Archive for April, 2010

Politicians

Gordon Brown interview: the election, Blair and family life

The Times April 10, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

Gordon Brown talks candidly to Ginny Dougary
Photo: Mitch Jenkins

Gordon Brown

By our third meeting, the Prime Minister’s skill at the public kiss had improved immeasurably. There was now definite contact between lips and cheek and no head clunking, although he still needs to work on his puckering technique. When I commented on his progress, in the library of 10 Downing Street, he laughed… which is something he does a lot, the more we meet, in-between some rather solemn moments. My teasing had come on the back of seeing his turn on Piers Morgan’s television show, and the clips of him bungling the continental double-kiss with the likes of Carla Bruni (but, really, who can blame him for being a little fazed by that?).

In the run-up to the election, the beauty contest between David Cameron and Gordon Brown is hotting up. After Brown’s hour with Morgan came his opponent’s twirl with Trevor McDonald, featuring the Tory’s “secret weapon” – after Sarah Brown’s endorsement of her husband, at last year’s Labour Party conference, proved such a hit – David’s wife, Samantha. But McDonald’s gentle lack of probing did his subject no favours, and Cameron’s performance – not helped by some rather ludicrous footage of him jogging to a soundtrack of Nina Simone’s Feeling Good – merely reinforced his critics’ complaints that he is a lightweight.

Brown has the opposite problem; where Cameron is accused of “hidden shallows”, the PM is thought to be almost too deep. There were cavils about him looking upset (apparently there is also such a thing as being “too human”) when discussing the death of his baby daughter, Jennifer, with Morgan but, on the whole, the attempt to portray him as less remote and more normal worked. So thus far, in the battle of the populist TV shows, it’s probably 15-love to Brown.

Our first day together started early with a photo opportunity at Euston station, the PM alongside Lord Adonis, to publicise the new high-speed rail link from London to the Midlands and the North. Then on to the train, in first class, where there is the first of several amusing moments. Brown comes over to greet us and blocks the aisle to the disgruntlement of a couple, behind him, who tut-tut and say, “Excuse me”, crossly, and when the PM turns round, the expression on their faces is priceless. Sarah Brown is accompanying her husband and, although we have met socially on a number of occasions, her manner is initially a little strained. This must be “protective wife syndrome”, since there was a similar quality of watchful wariness on Samantha’s face when we met at the Camerons’ home last year.

The main event of the day is at the National Memorial Arboretum, in Staffordshire, a service of rededication of the Basra Memorial Wall. The original wall was built, with local bricks, outside the airport in Basra. It was constructed in the dark, in their own time, after they had finished their day’s work, by Royal Engineers, hanging it with brass plaques as each man or woman was killed.

The Browns are sitting in the middle of the front row, with the Duke of Gloucester and Air Chief Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, alongside. At one end, is Cameron, slightly slouched, legs crossed over each other oddly casually, in contrast to Nick Clegg, at the other end, who looks about 12, and Brown, who looks his age (59), who are both sitting bolt upright and staring straight ahead.

After the lighting of the memorial candle by Tracey Hazel, whose son – Corporal Ben Leaning of the Queen’s Royal Lancers – was killed in action at the age of 24, the readings, the playing of the Last Post and the minute of silence, the families line up to place their wreaths.

As they approach the wall, it is hard to witness their faces, convulsed in grief. They are all ages: some will have lost their husbands or wives; some their sons or daughters. Brown and Cameron are seven seats apart but, despite the bigger gulf of their political battle, there must be some communality, at this moment at least, in their thoughts of the loss of their first-born children. In the silence and the chilly air, it is impossible not to empathise with the families’ bereavement. Cameron is stooped forward, deep in thought, with a furrowed brow. Brown’s hound face looks sunken, ashen and grave. Later, he tells me, several times, “War is tragic” in an echo of what his old compadre, Tony Blair, said: “War is horrible.” But all their knockers want to know is, “Could it have been avoided?”

Next on the agenda is a “healthy living centre”. This is a Brown initiative; multipurpose centres to serve the local community, where you can drop your child at the nursery, go to the dentist, and so on, all in one place. In the nursery, Brown drops down on his knees – no hint of creakiness – and chats away to mothers and nursery aides, and their charges.

I would say, having observed both Blair and Cameron in similar circumstances, that Brown, contrary to expectation, has more of a common touch than either of them. Perhaps this is to do with his upbringing – his late father, the Rev John Ebenezer Brown, was a minster of the Church of Scotland, and the family manse in Kirkcaldy, Fife, was something of an open house to the poor and in need. Gordon and his brothers, John and Andrew, were expected to be kind and hospitable to whomsoever arrived at the door.

On the train back, Brown and I are left to talk, in rather trying circumstances, knees to knees, juddering china, hovering rail staff with loudspeaker voices. His voice is low and soothing but his manner is more hesitant, particularly at first, than in subsequent meetings.

It’s intriguing to hear the private reflections and anxieties of our public figures behind their impassive façades. He was worried at the service, for instance, about how much eye contact he should make: “It was very emotional. I found it difficult because I wanted to look at everybody but not in a prying way. I wanted them to know that I wasn’t trying to avoid their… so I looked at them and sort of nodded.” Afterwards, he met the families. Did they express their anger to you? “That has happened but not today… Look, war is always tragic, that’s what I wanted to say at the Iraq inquiry.”

So why didn’t you say it? “I did say it but that’s not what was reported. Tragedies happen during a period of war or conflict and you’ve got to keep asking yourself, ‘Is this the right thing to do? Can you justify this? What is happening to these young people?’?”

Do you sometimes feel like weeping, yourself, in a public event like this one? “Of course, of course.” I ask him, then, about his emotionalism when talking about the death of his daughter on the Piers Morgan show. Was he surprised when his feelings overtook him?

“Well, we… I hadn’t really talked about it much in public and I just… um… I mean, that’s just the way it happened. I wanted to explain what had happened because these were ten…the ten most important days of my life and I can remember almost every minute of them. And, yes, you do cherish them.”

Who can forget those pictures and footage of Brown, happier than anyone had ever seen him, as he held his new baby girl in his arms? He came to fatherhood relatively late in life, and looked like a man who could hardly believe his good fortune. And then those grief-stricken, shell-shocked photos, ten days later.

Does that personal experience connect him to the people whose own children have died, and does it also reconnect him to his own feelings of loss? “Yes, it does, because a loss is not something you get over. You just adjust to it. It’s very, very difficult, particularly when people have built their whole lives around either a partnership with someone or their expectations that they will see their teenage son prosper and then, suddenly, they’re dead, and it’s very, very sad. It is a terrible thing to lose your child.”

Moving on, I ask Brown whether he has enjoyed being Prime Minister, which startles him. “Enjoyment! It’s not the first word that you’d use,” a big laugh. “I do enjoy being in politics and, I mean, if I thought that I wasn’t being able to do anything that was of any use, I’d get out immediately. I’m not really wanting to be there if I can’t do anything. So as long as I feel there are more things to do… Yes, it is enjoyable.”

Can you give an example of something you set out to do and have achieved; something which makes you feel proud? “I think we have probably created a fairer society and rebuilt our public services. These Sure Start Children’s Centres, for instance, like the one we were at today… There’s now 3,500 around the country and there were none in 1997.”

He talks about the new challenges each day brings, and meetings with Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the internet, and Martha Lane Fox: “We’re trying to work out how we can move to the next stage of the internet in Britain and how Britain can lead in that.”

How good are you at the new technology? “I’m not that great.” Do you tweet? “Well, I give people messages but we’ve got 1.5 million people on it!” How are you at e-mail? “I do e-mail and you can tell it’s me, I never correct the spelling. I can’t be bothered doing spellcheck.

“My father had a typewriter and when I was very young, we [he and his brothers] all learnt to type with two fingers. That’s never changed,” he demonstrates, looking like an old-time reporter in The Front Page.

Brown went to Edinburgh University to read history at the age of 16, having been fast-tracked in an experimental educational programme, selected at Kirkcaldy West primary school, and taught in a separate class – with the other hot-housed children – at Kirkcaldy High School.

As a teenager, he wrote about how much he hated the experiment and he still clearly believes it was a bad idea: “My school life and everybody else’s was determined by this narrow, narrow measure of IQ. The kids I was in a class with, with very high IQs, were being trained to do better at university, assuming they would go to university. And, actually, most of them didn’t go because the pressures were very high on them, and a lot of them just gave up on the way.

“The idea that you can narrow intelligence down to one measurement of IQ… when what we’ve got to have is both an education system and a society that recognises that people’s talents flourish in different ways. You cannot standardise a measure of talent.”

Deyan Sudjic, the director of the Design Museum, was a contemporary of the PM’s at Edinburgh and recalls Brown’s successful campaign to become rector in 1972, at the age of 21, following in the footsteps of such towering political figures as William Gladstone, Thomas Carlyle, Stanley Baldwin and Winston Churchill.

“He wasn’t the first [student rector] – he was the second – but he was the one who made the most of it,” Sudjic remembers. “Here was someone who was quite cerebral about politics but who also managed a very populist campaign [a posse of miniskirted cuties, who called themselves the Brown Sugars, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Brown’s face and the slogan, “Gordon for me”]. It was a time when students were more interested in sit-ins and were quite snooty about that kind of thing, but he had a gift for touching different sorts of people.”

Even then, Sudjic says, “Brown had a glow, which is nothing to do with hindsight – a charisma that this was someone who was going to do something.” They worked together on the student newspaper, where Sudjic was editor and Brown was the unofficial news editor who could be relied on to come up with cracking headlines, and quickly: “He was always the centre of a group of people who wanted to be around him, and popular – of course – with women. [His girlfriend, for five years, was Princess Margarita, the eldest daughter of the exiled King of Romania.] We’d all go to a pub – the Meadows Bar – which was a notorious dive.”

When Brown left university, staying on as rector until 1975, fighting and triumphing in various thorny political battles, his plan was to be an academic. He lectured in politics in Glasgow and Edinburgh, “and I was going down that sort of road, but after I had my series of eye operations, I decided to do something a bit more useful”.

As is well known, Brown lost his sight in one eye in an accident when he was playing rugby in his final year at school. Up to that point, he was a gifted and keen sportsman. I’d read somewhere that he’d even thought of turning professional, but when I ask him, he says “No! But I was very fit and I was very fast. I was a runner, you know, so whether you’re playing football or rugby or athletics, if you’re fast, you’ve got something to offer.”

But then there were complications in his other eye and he had to spend long weeks, with operation after operation, lying on his bed in the dark with nothing to do but think: “I decided I had to do something a bit more useful, so that’s when I got more involved in politics.” But what could be more useful than teaching?

“That’s true, but I thought I was doing it just for myself.” In-between being a university lecturer and an MP, Brown had a stint as a broadcast journalist on Scottish Television. How did you find that? “I thought it was fascinating because it taught me how – well, it should have taught me how – to present a case, and it should have taught me how to say things more succinctly!”

For the rest of the journey we talked about books and poetry. Brown knew that this interested me, for several reasons, and I had the impression that he had prepared himself. We had met years ago when he threw a drinks party for Women in Journalism, in a gracious reception room on the top floor of 11 Downing Street. He may have had, even then, a slight reputation for dourness – which was nothing compared to what it became – but he was incredibly charming and seemed totally at ease surrounded by legions of spike-heeled feministas who all wanted to get close to him. His chief memory of the occasion, rather disappointingly, was the enthusiastic smoking on the balconies.

Then, more recently, as Brown’s reputation hardened – and he was portrayed, in some places, as a moody, paranoid, bitter, neurotic, socially dysfunctional, obsessive, workaholic weirdo – it struck me how distinctly at odds this was with the impression of him conveyed by other people I interviewed. Talking to them revealed glimpses of a Brown that we rarely see, and I wanted to dig deeper into this hinterland.

Terence Conran, for instance, spoke about his passion for modernist architecture and how – before the big modernism exhibition at the V&A in 2006 – Brown had asked if Conran would give him a tour of the show one evening. What impressed him was the knowledge of the Chancellor, as he was then, but also his curiosity and desire to learn more.

Antonia Fraser was struck by Brown’s cleverness but also his passionate interest and knowledge of poetry. Brown remembers being invited to a reception for Fraser’s anthology of Scottish love poetry when he was a student: “This was very funny because Hugh MacDiarmid was there [the nom de plume of the communist poet Christopher Murray Grieve, who created a Scottish version of modernism] and he was just swearing at everything. This man who had this great talent with words was reduced to the adjective, the verb and the noun of swear words. It was incredible.” But why was he swearing? “Well, I was the rector of the university, and I was a student, and the establishment was not very pleased with me [Brown had taken the university to court over its investments in South Africa, and won] and so Hugh was siding with me.”

He still reads poetry, which surprises and delights me, and he really knows his stuff. Every time I make a reference, he joins me, and so we make a bit of spectacle of ourselves, yelling, “My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains my sense” over the rattle of the train. (The only other politician, in my experience, who has a similar love and appreciation of language is Boris Johnson.)

I had asked Brown to cite his favourite love poem and he’s a bit stumped. About a week after our last meeting, I have the faintly surreal experience of the Prime Minister calling me at home, on a Sunday, and quoting the lines of various poems that do it for him. Clearly, he was speaking from memory, because he is unable to tell me the titles, apart from Robbie Burns’s A Red Red Rose. He also likes this one by Erich Fried and recites it:

“It is nonsense/ says reason/ It is what it is/says love

It is calamity/ says calculation/ It is nothing but pain/ says fear

It is hopeless/ says insight/ It is what it is/ says love

It is ludicrous/ says pride/ It is foolish/ says caution/ It is impossible/ says experience/ It is what it is/ says love.”

Towards the end of our train journey, Sarah came and joined us. Her husband had been talking about his book of the moment, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

What I want to know is whether the Browns swap books at bedtime. Sarah says in her dry way: “I read a lot of chick lit… and Gordon, not so much.” Really, how can you fail to like her? “Well, Sarah reads a lot more than I do,” says Gordon. “I’m less interested in reading political biographies but I do find biographies interesting; the way they try to get at the heart of people.”

We’ve arrived at Euston. Brown ushers me into his car, en route for Downing Street, where he and Sarah are hosting a reception for the heroes of different communities, and talks in an unbridled way about himself.

There is a bit of a whiff of that “They’re out to get me” paranoia when he refers to certain newspapers, but then you could say it’s justifiable paranoia because they are. More interestingly, he says that for some years he had felt restricted by a kind of image-problem straitjacket but now he’s shrugged it off and can be himself. He talks about it as though it were a liberation.

Other people have witnessed this new lightness in the PM’s step, although they say the straitjacket was of Brown’s own making. One political commentator first noticed what a good mood Brown was in on the plane to Trinidad, last November, for the Commonwealth summit. “I kept saying, ‘Why is Gordon so relaxed? Is it because he can see the finishing line?’ He’s seen off the coups, and he’s got the polls in a good position and he’s been thrown a lifeline that wasn’t there – because the public has taken a good look at Cameron and they’re not quite sure about him… So Brown’s in with a chance.”

The accusations sparked by Andrew Rawnsley’s book that Brown has “anger issues” have tended to make the PM more popular. “The country was not shocked by suggestions that the PM loses his temper, and his staff don’t regard him as a bully,” the commentator continues. “He’s not a cruel guy – he doesn’t get any pleasure by being hard on people – but he is extremely demanding. I’ve had texts from people in No 10 saying, ‘God, he’s in a bad mood today,’ and there’s no doubt that he’s really, really moody. But now that it’s been seen that he can shed a tear as well as sock people,” he jokes, “Brown’s far more interesting to the public.”

I spoke to someone close to Blair who had witnessed the two of them during some of the more tense periods. “I’ve never seen anything like bullying,” he says. “I’ve heard horrible tempers but the most difficult thing with Gordon was his withdrawal or sulkiness which was much more tedious. His main problems were shooting the messenger and sulking when he didn’t get his own way, but my impression is that all that is better now and his team seems to be working better.”

It’s possible, of course, with the election only weeks away, that no one from Labour’s inner circle, past or present, is going to put the boot into Brown since there’s no shortage of people who will be doing that for them.

Our next meeting takes place, on Sunday afternoon, in the kitchen of No 10. It’s rather pokey and old-fashioned and to get there, you go up in a lift the size of one of those saw-the-lady-in-half magician’s boxes. The Browns’ sons are nowhere to be seen but I pass their brightly coloured wellingtons lined up, regimentally, in another tiny nook at the entrance of the flat. Sarah organises coffee in a cafetiere and, again, Brown and I are left alone, to talk around the kitchen table.

This lack of control-freakery is highly unusual with senior politicians. Brown’s press person leaves a tape recorder on the table but never sits in on the interviews. When I interviewed Tony Blair a number of times last year, again with no aide present, he said that when he was Prime Minister that would never have happened. I wasn’t allowed to be on my own with David Cameron in our time together, again last year, without his press officer glued to our side. Cameron’s people were also much more anxious about what I was going to write, while Brown’s lot are almost peculiarly chilled. It’s hard to know whether this is an extremely clever ploy – see how relaxed and confident the PM is! Gordon Brown has nothing to fear! – or a bit naive and unprofessional.

I ask Brown, after all the recent focus on his personality, how he would describe his temperament. “Determined, strong-willed, impatient, wanting to do things.” Are you moody? “Yes, but, look, every day you get up with a determination to do certain things, and you can get very frustrated if you haven’t done them by the end of the day. But every morning, I’m very positive about what you can do.”

There’s been no hint of brusqueness in our time together but I wouldn’t see that, would I, since we are both sort of wooing one another for our own reasons, aren’t we? He laughs: “I don’t think I’m naturally surly but I am very strong-willed.”

When I repeat what the political pundit had said about the public being more interested in him, now, because of the tears and him packing a punch, Brown says, “But I don’t pack a punch!” He talks about his father, to whom he often refers, with a rather touching admiration: “He was a man who I never heard raise his voice once. You always knew when he was disappointed by the expression on his face but he would not get angry. And every time I get impatient or angry around others, I remember my father was not prepared to lose his temper.”

Does Sarah ever tell you to calm down? “Not those words, no.” What does she say? “Move on to the next issue.’” Do you brood? “I think about a lot of things. But ‘brood’ is not the word. ‘Brood’ is your poets we were discussing the other day.”

I ask him whether this new lightness of being – he says that it’s a consequence of him not caring any more about what people write about him – means that he is philosophical about his future.

“I’m not philosophical in the sense that people might understand it – that I’m just letting events take their course. I’m fighting as we’ve never fought before to win,” he says.

Some commentators are saying that the danger is that you underestimate Cameron. “I don’t underestimate anybody,” Brown says steelily. “And I certainly don’t underestimate the Conservatives. I mean, they’re putting huge amounts of money and huge amounts of effort and huge amounts of personal… You know, sort of ‘Brown is the problem’, ‘Another five years of Brown’. I don’t underestimate them at all.”

Does he fear rejection, I wonder. Could this be the reason that he put off the election, the first time round, when he seemed to be in a much stronger position to win, even though the initial honeymoon period was over. “That wasn’t about a fear of rejection, it was about the right time for doing the right things,” he says. “And I’m not going into this election fearing rejection. I mean, if people decide not to vote for us, I’ll accept that. I have to accept it so I will accept it. I don’t think I’m motivated by the fear of rejection.”

So why didn’t you call an election at that time? “Because I’d just started the job… We’d gone through the summer with floods and terrorism, and foot-and-mouth, and I thought about it and then decided not to do it because I thought we would give people more time to see what we’re capable of doing.”

Hmmm, how very generous-spirited of you, I say. Do you despair of the fickleness of the public; the way when Blair had gone, it was all, “Thank God, no more of that dreadful showbiz and glamour – Gordon Brown is so solid and no frills,” and, pretty soon, it was you who could do nothing right?

Another big laugh. “Well, look around the world at every political leader and for most of the time that they’re in office, it’s a referendum on them. So – make a mistake [which his people admit he did on pensions, for instance], make a bad judgment, do something sort of idiosyncratic or do something a bit strange or odd or stupid, and – you know – people will mark you down.

“So most of the time, it’s a referendum and it’s only when it comes to an election – and, actually, it’s only in the few weeks before an election – that it becomes a choice. So if you’re asking people, most of the time, ‘What’s your view of the Government?’ they’ll say, ‘The Government’s done something wrong.’ If you ask them nearer an election, then they know they’ve got to choose between these two parties.

“And if I seem happy it’s because I believe that we can show people, against the odds, and the odds have been against us, that we can come through.”

I ask him what he’s learnt about people from his time in politics. Any surprises? “I think that in the job that I’m in there are lots of things that shock you!” Any examples? “I’d better not! I’m still shocked by some of these parliamentary expenses problems that I never knew about. There was a system that was wrong, but it does shock me how bad some of the experiences we had to deal with were.”

Are you a bit of an innocent then? “Maybe I am.” A huge laugh. “No, I think most people would be shocked by this. And when you see people abusing any system, you get angry and it made me very angry indeed.” He goes on: “I didn’t have any particular problem with my expenses but everybody suffered and it’s bound to affect the government of the day. In the last two years, we’ve had two of the biggest problems that British politics has had to face since the war. One is the trust in politics that has been damaged in a way that it’s never been hurt before by a sort of cumulative weight of public opinion against MPs – because of the expenses – which is justifiable.

“And the second is the global financial crisis – and when you ask me about why we didn’t choose to go for the election…” Do you regret that you didn’t? “No.” Why? “Because I think it was better for me to see through the global recession. And let’s see what happens in the next few months. I mean, there’s still a long way to go.”

He talks about “the tragedy of British politics”, when there are big moral questions that should be debated – such as the right to assisted suicide, genetic research, discrimination laws – that are “about the future of our culture, in some cases, as well as the future of our country”, and yet, “All you see is a sort of divisive, confrontational opposition versus government bun fight that is more reminiscent of a public-school debating society than it is of a serious chamber looking at serious issues.”

He continues: “We’ve got to do better than this confrontational point-scoring and legalistic cleverness because, that’s what it is, clever not wise. And the reason that people don’t feel that their politicians are in touch with them as they should be is that they don’t feel that politicians are debating the issues that really matter to them – like social care – how do you care for the elderly? If you could see Parliament really debating that, then people might have more trust in the political system. That’s where I’d like it to be.”

And, yet, there are obviously larger moments of shared humanity where all differences are put aside: “When people are talking in the House of Commons about the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, the mood is very different. Look, politicians can behave well, even if they often behave badly.”

I ask him what has been the happiest moment in his political life, and he says: “I think it was probably presenting the first Budget as Chancellor – probably because you felt you were actually doing something, after so many years in opposition of not being able to change things.

“The Budget was 3.30 one afternoon, and for some stupid reason the Conservatives decided to make points of order. And we had 18 minutes of points of order – hahahahah – and I remember turning to Tony and saying, ‘Look, we’ve waited 18 years, I suppose we can wait another 20 minutes.’?”

The relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown is one that has riveted the public and media alike. It has been the subject of many column inches, books and a TV drama, The Deal. Given the Conservatives’ recent, rather counter-intuitive claim that they are Blair’s heirs, it seemed a good idea to contact the man himself. Blair is harder to pin down, these days, than the PM, but he spoke to me on the telephone, in snatches, from Moscow, London and Brussels, before flying off to China.

They were both new MPs when they met – Blair was 30, Brown, 32 – and they got on instantly. “He was pointed out to me as someone who was a highly intelligent, able guy – the rising star of the Labour Party – and we got talking and I found him both intellectually stimulating and a fascinating personality and then, by a curious quirk, we ended up sharing this windowless, airless room underneath a House of Commons corridor.

“That was the start of a very close friendship because we were in a very, very small room – slightly bigger than the inside of a car, but not much – and we were there all the time. First, there was a very strong intellectual curiosity, and an understanding that the Labour Party had to change and that we were in serious trouble.

“Second, we got on personally very well together, we really, really enjoyed each other’s company, and he certainly taught me a lot about politics.”

Blair offers as an example the first press release he did, “which was very much like a sort of lawyer’s opinion, and he said, ‘What’s the headline?’ And I gave him this intellectual analysis, and he said, ‘Look, what’s the headline?’ So he was extremely good at doing that.”

Brown also helped Blair with his first speeches: “Getting a point to them and a rhythm to them that was for a public speech rather than an argument. But the most important thing was that for ten years we were extremely busy iterating and reiterating where the Labour Party had to be… what was the modern form of social democracy that would be capable of remaining true to its values but win public support.

“So it was an intellectual bond but a strong personal friendship, too.”

I ask him about the next stage, when the decision was made for Blair to become leader. Wasn’t that awkward, since Brown had somewhat mentored him? “Well, of course, these things are always difficult,” he says, and then – which felt almost too melodramatically apt – the line went dead in snowbound Moscow.

We resume, a day or so later: “Of course, it was bound to be difficult because only one of us could go forward, and we’d been working extraordinarily closely together and very productively.

“But at the time, the great challenge was how to win the aspirantly upwardly mobile in the South.” And yours was the face that fitted? “You could say that… Obviously, it was very hard for him but, yes, I think he eventually reconciled himself to it.”

Blair says that the first term was about re-establishing Labour’s credibility to govern, “and he was a tower of strength, particularly in respect of the economy, because the worry had always been that Labour either didn’t understand it or couldn’t run it or manage it. And, actually, in those ten years we were a very successful partnership. But, yes, the tension obviously remained.”

I’ve been told, as was widely speculated, that after 2005, there was a real deterioration in your relationship, is that right? “I’m not sure it was quite like that but obviously Gordon still retained a very strong ambition to be leader – and he was perfectly entitled to, which is why I always thought he’d be my successor.

“When major events happened, like September 11th and Afghanistan and Iraq and so on, he was there and he was supportive. But there’s no point in being silly about it – of course the tension remained between someone who had the job and someone who wanted the job. That’s always the way it is, but it was still a very enduring partnership.”

Do you feel protective of Gordon when he is under siege? “Of course, because I know what it’s like to be under attack in that way. One of the reasons why I would never go out and criticise the person who is Prime Minister is that I know how damn tough the job is, and I also know enough about the way the modern media works to know that things can get extraordinarily exaggerated and your motives are completely traduced.

“But there’ll always be a basis of friendship for us and, indeed, respect – because on the great issues of the day, he is someone who thinks profoundly and, indeed, in an original way – which is a rare quality.”

I wait for the PM in the library of 10 Downing Street, with its rather gloomy landscapes in ornate frames, and books – lined up under august busts – which have an uncherished and unconsidered quality, dating back to previous incumbents. Only in one corner, almost embarrassedly tucked-away, is there any sense of the here and now – a photograph of a beaming Brown, with his two boys, John, 6, and Fraser, 3, wrapped up in his arms.

Sculpted into the cornices, around the room, are four tiny bees that Cherie had commissioned to represent the actual Blair heirs. The original vandal was Margaret Thatcher who had decided, in a fit of whimsical grandeur, to have four thatches attached to the stucco of the ceiling in one of No 10’s reception rooms.

When Brown arrives, I ask him what form his interior legacy will take. “I haven’t thought about that at all,” he says. “What’s Tony done?”

I had asked him whether his weeks of darkness and enforced idleness as a youth had taught him more about patience or impatience: “Impatience, I think – because I was doing all these things I enjoyed, like playing rugby and football, and then that just stopped.

“So, instead of allowing it to be a setback, you think you’ll try to make something of it – and I became more impatient to do things more quickly.”

And, yet, you had to be patient for so long, waiting to become prime minister? But then you weren’t so very patient towards the end, were you?

“Well, ask Tony. We had our ups and downs but there is no political relationship, as I have said, that has survived so long as Chancellor and Prime Minister as the one I had with Tony. How many Chancellors did Margaret Thatcher have? Three or four? And I was the longest-serving Chancellor for 200 years. So we worked things through when there were difficulties, and I’ve got enormous, enormous respect for him.”

He was also close to his special adviser Damian McBride, who had to resign after the e-mail scandal when he and Labour blogger, Derek Draper, fabricated unpleasant personal stories about Tory politicians and their wives. Do you still talk to him? “No, I haven’t talked to him.” Don’t you miss him and feel sad about it? “It’s a very sad example of someone making a mistake and paying very heavily for it. You can’t condone what happened but, equally, the penalty for him was very high.”

Does that mean that you’re not a good judge of character? “I don’t think so, no. One of the things about people is that you think you know them and then you get a surprise. But you think you know yourself and then sometimes you’ve got to think, ‘Oh, I’ve reacted in this way which surprises me.’?”

Well, look at Peter Mandelson, and how he bounces back. He’s gone from being the Prince of Darkness to – what? – the Labour Party’s Winne-the-Pooh? “I think people admire the way he’s fought back.”

Earlier, we had been talking about Brown’s extracurricular interests – he still plays the piano (as a boy he had lessons from his aunt, who was a music teacher) and he likes Bach, but he also can bang out some Beatles songs. What’s your favourite Beatles song? “Hey Jude.” He tells me that his older son, John, was given a teddy bear that plays Imagine when you wind it up – but it’s only later, when I compare Mandelson to a Mandy Bear, that he says: “That’s the guy who gave John the teddy bear that plays Imagine.”

What does he make of George Osborne’s claim that the Tories are the real Blair’s heirs, presumably trying to imply that Brown is a sort of Arthur Scargill throwback?

“It’s a Tory tactic to try to present themselves as centre ground and me as too far on the left. And it’s wrong because, basically, I am centre ground and they are too far on the right.”

Given that GB was as much the architect of New Labour as TB, the Tories might as well say that they are wearing Brown’s crown.

Moving on to Iraq, did he ever feel like resigning over it? “No… It wasn’t weapons of mass destruction or the issue about regime change that was important to me. To me, the important thing was, if you are creating a global community – which is what we are trying to do after the Cold War – you cannot have countries that persistently defy the international community by refusing to abide by their obligations.”

But was it our responsibility to go in? “There is a responsibility to protect – which we will have to debate – you know, we didn’t go into Rwanda when we should have done. You wouldn’t justify now the Western world’s inability to deal with the problems of Rwanda, would you? So you would support intervention in cases where it was morally justified.”

So are you saying we should be doing more Iraqs, not less? “Well, I think you’ve got to ask – what is a just war and what is a just peace.”

But, Gordon, do you understand that it’s not just the expenses scandal that has made the public turn against politicians – it’s also that thousands and thousands of people marched against the Iraq War but their opposition counted for nothing. Do you understand that anger?

“I understand the anger over Iraq, I do – because people feel that they were given information that turned out not to be correct. I understand the feeling that people have but you want me to, sort of, denounce something that I was involved with.

“Do I understand why people feel worried when there are casualties and people are killed? Yes, I do – but I can’t be in politics and be a pacifist.”

How much does the public have a right to know about their political leaders? “That’s an interesting question, isn’t it?” If you had been suffering from depression, for instance, should we know about that? “I’ve never really thought about it.” But weren’t you asked about that by Andrew Marr? “That was about prescription drugs, wasn’t it?” But if I asked if you were on Prozac, let’s say, should I expect an honest answer? “I think people have got to give answers to questions, yeah.”

But do you think that’s a legitimate question to ask? “Look, I think we are in a world where every part of my private life has been investigated by someone. Every part of what I do… my house, my marriage, my children. I didn’t choose to expose the fact that my son [Fraser] had cystic fibrosis. I didn’t want people to know that. I’m not ashamed of it but I didn’t want people to know because I want to protect my sons.

“But it leaked out. Someone sold the story. But I am realistic that people will ask all sorts of questions and they do – and in the end people will judge you by what you do.”

He had said that his upbringing was one where you didn’t talk about personal things outside the confines of your family: “I was quite a shy boy when I was young and, yes, I’m probably still shy… but not unwilling to take on the things I do.”

Do his feelings get hurt by the personal comments? “I think it does affect you when people say, ‘Oh, this guy’s got a…’ – hahahaha – ‘weird smile,’ and ‘This guy’s got something wrong about the way he speaks.’ I mean, people are pretty cruel sometimes. But, no, I don’t get hurt any more.”

Watching the Browns, over several days, one did, indeed, get the impression as the PM puts it, “We do well together – we’ve been very lucky.” He looks a bit emotional. “You’ve got to understand each other’s needs and, at the moment, she’s having to do more for me, so it’s more of a pressure on her.”

How much do you think Sarah’s changed you? “A lot, I think. She’s helped me to be more outgoing and more sensitive to things that probably I was not as sensitive to as I should have been.”

What have you discovered about her in this role? “Poise. I knew she was compassionate and very dedicated to what she was doing – but it’s a difficult job for her because there’s no official title or office that sort of backs her up. But she’s tried to do all the things that are necessary with poise and, I suppose,” – a shy laugh – “elegance.”

Can you imagine a life without children? “Not now – it’s absolutely the best thing that has happened to me, and it was never clear after Jennifer died whether Sarah could have more children, so we were very lucky.

“Working here and living here, you’re meeting your children throughout the day – so, you know, they’re running in to see you.” Are you demonstrative with them? “Oh, yes, very.” Were your parents with you? “Not so much, no. But children like that – we play a lot together and I try to read them stories… You know, it’s the softness of their skin which is just wonderful.

“I’ve been very lucky to have children at this age – Sarah is younger than me, our children are very young, and I feel younger as a result. It’s very energising to be around children.”

How does Brown think he and Sarah will get on when they have more time on their hands? “Better,” he says. “I think so because Sarah’s got things she wants to do, and I’ve got things I want to do…”

Can you imagine a life without politics? “Oh yes, I could always imagine a life without politics.” What would you enjoy? “Time to read, time to write… I have written one or two books and I love the intellectual discovery that comes with it. I’m fascinated by the moral sense that people have and how that arises, and what makes people do the things they do.”

When we had been talking about poetry on the train, Brown spoke about his favourite poem – Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard, and its theme of potential never realised, the flowers never to blossom and so on, because of impoverished lives. I’d asked him, then, if he felt that he’d fulfilled his potential. “Not yet. Does anybody in the end? I don’t know.” He also said that everyone who is reported as being one-dimensional has more than one dimension: “Everybody has a hinterland of some sort.”

I spoke to Rory Bremner, whose job as a political satirist and impressionist requires him to examine our political leaders with forensic precision, and his view was that Brown was the most three-dimensional of them all. He also said that, “Brown is a serious man and a significant politician but the skills set of a modern politician is about fluency and ease and looking relaxed in your own skin, and Brown doesn’t fit into that.”

What Bremner said chimed with the general impression I had of Brown, while working on this piece that, despite, his mistakes, he is a man of substance in a shallow age. So the question is – will we get the prime minister we deserve?

Towards the end of our sessions, I put it to him that politics often seems not to be about the art of the possible but the art of the compromise. “It ought to be the art of making the desirable possible, in my view,” was Brown’s supple riposte. “Is that not what politics should be? Making the desirable possible?”

Celebrities, Comedians

Ricky Gervais in his most ‘postmodern’ interview ever

Ginny Dougary
The Times
April 2010

The comedian talks about everything from relationships to body image

It started pretty badly. At one point, Ricky Gervais said it was the most difficult interview he’d ever done – and he was using “difficult” in the same way that someone says a dress is “interesting” when they mean “horrible”.

The feeling, it must be said, was mutual but, fortunately, this encounter in his anonymous-looking office, above an estate agency in Hampstead – despite 60 hellish minutes which veered between awkwardness and outright bloody-mindedness – does have a happy, if somewhat unorthodox, ending.

To be frank, I had half-expected it to be tricky. It was the control thing that worried me. I’d heard stories, possibly apocryphal, about Gervais, dissatisfied with the way a photoshoot was going, simply taking over and directing himself himself. There was in addition something about the look in his eyes – cussedness tinged with anger, a lack of trust, maybe – underneath the hectic bravado that could spell trouble.

We chitchat about the pronunciation of his name – which is French-Canadian on his father’s side – “Gervaaayze” (as in haze), although his mother, from Reading, rolled it out with a rural burr: “Gerrrrrvayze.”

He remembers only fully understanding that his dad came from another, far-off country when various uncles and aunts came to visit and “of course, they were real Canadians and had check jackets on”. He’s been to Canada but not to visit his relatives: “Obviously, I’m interested in my immediate family [he has three much older siblings] but, no, I’ve never worried about where I came from. I don’t see the point, really.”

So you won’t be doing that Who Do You Think You Are? genealogy show any time soon? “No. Who cares who the f*** you are? Oh God, I love it when they cry when they find out their great-great-grandmother was a prostitute. Really? I mean, really, do you care? It’s all come flooding back now, hasn’t it? Oh, the terrible memories of 150 years ago.”

He is close to his two brothers, Larry and Bob, and his sister, Marsha: “I like them and I get on with them. We’ve shared a life together. So that’s why I care about them, because they’re nice and loyal and, you know, if they were all adopted I’d feel the same. That’s what caring about someone is, not someone saying, ‘By the way, you share 99 per cent genetic material.’ Do I? Oh that makes it different, then.”

We’ve barely started and already we’re into the heavy sarcasm and belligerence. I happen to agree with Gervais that those shows featuring an endless parade of weeping celebrities are a bit suspect, but there’s also something absurd about his toxic snideness. It would probably be funny on the stage, but close up it’s faintly alarming; a bit like being trapped in the back of a cab with an irate driver who’s sounding off.

My next mistake is to comment (innocuously, I think) on why he always puts his feet on his desk – does he have a lower-back problem?

“It feels comfortable,” he says, looking faintly uncomfortable. “I wouldn’t do it in your house. I do it because it feels nice and relaxed.”

Later, when we sort of kiss and make up, it transpires that this was a turning point for him – ie, when things really started to go wrong – and his reasons reveal a lot about his rather complicated personality, as well as his uneasy accommodation with fame.

His comedy – and writing, in general – works because it is true to life, and full of acute observation. There’s no lumbering exposition and he follows the good writer’s rule of “Show, don’t tell.” His creation and portrayal of David Brent, The Office’s boss, resonates because his character is totally recognisable, whether the audience lives in Slough or Poughkeepsie. We all have a little bit of Brent inside us – an executive friend of mine confessed she feels herself to be cringingly like him whenever she tries to chum up to her staff.

There are discernible overlaps between Gervais himself and his most famous character, particularly his mannerisms. After our interview, I talked to half-a-dozen people about the feet-on-table business, and most of them said either that it was something Brent actually did or, at the very least, it was a quintessentially Brentian thing to do. What is intriguing is that Gervais intuited my discomfort with him sticking his trainers under my nose before I was even really aware of it. It was only afterwards that I thought, “Well, what if I were an elderly, genteel lady – would he still think it was OK to do that?” It also struck me how much it was a distancing device; with his body stretched out in an L-shape, his face could not have been further away from mine.

I ask him if he is sentimental, and he says that he is. So, I wonder, what is the stronger element in him: sentiment or ironic detachment. “I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t understand the question because it doesn’t make sense. I don’t think you can break it down to a percentage, because there’s lots of overlap as well. I’m 100 per cent human so I’m a logical person with all the attributes of being human…”

Perhaps you find me asking for a percentage a bit off-putting but… “I’ll take every question you ask very seriously.” OK, let’s try it another way: some people are completely sentimental without a trace of cruel wit in them and… “I never lose one when the other one’s happening. I don’t understand the question. You’ve gotta start again.”

Well, you have answered the question in a way… “I couldn’t have. If I did, I did it by mistake because I don’t understand the question.”

Oh dear, I sigh. The reason I’m asking the question, partly, is because your new film, Cemetery Junction – which you’ve said is very autobiographical (a coming-of-age story of three lads trapped in Nowheresville, plotting their escape) – has got a lot of warmth and heart, and feels quite different in tone to, say, The Office (or, certainly, from the one episode I saw, Extras).

Now we’re talking about “the work”, Gervais is back in his comfort zone; he knows where he’s going, he has control and there is a momentary ceasefire in hostilities. “[The new film] is more an out-and-out drama so there’s no veil of irony in it, like some of the other works. In The Office, we were laughing at the people who were delusional and un-cool, and now we’ve found people who are cool and, you know, we’re going, ‘This bloke is cool and his feathers are going to fall out one day but not this summer, and isn’t it excitin’?’

“I suppose it was quite dangerous in The Office to expect people to go from laughing at a bit of slapstick with a middle-aged man having a breakdown and then going, ‘But, really, no, he’s a real person and he’s got real emotions.’”

That’s what made it so interesting. “Of course and I think we’ve always done that.

As long as your characters are real and they resonate and there’s some sort of basis in reality and empathy to the piece, as opposed to just crazy slapstick, then I think you can shift gears.

“But it’s all in how you set up your wares, you know. We drip-fed the boy-meets-girl thing, which sometimes doesn’t work in sitcoms because they’re either plonked in or they’re cynical or they forget the jokes, so it’s quite hard to have it all.”

His accent weaves in and out of the Reading burr and a more sloppy urban-teenager-speak – “re-uh” for real; “resonaigh” for resonate; “re-a-li-ee” for reality.

When Tim, the world-weary sales rep, finally gets his girl, Dawn, the gorgeous blonde receptionist, I tell him that I felt like cheering. There had been more misunderstandings, missed opportunities and silent yearning than in a Jane Austen novel. “As soon as you realise that Tim and Dawn can’t say what they want to say because the cameras are watching them…” He snaps his fingers in a very Brent way, “…takes on a whole new level… It’s like, seething and Victorian. So all Tim had to do was look at Dawn and for her not to be looking back or look at Dawn and then get caught. It was all body language because people don’t blow up what they’re thinking anyway.”

It’s time for some more questions and, feeling flushed and anxious, I fan myself with some papers on his desk and then totally freak him out by mentioning the menopause. Do you think people are frightened of you? “Erm – um – in what way?” Frightened of your brightness or that you will lampoon them or put them down?

“Er, I think that, yes, some people are intimidated by a famous person and if they knew how, you know, how idiotic… Well, I think it’s the same percentage of idiots that are famous as not, probably more, I would have thought. So… er… I hope I’m not intimidating in a bad way. I mean, taking this example – um – you know, it’s not nice when it’s combative.”

At this point, I almost fall off my chair as it swings backwards alarmingly – practically to the ground – and I gasp, “Is this a joke seat?” (to dispatch pesky interviewers, I’m thinking.) “No, it’s Stephen Merchant’s – so it’s got a very long back.”

Well, I’m leading up to a question that I’m worried is going to make you angry but, anyway, let’s go. “I won’t be angry,” he says. “I won’t answer it if I don’t like it.” So I want to talk to you about your looks. When you were a pop star (in an Eighties Spandau Ballet-ish duo, all cheekbones, dusky eye make-up and earrings, called Seona Dancing) – “Failed pop star,” he interjects – you were an incredibly pretty boy. Do you ever look at those old videos or pictures of yourself? “No, they’re too depressing.”

Why this interests me is that, in practically every single interview he’s ever done, Gervais refers to himself, in some way, as “fat” or “ugly” or both (as in “ugly, fat git”). Is that really the way you see yourself?

“Well, I don’t think I am a fat git, looking at the national average… and certainly the world average. But I’m a fat git compared to what I was, I suppose. I went from 9 stone to, you know – and then you hit 30 and those were my eating years…” (He’s now 48.)

Do you feel any nostalgia for that pretty boy you once were? “No, of course not.” Do you not care about your looks? “Er… I don’t know. I’m not vain in that way. I don’t preen. I’ve started working out for other reasons.” Health? “Yeah, health – and because I don’t want to get fatter.

“You know. It went far enough. And it was laziness because no one gets fat behind their back. If you burn off less calories than you eat, you put on weight – it’s not a shock to anyone. The people who eat too much must be happy with that or they’d do something about it.

“And I’m eating as much as I ever did because I enjoy it, but I’ve decided to work out more. I run over the Heath and I’ve got a gym at the house, so no excuses at all – not that there was an excuse before… The only reason to live longer is to drink more wine and eat more cheese.”

He and his TV producer partner, Jane Fallon (This Life, Teachers) – the couple have been together since they met at University College London in 1982 – live in a big pile in Hampstead but have also bought a flat in New York. They don’t have children, so no schools to worry about, and what with Gervais’s burgeoning Hollywood career (Ghost Town, The Invention of Lying), it wouldn’t be all that surprising if they spend more time in the States. If so, will he feel pressurised to submit to the American beautification process?

“I think you mean, Los Angeles. New Yorkers are more…” Normal?

“Absolutely.” They’re still far more high-maintenance in the looks department in Manhattan than we are. “It’s probably more to do with what you do… The Hollywood pressure is that you do have to be of a certain standard or a certain type. I see everyone doing it, even good character actors. I think, ‘Why are you starving yourself?’ The pressure is there to have white, straight teeth…”

Would you ever do your teeth? “No, they’re clean and they’re real – it’s so strange to me that anyone would ever think I would. If I haven’t done them now, why would I do them?”

And, boom, off he goes… “What is in America? Who gives a f*** what anyone thinks? I don’t give a f*** what they think and if I don’t get a film role because my teeth are crooked, then f*** them, I don’t want it. I just go, ‘It’s ridiculous.’ And if I don’t get a film role because I’m not thin enough, then, ‘F*** you.Why would I f****** do that, you f****** shallow c****!’ I hate them, and I hate that people think that I would. It makes me angry. I remember when a newspaper said, ‘He’s lost three stone for Hollywood.’ I went, ‘No [his voice veers upwards], I haven’t lost three stone and I would never f****** do it for Hollywood. I did it ’cos I work out and I wanna be fit.’ And that annoys me. Someone said, ‘I saw him in The Ivy and he was having a salad.’ ‘Yeah, I had a salad. I also had f****** deep-fried scampi and followed it with ravioli, you lying f****** c***!’ So the answer is, ‘No.’”

This is a splendid rant and hugely entertaining, although Gervais is genuinely angry and not performing it for laughs. But even in Hollywood, he is now calling the shots. The Invention of Lying – in which he plays an unsuccessful film writer who is told by everyone that he’s a fat loser and, guess what, he still gets the girl – was written, directed, produced, narrated by and stars Ricky Gervais. As he says, “I create my own labour. I write my own roles and I write fat little putz roles, and now I write slightly less fat little putz roles. I don’t go for roles which demand a 28-year-old model. Why would I do that?”

The reason, I think, that he is quite often misunderstood is because his humour hinges on playing with taboos. The danger being that while the audience accepts when is on stage, his offensiveness is a parody of other people’s prejudices (made more piquant by our worry that, at some level, we battle with equally unattractive knee-jerk reactions), that comic tension doesn’t always come across in interviews. So something that he intends to be humorous – even though it may be, as Gervais says in another context (calling his friend, Stephen Fry, “a f****** bent c***”), possibly “a joke that went wrong” or “ironic humour that fell flat” – it can be reported as what he really believes.

A case in point, are his recent remarks – asked for the umpteenth time about why he and Jane haven’t had children – when he went off on a sort of sub-Loaded riff that fat chain-smoking impoverished slags in leggings should be compulsorily sterilised. As he says, coming from his background (his father, Jerry, was a labourer, and his mother, Eva, a housewife with a salty tongue; they were not well off), “it’s fundamentally the opposite of what I believe”. The thing is, he should have known better. He should have been sufficiently media-savvy to realise how bad that would look in print and, actually, if anything qualifies as “a joke that went wrong”, that hits the jackpot.

Gervais has said, in the past, that he shouldn’t need to wear a “Billy Bigot” T-shirt in order to flag up to people that he’s only joking. But when I try to get him to talk about the way we all have thoughts that pop in our head that we’re ashamed of, don’t we, he comes over all arsey again.

First of all, he says that this is a subject he talks about on his latest tour. “I love to examine it. I look at middle-class angst all the time.

“When David Brent goes up to the black guy in the office and says, ‘I love Sidney Poitier’, that was him trying to tell him he’s not a racist. I love looking at those taboo subjects that make us feel uncomfortable. If you’re brought up in an environment where people are saying, ‘Black people are lazy’, for instance, you hit an age, if you’re an intelligent person, when you go, ‘That’s just not true.’ It’s like why I became an atheist at the age of 8. Until that point I’d never questioned it and when I did, it was, ‘Of course, it’s bulls***’, because the evidence – just like the evidence of racism – is overwhelmingly wrong.”

Still, I wonder, are there any thoughts he has now that occasionally make him ashamed of himself? “That doesn’t make sense. How can you go, ‘I know that’s wrong but I like it’?” And then, “You can’t help what pops into your head. It’s how you act on those things, rationally.” Are you sometimes shocked by the things that pop into your head? “No.”

You’re frowning at me as though I’m saying something very stupid. “No, it doesn’t make sense is what I’m saying. I think you’ve made a category mistake in what the mind is, is my high-falutin’ answer. You can’t be ashamed of…” Yes, you can. “No, you can’t.” More wrangling ensues… At one point, he insists that my suggestion that there is a gap between an unbidden thought leaping into your head, and the way you believe you should think and behave, is schizophrenia. No, it’s not, I say, pretty cross and exasperated myself by now. “I dabble with those things in comedy…” Precisely. “I dabble with the worst thing to say and then I deal with it – but I haven’t got this strange sort of man with two brains sort of syndrome.” Oh God! “I’m sorry if it’s uncomfortable, but I think you’ve got to realise that this is important to me. I don’t want to be misinterpreted, so I don’t want you to be unclear. This is as much for you as it is for me. So if you mean, ‘Have I ever had a belief that I’m ashamed of?’, the answer’s, ‘Yes.’”

I wonder if this verbal torture is something to do with Gervais having studied philosophy for three years; perhaps he took courses in semantics and semiology while he was at it. “It’s difficult because we can’t even get our interpersonal frames of reference correct to answer the question,” he says. “But also what’s good about it is that it seems to be about how you portray yourself and how you perceive yourself. Are you worried about your press persona; are you worried about the press, in general?”

Actually, it wasn’t really about that in my mind but it clearly was in his… As I’m considering this, we have a breakthrough. He mentions a recent, not altogether friendly, interview and tells me that, despite it giving the impression that the two had met face to face (details about his body language and facial expression and so on), they had only spoken on the phone. When he sees that I am shocked and disappointed, the whole mood changes dramatically.

He goes to the next room for a glass of water, I follow him and when we resume our conversation, it’s like talking to a different person. All the aggro has dissipated and everything about him has changed: his feet are nowhere to be seen, he leans across the desk to engage more fully; even his face opens up, his eyes widen and one catches a glimpse of that younger, unhardened self.

Bizarrely, we start to discuss why the interview has been so difficult to that point. He says that the reason he does interviews is that there’s a responsibility to the backers of his various projects. Was it the directness of my questions that bothered you? “No, I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, she thinks I’m such a horrible, nasty power freak… She thinks I’m intimidating, she thinks I’m combative.’

“Because on the face of it, that’s how I was being. And what I should have done is sat you down and said, ‘Listen, once bitten twice shy, and I’m really worried about things being taken out of context.’” But maybe I did irritate you, anyway? “No, the situation does. Straightaway I go, ‘Why am I swimming with sharks again?’ And I’m so conscious that anything can be… So when you said, ‘You like putting your feet up’, I suppose I was on the defensive. And straightaway we got off on the wrong foot.” He’s so earnestly in the moment, he doesn’t hear what he’s just said. “I thought, ‘F***, she could think that’s an affectation or that I’m rude; she could think I’m doing a power play, like I’ve read that in a book, you know.’ And so I tried to make it clear in a weird, like honesty-type Tourette’s-type of way that I just felt comfortable because it was my place – and I said in such a weird way, ‘I wouldn’t do it in your house.’

“I feel really bad now. It must have been like walking into someone who’d just come from a harrowing experience in Vietnam and didn’t want to talk about it!” This, in case there is any doubt about it, is a joke.

Complicated, isn’t it? “I’ve never done an interview when in the interview you analyse the interview. This is the most postmodern, deconstructed interview I’ve ever done. I wish we could do the post mortem.

“Of course, you do that in your head. I’ll go home to Jane and go, ‘Oh my God, I said this… and I know the headline.’ But you can’t get a headline out of this.”

Earlier, before our détente, I had wondered whether Gervais fell into the Englishman’s retreat of making a joke in order to avoid talking in an honest way about his feelings. He gives an answer to a different question – one that has been on his mind, not mine – about the perils of being famous. “I suppose I came to fame a bit cynically. I wanted people to know fame was an upshot of what I did, as opposed to the driving force because, fundamentally, I probably do want to be considered above the people who do anything to be famous and live their life like an open wound.”

I ask him if he’s self-analytical; again, his thoughts wander back to fame, and at first he becomes spectacularly tongue-tied. “Er, probably no more than I ever was… I mean fame makes you – um – more… um, self-analytical I suppose because… now you’re worried about not how people perceive you but how people who don’t know you perceive you, which seems unfair because your reputation is everything.

“I’m more conscious in public than I ever was. I’m probably less of an extrovert than I was. Fame has made me a bit more of a recluse.

“I go to restaurants but they’re safe environments. People don’t bat any eyelid in the Ivy but I probably wouldn’t go to Nando’s on a Friday night in Birmingham, and I don’t go to pubs. I’ve had no bad experiences, everyone’s very polite, but you can get phobic. It’s about feeling trapped. If you walk into a shop and you see someone go [he whispers behind his hand], then you walk out again. Walking down the street with someone going, ‘Love the show’ – nothing wrong with that at all. But being plonked somewhere where there’s loads of people who you don’t know but think they know you – that’s a bit weird. We’re not really meant to be famous.”

He was walking down the street once and there were a couple of kids, about 12 or 13, and one went: “‘Hey, man, it’s you, innit? Office man.’ I went, ‘Yeah’, and I kept walking. And heard them going, ‘Who is it?’ And I kept walking and I was about 20 yards away and this kid shouted, ‘What’s your name?’ And I had to shout, ‘I’m Ricky Gervais.’”

The idea of him doing this, it must be said, is snortingly funny. “’Cos I don’t want to be impolite. They don’t know. And I never want to be that bloke – you know, when they go, ‘I asked for his autograph when I was 14 and he told me to f*** off.’ I hate that.”

It’s at times like this that you catch a glimpse of the nicer side of Gervais, and understand why his friendships are long, and why a smart-sounding woman like Fallon would still be at his side, 25-plus years on. He’s unforthcoming, which is unsurprising, on the secret of sustaining a relationship over three decades: “There is no secret.

It’s all the obvious things. Things in common. Respect. I suppose – um – you’re soul mates. You see eye to eye on everything.”

But his romanticism comes out when we talk about his idea of the perfect endings to films. When I say that Cemetery Junction has the same sort of grit-with-a-heart feeling as British films like The Full Monty and Brassed Off, Gervais says he hasn’t seen them. He only catches new films – about three a year – when he’s on the plane. At home, he watches the same DVDs again and again and rattles off a list: The Godfather, Casablanca, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Play It Again, Sam, Tootsie, Raging Bull. “It’s like taking a drug because it gives me the same emotion as it did the first time, and some things are made better the second time round. I’m better the second time round.”

With his new film, “We wanted to do Hollywood does gritty. It had to be glorious and glamorous in its blue-collar degradation, like Saturday Night Fever. When you watch that – he’s walking down the street, he’s looking good but he works in a paint shop and he lives for Saturday night. But most people who watched that weren’t going, ‘How sad, this fellow’s gonna fall’; they’re going, ‘Oh, look at that! He’s f****** cool.’”

The Apartment (directed by Billy Wilder) has had the biggest influence on his and Merchant’s work. When I say that two of the young guys (Christian Cooke and Tom Hughes) in Cemetery Junction are pretty gorgeous, he says “Who wants to see fat ugly people?” Oh no, don’t start that again. “No, Billy Wilder said that when he cast Marilyn Monroe alongside Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis [in Some Like It Hot], and he said, ‘No one wants to look at ugly people.’”

He says Cemetery Junction is autobiographical in that “all the women in that film are women from my family – my mum and my nan – and all the men are the men in my family and different friends growing up. There’s a line in it that my Mum actually said to me. [Gervais plays the character based on his father, in a white vest, always being undermined by his crabby mother-in-law.] When I was 18, I said, ‘I’m going to France’, and she said, ‘What do you want to go there for? There’s parts of Reading you ain’t seen.’ Which is very sweet.”

It was the death of his mother, nine years ago, in particular, which made a profound impact on her son: “It’s devastating when you see someone dying of lung cancer – it’s f****** horrible, dreadful. My dad died a couple of years after. He was pottering around the garden with a few cans and sort of went, just like that. When your parents die, you’re sad because you miss someone who bore you and shaped you and cared for you, and it does make you think about other things, like your health. I went to the doctor, and dragged Steve along once, and said, ‘I’ve found a lump – I’ve got cancer.’ It happened twice.”

We move away from intimations of mortality to those romantic endings.While his humour is graphic, his romances are oblique. “It’s so much more powerful when they don’t kiss. ’Cos in Hollywood they go, ‘Da da da, kiss, happy ever after.’ What do you mean, ‘Happy ever after’? What blew me away about The Apartment was the ending – he says, ‘I love you’ and she’s sort of shuffling the cards, ’cos when they were friends they used to play, and he says, ‘Did you hear what I said? I absolutely adore you.’ And she says, ‘Shut up and deal.’ Beautiful – soul mates – they’ve got things in common, they’ve already built it on a friendship.”

There is one especially moving moment in Cemetery Junction, when the father and son reconcile, in a tiny gesture, and Gervais – who co-wrote it with Merchant, their first feature film together – would burst into tears every time he shot it. “Yeah, it was, like, ‘Wheew’ [blows his nose], ‘That was brilliant’ [another honk], ‘Ok, let’s go again’ [clears his throat with emotion].’’

By now I am emboldened to ask him directly if he’s a romantic.

“Of course,” he says. “As an atheist, that’s all that matters. You don’t get rewarded for being nice in Heaven, you get rewarded for it on earth. So be nice to people. Make a connection – because, you know, what else is there except making a connection with someone?”

It was lucky for both of us that there were two parts to this interview and, I would agree with him – Gervais is definitely better the second time round.

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Cemetery Junction is released on April 14