around trying to get the perfect shot. He then got on with the interview.

After finishing up in the control room I had my most important job. I needed to get the minister out of the building without getting cornered by any lobbyists and hangers on. All industries have them, but arts lobbyists (with a few honourable exceptions) were the most long-winded and woolly of all the industry types we dealt with. They spoke about “transformation” and “emotional responses” rather than facts and figures. I had to be on high alert – we were in Abbey Road for a big event, the place was crawling with arty types looking to have a “quick word” with the minister. I put on my urgent government business face and led the minister down a side corridor to get him to to his next meeting on time. 

And then it happened.

We turned a corridor and there, deep in conversation, was George Martin. It was actually George Martin, the fifth Beatle. The man who trusted in them at the start, who did all those fabulous arrangements, who opened their minds to what was possible. I stopped to make sure, and then I just stood and stared. I thought of saying something, though I couldn't think what to say. I had hundreds of questions I wanted to ask. I wanted him to sit me down and tell me the story of the Beatles from start to finish. 

But, after loitering for about 15 seconds, I remembered I was meant to be at work and had a job to do. I turned round to get back to the minister but he had disappeared. I panicked. Rule Number One of ministerial visits is that you shouldn't lose your minister. But I'd lost mine, in a building full of arts lobbyists. I hurried down the corridor, doubling back on our route in case he'd gone back for something. Then I looked for the loos in case he'd had the call of nature. I starting knocking on doors to ask people if they'd seen the ministerial party anywhere. Finally I found him: in a small room, and surrounded by a horde of extremely passionate representatives from all sorts of arts charities. I coughed, put on my best serious voice, told him we had to get back to the department and hurried him out.

I never lost a minister again, and I did feel terrible (even if he was not too bothered) but, you know, I'd just seen GEORGE MARTIN in Abbey Road. I could live with my mistake. 

Read the most recent articles written by Dunstan Hadley - What's it really like for civil servants when departments are broken up?

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