Sir Ronald Millar, whom I interviewed in 1994, was a jack of all trades but brilliant at most.
Born in 1919 to a professional actress, Dorothy Dacre-Hill, he was educated at Charterhouse and King’s College, Cambridge. He served as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve from 1940-43, when he was invalided out.
He began his theatrical career as an actor in the company of luminaries such as Ivor Novello, Alistair Sim and John Gielgud, and spent four years as a screenwriter in Hollywood – The Miniver Story (a sequel to Mrs Miniver), and Scaramouche, among others – and had some notable successes in the West End, many through dramatisations of the works of C. P. Snow (The Affair, The New Men, The Masters). He also wrote the book and lyrics for the musical Robert and Elizabeth.
As a political speechwriter he worked for Edward Heath for four years before working for Mrs Thatcher and, after her departure, he worked for John Major. He was knighted in 1980 in recognition of his contribution to Mrs Thatcher’s speeches, which included the now famous phrase: ‘The lady’s not for turning.’
His autobiography A View from The Wings was published in 1992. He died on 16th April, 1998.
Those of you who read the interview below will realise just how much I liked him, and enjoyed our encounter.
Your father was killed in an accident when you were only 18 months old so you knew him only from photographs, but your mother kept him alive for you with stories which you could never hear often enough. Did this turn him into an impossibly romantic and glamorous figure in your mind?
Not really. Later on in my life many other people talked about my parents as the ideal couple, two people who were really made for each other. They lived on the river in the days when the river was a very romantic place to live. It seemed to have been an ideal relationship, but that didn’t make me regard my father as a saint or anything of that nature. I never knew more than the photographs, but he didn’t become an icon.
Were you conscious that your family circumstances were not like those of other boys?
I never noticed it really. I never knew what it was to have two people who had charge of one’s life. My mother was a very remarkable woman, and she acted as mother, father and everything else.
Psychologists are fairly certain that the first few years of childhood set the pattern for life. Is this very evident in your case, would you say?
There is some truth in it, but my mother was very conscious of the fact that a boy alone with his mother could become very tied to the apron strings, so she was extremely careful not to let this come about. I went off to boarding school in Bexhill at the age of 5 and a half, which of course is far too young in normal circumstances, but as she was an actress and touring all around, she didn’t want me to get involved with the theatre in any way. It was no life for earning a really good living; more than half the profession is always out of work and so she was always very careful to keep me a little bit at a distance. Enormous waves of affection broke through of course, and we were very close in spite of it all.
But did you suffer, even momentarily, any sort of rejection when she sent you away to school?
I didn’t understand it for about half an hour or so, but kids adjust with the speed of lightening, and I soon settled down with the other prep school boys. It could have been a rather neurotic childhood, but it wasn’t. She was a very astute woman.
Would you have been happy to send a child of yours to boarding school?
As a matter of fact I wouldn’t, but she had very good reasons. Her determination not to let me become a kind of symbol, a replica of my father, was what was in her mind, and I think she was probably right. I learned to be independent very young and that, as life turned out, was invaluable.
In those days it was not thought entirely proper for a woman, let alone one’s mother, to be on the stage. Did you experience embarrassment on account of this?
No, I loved it. The theatre was wildly exciting, an escape route for a young boy, and I was spoiled rotten by the stagehands. It was all very stimulating and new, and other kids didn’t have this experience. I would go backstage and stand in the wings watching my mother acting, and the stagehand would take me up into the flies above the theatre, showing me how then curtain went up and down, how the lights came on and changed colour. This was a romantic experience which of course imbued me with a love of the theatre that has gone on all my life.
Did you feel a sense of pride to see your mother being acclaimed on the stage?
Oh, I thought she was the cat’s whiskers, yes. But I thought that anyway. I didn’t know what it was all about, but it seemed to be a sort of wonderland, an everlasting pantomime, and of course it had an enormous effect on me and has done to this day.
On the whole you seem rather to have enjoyed school life at Charterhouse. Do you think in some way it was a substitute for the family life which had been denied to you because you didn’t have a father?
No. I feel it was a stepping stone, a means to an end, an education. My mother was absolutely determined that I should have a solid, safe job, and not get involved with things like the arts, or the theatre, or God forbid, the movies. She wanted me to have an intellectual background.
You describe your eagerness to serve in the war as having nothing to do with heroism and everything to do with romanticism. Did the reality of war finally hit home, or were you able to keep it at bay until you were invalided out?
It always remained to me a kind of unreality. In a way it was another kind of stage show going on. I had been brought up in this way and had been involved in arts theatre projects, and the Footlights at Cambridge, and somehow or other the war seemed a by-product of this slightly unreal world. It never really occurred to me that I would be killed … until afterwards; then I thought, my God, I might have been. I was not without fear because I was a bit of a damned fool; I had never really taken on board the fact that at any minute I could have been wiped out.
After leaving the navy you decided not to return to Cambridge. Was that because you felt fundamentally changed by war and unable to get back on the previous road?
I felt I had grown up in the war, that it was a quite different world that I came back to, but I also felt I had been changed by it. I didn’t any longer feel I could go back to more exams, getting a degree and all that. I had done a lot of exams – life had consisted in ‘Don’t write on both sides of the paper’ – and after I had been in the war, I thought, my goodness, that’s schoolboy stuff.
The theatre was in your blood. But did it also seem like an escape route from the horrors of war?
No, not a bit. The horrors of war were still going on. The blitz was still on in London, and in the provinces where we toured – Plymouth and Coventry and Liverpool – there was still bombing. The war was perhaps more real to me on land than it had been at sea.
What prompted the transition from acting to writing?
Accident. I called my book A View from the Wings, but I nearly called it An Accidental Life, because time and time again things happened in my life as if something was guiding me this way or that. With great impertinence I often used to change my lines as an actor. I was generally encouraged to do it, though if anyone had done it later in a play of mine I would have killed him. Finally someone suggested that if I could alter lines so well I should have a go at writing a whole play. That’s how I became a playwright.
You had a close alliance with C P Snow, adapting several of his novels for the stage. Were you attracted chiefly to the moral issues which are exposed by Snow?
Partly, but not entirely. I found that his books had a great core of drama, and very interesting characters, but the essence of drama in them was smothered by a novelist’s style of writing that he came to call rest passages, though I’d never heard that expression. The plays that I made out of his books came to be known as ‘Snow without tears’. I don’t know if he ever knew that, but it was widely said.
What did he think of your adaptations?
He was very pleased because it made him a lot of extra money. The first one I did was based on his novel The Affair which I had warned him might have only a limited appeal, and my God, it ran a year in the enormous Strand Theatre. Naturally we were both encouraged by this and he wanted me to do The Masters which dealt with many of the same characters, but I refused on the grounds that people would regard it as a rehash. I wanted to do The New Men, which was all about the making of the first atom bomb, but people didn’t want to go and see a play about nuclear fission. We were living under a threat of the bomb, and I hadn’t spotted the fact that this might not be entertainment for young honeymoon couples, or ladies up from Harrogate. So that only ran three months. After that I did try The Masters which he and a lot of people thought was the best of the three, and that had another long run, about nine to ten months.
Some of your plays in the old tradition came to be seen as unfashionable and often provoked the critics to vituperative reviews. Did this worry you or upset you?
No, no; criticism up to a point can be helpful if you listen carefully. James Agate was the doyen of the dramatic critics in my early days and was responsible for my first lay coming into the West End. If he liked what I’d done, that was OK with me. I had my audience, which was not the audience of what ultimately came to be the Royal Court, but there was room for both.
Bernard Levin described your play The More the Merrier as ‘the kind of horse leech of a play which needs to be picked off the body of the English theatre before it bleeds the patient to death’. What was your reaction to that kind of criticism?
I thought he was an idiot. He’s an entertaining writer and journalist, a man obviously of considerable intellectual capacity, but my plays would never be the kind he would like. Well-constructed plays which didn’t use four letter words weren’t intended for him. He supported the idea, and he probably was right, that it was time to move on from what came to be known as kitchen sink plays, because the class consciousness of Coward and Rattigan had been prevalent in the theatre for donkey’s years. But no, Mr Levin didn’t worry me. A lot of people admired him and a lot of people execrated him, and I was somewhere between the two. I admired his writing but not his judgement.
Were you ever tempted to return to acting?
I thought originally that my whole life would be as an actor. It was marvellous to go to the theatre every night and act. I suppose it was a kind of escapism. But once I had really become involved as a playwright I began to realize that I didn’t have to go every night. I had to go to rehearsals, I had to re-write, but once I had written the damned thing I could go and see other plays or go on the river, or take a holiday. So I wasn’t tempted to go back.
Your involvement with prime ministers came about accidentally when you were invited to write Mr Heath’s final election broadcast in 1970. How did you feel about being asked – were you flattered, intrigued, curious…?
I wasn’t flattered. I was certainly intrigued and curious. I thought Mr Heath had lost the ways and means of communicating and I wanted to help him restore them. That led on to other opportunities, to Mrs Thatcher, and ultimately to Mr Major, though I must stress that I was not the only one who wrote for these prime ministers. I happen to have written for three which is unusual, but there was a kind of team around and I always worked with one or other of them. I happen to have been the longest and best-known permanent speech writer, first of all for Mr Heath, and then for Mrs Thatcher, who inherited me, and then for John Major who inherited me from Mrs Thatcher, but believe me there are other very good writers around.
How well did you get on with Mr Heath? Were you ever close to him as a person?
No. I don’t think many people were in the political world. He was a shy man who seemed at times to be rude, but he was not. He was simply withdrawn and reserved, and this gave rise to a feeling that he was rather off-putting and not a friendly man. I think he missed out a great deal in life and it came about through his innate shyness which perhaps stemmed from his social origins. He lacked outer warmth and also humour, although he could be very jolly at times. He wasn’t an easy man to know, but he was a man worth knowing.
Your professional relationship with Mrs Thatcher lasted 16 years during which time you became extremely close to her and came to admire her very much. You have said that you understood her. Did you also understand why other people took a different view of her?
Perhaps it was because they weren’t constantly with her as I was. With Margaret it was a very different story from working with Ted. She was outwardly warmer as a personality, and I think because I didn’t have an official job she found it very easy to get on with me. She couldn’t actually tell me what to do, nor did have any fear – as others might have had – of being fired. I was a kind of maverick, and our relationship developed and became a very close one. She became of very great importance in my life.
People who criticize her say that perhaps she became too theatrical for her own good in the end, that it was Margaret Thatcher the actress bereft of any real feeling towards her audience.
That’s nonsense. She had great feeling. She wasn’t by nature a good orator, nor was she her own best friend. Again her whole approach was governed by her origins, by her humble background in Grantham, a rather stiff and starchy upbringing by a very powerful father, a man who believed deeply in Methodism. It was therefore very difficult for her to break into the much more sophisticated world of politics. She lacked sophistication, and there remained with her a certain naivety right to this day in the ordinary give and take of the outside world. I don’t think she became theatrical in the sense you mean. Of course with an audience of five thousand people at Blackpool, or Brighton, or Bournemouth, where we used to go for the party conferences every year, she had to become theatrical to some extent. She wasn’t a natural speaker ever, but she could be on a good day very effective, and always at the end of the party conference she roused the faithful as no one else I have ever heard.
Mrs Thatcher was like your leading lady and you wrote and taught her how to deliver the best lines. Did you ever feel uneasy about your role in any respect?
No. I don’t say all the speeches were good. I brought my own experience to bear on the situation, and like anybody else I was right only sometimes, but you have to be right more often than you’re wrong, otherwise you wouldn’t continue to hold down the job; neither would the person you’re waiting for.
Your phrase ‘The lady’s not for turning’ more than any other has stayed in people’s minds, perhaps because it was seen to capture the essence of Mrs Thatcher’s character. It shows that she was strong and resolute and unwavering, but on a different analysis, that she was intransigent, uncompromising, unyielding to advice of others. Which was it do you think – a strength or a weakness?
She became associated with the phrase, and any other wavering politician suffered in consequence, but she was privately much more able to compromise than was known at the time. Historians will find that she was much more amenable to other people’s views than has ever been known. Her iron will was seen as an asset because in those days there was a clichéd view of the weak woman who wouldn’t have the strength of a man, but my God, she was like Elizabeth I, who said: ‘I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman but I have the heart and stomach of a king’. But she wasn’t that tough. I found a different side of her all the time. She was very emotional and sentimental, and when terrible things happened she was really stricken, and if anyone was in distress she was at their side in a flash. She was deeply upset over Airey Neave’s murder – who wouldn’t be – but she was tremendously moved and overcome. There’s a good deal more to Margaret Thatcher than the ‘lady’s not for turning’ woman.
I have the impression from your book that your view of prime ministers is that they are people in need of a great deal of help, that they must be properly groomed for office and taught basic skills of communication. Are the days of natural leaders over, do you think?
No, I don’t think they’re over at all. It just so happened that I have come into contact with three of them who were not natural orators. Iain Macleod certainly was a natural, and he wrote all his own speeches and delivered them brilliantly. There are such people around. Enoch Powell is another example – the best prime minister the Tories never had. I just dealt with the material that was handed to me, and if by any fluke it had been Iain Macleod or Enoch Powell, I would have said, ‘you don’t need me, they’ve got it all’.
One also has the impression that speechwriting as you describe it can be a very haphazard business, that ideas and ways of expressing them are often hatched on the eleventh hour. Does this not suggest a certain lack of substance and direction…?
Speeches will always change at the last minute because politics is a never ending business of change; it’s constantly on the move, hour by hour, almost minute by minute across the world. When you start to write a speech a fortnight beforehand, the central item in the news will almost certainly have changed by the time you come to deliver it. That does not imply that you’re making policy up on the hoof. Policy is worked out in depth with a lot of help from civil servants, and things don’t happen by accident, though they still go wrong.
But when things go wrong is it then expedient to change course totally? The government has changed course so many times now that whatever Mr Major says, nobody believes it.
You exaggerate a little, if I may say so. Mr Major is under sustained bombardment from every branch of the media in a way that exceeds even what Mrs Thatcher went through. Who or what is responsible for Major’s difficulties at the moment is a very long and contentious story. It’s clear to me that the attack is as sustained and organized as I have ever known it, and although I can’t prove who is responsible, I have a rough idea. All this has produced the effect of a man who is perceived to be dithering and changing his mind, but that is wide of the mark. Recently I went to a dinner at a male club with an audience of about a hundred where what is said, it is understood, will never be repeated outside. John Major spoke to them off the cuff and it was absolutely stunningly brilliant. He amazed that audience, which was not pro-Tory or pro-Major at all, but an audience which had been brainwashed by the incessant attacks on this man and his administration. There is far more to John Major than sugar and spice and all things nice. He’s as tough as old boots, and provided he comes through the very worst of it, as indeed Margaret did – though this is worse than what Margaret went through, even in 1981 – then I think you may find that we have a very remarkable prime minister indeed. That is my unemotional objective opinion of what there is in this man.
But who is orchestrating this onslaught, and why?
I can’t tell you who is doing it; all I can tell you is that there is no such thing any more as the Tory Press, though you must know this better than I do. The attack is spread right across the tabloids and quality papers. None of them really expected him to win, and they are keen to establish their own power. Newspapers have discovered a power which they did not have before, and in a curious way they have become united. There is no groundswell for John Smith, nor particularly for any other leader of the Tory Party that I know of. There are very able people about, like Ken Clarke and Michael Howard, and Heseltine before he was taken ill, but there is no great move for change. One comes back to the feeling that the media sense they can control things, albeit in a negative sense – in other words destroy rather than build. I don’t think Margaret is behind it in any shape or form. John Major is the outstanding man of his generation, and I don’t think there is any member of his Cabinet who would deny that.
Why do you think Margaret Thatcher is so hostile to him? After all she chose him…
I think perhaps she wanted something on the nature of an echo, an understudy, and thought she’d got it; she wanted someone to carry out politically exactly what she would have done, and in the way she would have done it. Well, there ain’t such an animal; she was unique.
You describe Mrs Thatcher as ‘something of a stranger to the ordinary pleasures of the human experience’. That sounds as if you rather pitied her in some way.
My goodness, I don’t think she needs pity. There was a kind of innocence, a lack of sophistication about her. She never had any hobbies in my experience; she wasn’t particularly interested in the arts, in the theatre, in paintings. She was a politician to her fingertips 24 hours a day.
You never accepted payment for speechwriting and regarded it more as a privilege. Did this sense of ‘privilege’ not wear a bit thin after 20 years?
No, it still remains with me, funnily enough. I’m not easily impressed, nor do I easily take a subservient role in anything I do, but in this case I did. I had a kind of romantic concept of this kind of service. I had other means of income – my plays – and I continued to write them from time to time. Working unpaid gave me a certain independence of thought which those who have wives or families to think about and have no other source of income find difficult.
By not taking money, did it make you feel more powerful?
I felt like the Health Service, that whatever I did was free at the point of delivery. And I was quite happy for it to be so.
Some may find your explanations in the book somewhat implausible in the sense that you said you did not want to be paid because you wanted to be free to go at any time if you ever fell out of sympathy with Mrs Thatcher. But as time went on it must have been clear that you were very much in tune and that you were never going to feel out of sympathy…
The reasons I gave in the book are correct. There’s nothing secret about it, and I’m not a saint … for heaven’s sake, I like money as much as the next man. It may not sound plausible, but I can only tell you those were the reasons.
Your knighthood in 1980 was presumably in recognition of your contribution and a favour from Mrs Thatcher. Were you happy to regard it as such?
Yes, I’d been with her since a week after she became leader in 1975, so I went through all the years in opposition and worked very hard with her then. I helped to teach her how to make speeches, I wrote some of them for her, and worked extremely hard on her television appearances which were crucial in the election. So yes, I think it was gratitude for what I had done for her, and I thought it was very nice. I was very touched and indeed honoured, and I still am.
You have always said that you have no political allegiance, but surely your loyalties must have been to the Conservatives for you to have worked so closely with the team.
I can’t say that I was dedicated to the Conservative Party as such, but the idea of conservatism appeals rather than the idea of socialism. In a way I’m a kind of independent animal by nature, and I could never become chairman of the Conservative Party or anything of that sort. I’m not saying this is a good idea for anybody else or that politics can possibly work that way; you have to have party members, you have to have party allegiances, and in the sense that I would help in a very small way to bring about a Conservative victory yes, I am a supporter, but I’m not a passionate label man. I just was not the other thing; I was not a socialist.
You said that your political innocence vanished on November 13th 1990, the day when Geoffrey Howe committed what you call ‘that single act of brilliantly executed matricide’. Were your thoughts on that occasion chiefly with the personal impact they would have on the woman you had come to admire so much?
I certainly thought that the impact would be immense. Geoffrey Howe went beyond what was normal in any resignation speech that I’d ever heard. He said what he had done and why he resigned but he then invited his colleagues to take the same view. In other words, he who had been deputy prime minister was inviting them to get rid of the Prime Minister. It was most brilliantly written and performed, even by the very nature of its quietness. It was stunning and it became the catalyst for everything. I sensed it at once, and I’m sure Margaret did too.
You have described Mrs Thatcher’s downfall as a Greek tragedy, and your allusions are often theatrical. Do you believe that politics has essentially the same elements as good theatre, including the ability to ennoble, to elevate, to offer catharsis…?
Yes, I certainly believe all those things. If I express them in terms of drama, it is because the theatre has been my life. There is no greater drama than being at the centre of political power. Nothing is more fascinating than that.
You are said to be hurt by Mrs Thatcher’s recent coolness and ‘unmistakable resentment’ towards you. But surely she is bound to view your working for John Major as an act of disloyalty, however irrational that might be.
It was totally irrational, but the coolness is over now. It lasted about three months, and then we had a very nice dinner together at her house. She thanked me for the book, which is not always favourable to her, and I gave her an inscribed copy. Don’t forget, Mr Major was the man she had chosen, so her reaction could not have been more irrational. It was a very female reaction. I understood it, and I haven’t said anything very violent about it; but I was temporarily, yes a bit miffed, no more than that.
You have said you felt keenly for Mrs Thatcher in the bereavement of her exile. Do you think she has behaved well since?
We have to define the period. For about a year afterwards she was shattered. The effect upon her was enormous. A prime minister’s diary is filled for about a year, sometimes even longer, and suddenly overnight it was wiped clean. To many people this would not have been so shattering, because they have other interests. She had no other interests. Politics was her profession; it was also her hobby. I knew the vacuum that had been created, and I was very concerned for her. It seemed to me that she was a woman in psychic pain, with no idea of what to do with her life. If one had any imagination at all, one could not but be deeply concerned and sorry for her. Even her political enemies had some feeling for her. Obviously she has created problems for John Major since, but not as many she would have done if she had stayed in the Commons like Ted Heath. She gets attention from the media because they will do anything that will give them yet another weapon with which to beat John Major about the head.
Do you think that John Major can ever be divorced from his Spitting Image persona of Grey Man?
He is not, believe me, a grey man in that sense at all. The man who talked for 40 minutes at the meeting I mentioned would be a revelation to anybody. His use of language was particularly astonishing, because I didn’t think that he had that command on his own; and he does. He was really roused and I will never forget it. Perhaps he should never have a speech written, perhaps he should just talk, but of course the press would hate it because they always want the text in advance. But if we said, to hell with speechwriters, let the man talk, we would discover how very difficult it would be to destroy the man I saw that night.
Of the three prime ministers you have worked for you say that John Major is by far the most naturally courteous and warmly human. Do you think that in politics this is perhaps a weakness?
No, I don’t think it is a weakness in any man in any profession. He happens to be a nice guy. It is only a weakness if people think that’s all he is.
Your true love is the theatre, and perhaps in that light politics might be described as your mistress. Are you at all regretful that it is your mistress that has brought you more into the public eye?
No. I’m always in favour of having any number of mistresses [laughs] and I don’t mind which one brings me into the public eye. In fact – and this may sound a strange thing to say for someone who was an actor – I’ve never particularly sought the public eye in the sense that some people do. If I had never become known at all, it would not have bothered me. And anyway, I’m not a household name, for goodness sake, I am known only to people in politics and in the theatre. I daresay farmers don’t wake up in the morning and think, well, what is Sir Ronald up to today?
You have never married, although you say you have come close several times. What do you think has held you back from the brink?
I suppose having so much of my life divided between two different professions. Originally it was the war that prevented me from marrying. I had a girlfriend to whom I was devoted but held back because I thought it would be selfish to marry if I were going to be killed. Perhaps I was over cautious but I didn’t much like the idea of a widow and a child with no father. After the war life suddenly moved into top gear with plays and then films, and I found I was having a hell of a good time with various girlfriends without committing myself.
Freudians might say that no woman ever measured up to your mother … is there anything in that do you think?
No … that’s too easy, that’s too simple. Absolutely not. She cut the apron strings, and they were never joined up again by me. I have several very close women friends, and I wouldn’t like to live without them. In the theatre you meet a lot of homosexual people, and I have friends amongst them too, but that is not in my own nature at all. Women are a joy and a delight. Not marrying has never been a problem for me, except that I feel sometimes I would love to have had children.
Presumably you have always been so busy that you have never had time to feel lonely … do you ever fear loneliness in old age?
No. I have an enormous number of friends from different walks of life and many of them younger than I. I would expect them to be around to give me a decent funeral.
You called your book A View from the Wings. In your heart, have you missed being centre stage?
No, otherwise I wouldn’t have called it A View from the Wings. I’m very happy to be around, just to be there. Shakespeare has King Henry V say in his famous Agincourt speech: ‘And gentlemen in England, now a-bed/Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,/And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.’ At quite a number of key moments for this country during my lifetime, I was there. That’s enough for any one man.