John Sergeant has not only seen the world but analyzed it, too. As a journalist, and for many years the BBC’s Chief Political Correspondent, he kept listeners and readers of British media informed about current events taking place both inside and outside Great Britain.
This is our interview with John Sergeant.
Yourlottoservice: Mr. Sergeant, would you please give us your Top 3 historic events you have witnessed first-hand?
John Sergeant: Journalists are paid to be present when history is being made, but I have also been extremely lucky. My Top 3 all involved a generous dose of good fortune.
Firstly, as a gap-year student working in the United States, I was in the crowd in August 1963, when Martin Luther King made his riveting “I have a dream” speech in Washington. I still get a thrill listening to a recording of those words. When he was murdered five years later, that speech went into the history books.
Secondly, I was reporting for the BBC in Nicosia when Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974. In the fighting which followed, I was trapped, with a group of journalists, in a hotel on the front line. We were eventually rescued by Canadian UN forces and I was able to announce the good news in a broadcast on BBC Radio 4. We were lucky to be alive. Cyprus is still divided.
And number three on the list, the worst crisis to envelop Margaret Thatcher came when she was told she had insufficient support for her leadership in a ballot of Conservative MPs in November 1990. She was staying at the British Embassy in Paris.
From an outside courtyard, I told the thirteen million people who were watching BBC television news that after this severe blow, she would not be coming out to give her immediate reaction. She did come out.
The news presenter shouted “She’s behind you.” In the chaotic scene which followed, with me being pushed aside at one point, Mrs Thatcher spoke into my microphone to tell the world she would be standing in the second round of the ballot.
But two days later she resigned, after eleven years as prime minister. This famous BBC scoop made my career, and, as I would often say, finished hers off.
The later stage of your life, which you’ve devoted to entertainment variously in the roles of comedian, dancer, presenter and railway aficionado, is just as rich and colourful as the political landscape. Would you say opposites attract you?
I have always been rather doubtful when young people explain they are going off on some adventure in order to ‘find their real self, to discover what they are made of.’ It seems to me we all have lots of ‘selves’.
They are not in opposition to each other; they are aspects of our character. I have been fortunate in being allowed to demonstrate my different ways of behaving, and to avoid being type cast. I was driven partly by a fear of being bored, or even worse boring others.
Most people tend to spend their lives in their accustomed environment – who or what made you so interested in the big, wide world?
I was brought up in a very cosmopolitan family. My father was the vicar of Great Tew, a beautiful village in Oxfordshire, and I went to the village school. He spoke about thirty languages — yes, thirty languages—and as a baby I went with the rest of the family to live in Jerusalem where he preached in Arabic as a Christian missionary. We were evacuated when Israel’s War of Independence broke out.
My mother was half Russian, having left Odessa just before the October Revolution of 1917. At home my parents spoke to each other in Russian when they did not want us to understand.
I thought it was normal to be taught by my father, Latin before breakfast, French after tea.
When I was older, a desire for travel seemed inborn.
From which role have you derived the most pleasure, and on which activity do you tend to look back with mixed feelings?
John Sergeant: I particularly enjoyed standing outside No 10 Downing Street telling people what I thought was going on. Years later the cabinet secretary told me those inside would sometimes say to each other ‘How does he know that?’ I liked it when I overheard people at a bus stop discussing what had happened, and using all my arguments.
Mixed feelings? Some of my memories of being a war correspondent. I covered five major conflicts including a stint in Saigon during the War in Vietnam, as well as hard times in the Middle East, and seven years on and off in Northern Ireland during the troubles.
It was when I finally ended up at Westminster where I spent 21 years covering politics that I felt I had discovered the right path. Whatever the dramas and disasters, the great joy of political reporting is that no one gets killed.
As a war correspondent, I often felt frightened and was mightily relieved when it was all over.
If you could choose to reprise one role in your life, which would it be? Or would you prefer to make a completely new dream come true?
One of the happiest times in my life was going to America as a gap-year student. After months of anxiety I had got into Oxford, to study politics, philosophy and economics.
On the outskirts of Washington I stayed for six months with a generous family. The father had arranged for me to be an accountant in the concrete plant which he partly owned. He even let me off on my own in his E-type Jaguar to attend rehearsals for an amateur musical production.
With the money I earned I was able to spend six weeks travelling right across the States and back. And then there was Martin Luther King…. What an experience!
How important is humor to you?
I have to admit I think it is crucial. I would almost say that a day when I don’t make a joke, or a funny remark, is a wasted day.
That was the best aspect of appearing as a hapless contestant on Strictly Come Dancing. You had to take the dancing seriously, but not yourself.
And when I resigned after nine weeks I enjoyed saying that I had to go ‘because there was a real danger that I might win.’
A glance at your biography reveals that both in your working and private life you have always shown an interest in the lives of others. You may have noticed that one of the things which electrifies people all over the world is Lotto. You yourself play with Yourlottoservice – what made you pick that particular company?
The straightforward answer is that, very flatteringly, I was asked if I would like to give it a go. Ever since I was a student driving through Italy I was intrigued by the idea of a national lottery. We didn’t have anything quite like it in Britain.
The attraction is that no one taking part believes for a moment this is a way to earn a living. It is purely a game of chance.
For a small outlay, you have a chance of big winnings. And if you can get together with others, in a syndicate, you can improve your social life.
In hard times, a little hope of a big win can go a long way.
Among other things, Yourlottoservice offers people the opportunity to play 10 free lines, sometimes even 20 free lines or a décimo of El Gordo in a syndicate. What do you think of such free offers?
I think they are good offers. And you would have to be very weak-willed if you thought they were a trap. If you like the lottery idea, why not give it a try?
You have experienced the world faced by many challenges and seen how they have been met. After a year of Covid-19, what advice would you offer your fellow citizens on how to cope with the situation around?
John Sergeant: The famous French writer, Albert Camus, believed that even in the hardest times it is possible to find something which gives you at least a fleeting moment of happiness.
The lockdown has, of course, been a very mixed experience, with some of us suffering far more than others, and very sadly many people losing their lives.
I don’t think anyone has been left unscathed. I have been helped by being isolated with my wife of many years and plenty of opportunities for reading and viewing. Also, I have tried to improve my cooking skills — and my French. But like everyone else, I will be very glad when it’s over.
Mr Sergeant, many thanks for your time and sharing your thoughts. Good luck next time you play Lotto!