Secret documents reveal how the head of the civil service leant on Channel 4 to curtail a comedian’s mischief-making impressions of John Major, after a Conservative MP was so completely taken in during a phone call that he refused to believe he had not been speaking to the then-prime minister.
Files released by the National Archives under the 30-year-rule show civil servants were perturbed by the uncanny mimicry of Rory Bremner after the comic phoned three MPs pretending to be Sir John in 1993.
One, Sir Richard Body, at first did not accept he had been fooled even after the head of the civil service, Sir Robin, now Lord, Butler, explained the hoax to him.
In two subsequent calls with Michael Grade, then Channel 4 boss, Lord Butler “made clear we might want to take the matter further if satisfactory assurances were not received” on a number of the government’s concerns, the previously confidential Downing Street papers show.
Lord Butler demanded that Mr Bremner not make any more phone calls impersonating the PM and that tapes of the three hoax conversations would not be broadcast.
In response the now-Lord Grade said he had ordered that no more calls be made without his permission, but did not promise a total ceasefire.
Lord Butler wrote in a report: “He did not rule out the possibility that there might be such joke telephone calls as on other programmes – for example Beadle’s About has played jokes on people where they have been shown receiving fake calls from the Queen, the Prince of Wales and Lady Thatcher – but these would always be on non-political matters and the recipient would be told before the end of the phone call that this call was a hoax.”
Nonetheless, Lord Grade agreed not to broadcast any tapes without permission and “assented to my proposition that entertainment should not be allowed to get mixed up with real life”, Lord Butler added, calling the resolution “reasonably satisfactory”.
The Channel 4 boss had been “conciliatory and by implication apologetic, although I did not hear him use the actual word ‘sorry’”, Lord Butler wrote.
The prime minister felt it was “unacceptable” that two of the three MPs hoaxed had not been brought in on the joke at the end of the calls, according to another document in the file.
Lord Grade has previously spoken about the behind-the-scenes panic apparently sparked in Whitehall by Mr Bremner’s impersonation.
He recounted his 1993 conversations with the head of the civil service to the Media Masters podcast at the start of 2020.
He said: “[Lord Butler] said, ‘Mr Grade, we have a bit of a problem. Your Mr Rory Bremner. He’s very good at impersonating the prime minister, Mr Major. He’s been ringing MPs, pretending to be John Major.
“‘We don’t have a problem with that,’ he said. ‘But the issue we have is that, he’s so good, he could ring the chancellor of the Exchequer and get the Budget.’ I said, ‘Oh, I get the point. Leave it with me. I’ll call you tomorrow.’”
Mr Bremner recounted the episode in a 2019 interview, telling NMP Live how he, as Sir John, had attempted to butter up Sir Richard with the offer of a dance at the Tory conference.
He said: “Do you remember, those days when the Conservative Party was splitting itself up over Europe and having arguments? Yes, yes, a long time ago.
“So I rang up one of the so-called ‘bastards’ as John Major while John Major was in the air flying back from Japan. We hadn’t got a script, we were just making it up.”
Mr Bremner said his impersonation of the former PM was a trainspotter’s voice mixed with Julian Clary’s.
One final document in the file shows No 10 were still on the case two years later. Sir John’s principal private secretary, Alex Allan, alerted Lord Butler to another call by Mr Bremner, this time to Esther Ranzen, the TV presenter, for a Comic Relief broadcast.
Sir Alex told John Birt, the head of the BBC, that he did not wish to be a “killjoy” but nonetheless reminded him that “we would be concerned if Rory Bremner was ringing political figures”.