Impressionist Rory Bremner was so good at impersonating prime minister John Major that the cabinet secretary feared he could pose a risk to government confidentiality, former TV executive Lord Grade has said.
Grade, who was boss of Channel 4 for most of the 1990s, revealed he once received a call from Sir Robin Butler – now Lord Butler – seeking reassurances over calls being made by Bremner in which he purported to be Major, who was prime minister from 1990-7.
Conservative peer Lord Grade, who has also been controller of BBC1 and executive chairman of ITV, told the Media Masters podcast that Butler had been particularly concerned about uses Bremner could put his talents to.
Grade said Butler had been direct about his fears, which followed a call made to Eurosceptic Conservative MP Sir Richard Body, taped for a 1990s show.
“We have a bit of a problem. Your Mr Rory Bremner,” Grade recalled the then cabinet secretary saying.
“He’s very good at impersonating the prime minister. He’s been ringing MPs pretending to be John Major. We don’t have a problem with that. But the issue we have is that he’s so good he could ring the chancellor of the exchequer and get the budget.”
Grade said he had contacted Bremner’s production team to find out what they were up to, and established that some “very funny” material had been recorded, but that it did not work for the show’s purposes and would not be aired.
“I rang Robin and said don’t worry, they’re not doing anything with it. It’s not your instructions – they voluntarily have decided they’re not doing it,” Grade said.
“He said ‘oh, that would be a great relief, great relief’.”
Grade said he subsequently sent Butler a recording of one of the calls for his private use. In it, Bremner rang a “very aggressive” Eurosceptic MP seen as a potential stalking horse to stand against Major in a Conservative Party leadership campaign.
“Rory’s saying to him [puts on high-pitched nasal voice]: ‘I hope I see you at the conference…’ ,” Grade said.
“Ah well, I’m not sure I’m going prime minister, but I may go,” he replies in a slightly posh accent.
“[As John Major] Well I look forward to seeing you, maybe we can have a dance.
“And the guy’s saying ‘well that would be very nice, very nice’. It was hilarious.”
The full Media Masters podcast can be heard here.