Michael Foot, RIP, a good man in the age of 'Tally-derision'

I'll always recall where I was when news broke last week of the death, aged 96, of the veteran British politician Michael Foot.

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There are few individuals whose status is such that you can recall exactly where you were when you heard of their death. John F Kennedy and Diana, Princess of Wales would be on most people's list, if only for the shocking manner of their demise. But beyond them the list is open to personal interpretation. But I'll always recall where I was when news broke last week of the death, aged 96, of the veteran British politician Michael Foot. I was in the lobby of Broadcasting House, home of the BBC.

All around me the movers and shakers of the airwaves, both cultural and political, were bustling about, on their way to or from the various studios. On the sofa next to me sat the veteran journalist Dame Joan Bakewell in her new capacity as government "Tsar for the Elderly" (of which Foot was surely a shining example). Across from us, a group of callow teenagers from some modish boy band were flicking though some celebrity magazines.

The actual announcement of Foot's passing, transmitted via BBC News on television screens positioned above the front desk, was given added piquancy, not to say unintended farce, because the TV monitors had the volume turned down. Thus the only way of deciphering the content of the many tributes was to read the automated subtitles skittering across the bottom of the screen. And as anyone will know who has watched simultaneous transcription, the technology is at best approximate and at worst barely relevant.

So while archive footage of the great man in his pomp filled the screen, be it leading a march or speaking at a conference, I read that his name was "Michael Forget", that on his first appearance in the House of Commons he gave a "memorable laden speech", and that he was perhaps the first politician ever to master "the new medium of Tally-derision". When the Labour party stalwart and former home secretary John Reid was asked for his memories of his great parliamentary mentor, his broad Scottish accent played further havoc with the medium. Foot, he appeared to say, was above all "eighth decent man", and that from an early age "politics were in his blurred".

A picture speaks a thousand words however, and despite all this gobbledegook it was easy enough to detect the very real sense of sadness on the faces of those being interviewed. For whatever anyone thought of Foot's beliefs, he was the real deal, one of the most acclaimed and principled politicians of his or any era, and a man who put integrity and loyalty to his party above self-advancement, often at great personal cost.

Indeed, Foot was the last remnant from the heroic age of British politics. With a credo forged not in the shallow waters of modern political manoeuvring, but in the heat of the great events of the 20th century, namely the fight against fascism and the Great Depression of the 1930s, he spent more than 40 years in the House of Commons, many of them as a minister, using his gifts to promote peace, opportunity and prosperity. He was also a passionate advocate of unilateral nuclear disarmament, a belief that gained him many friends but some powerful enemies.

He was also a great orator. Combining old-fashioned courtesy with devastating wit, his speeches were among the most ferocious and funny ever heard in the debating chamber. Many of his best examples are still widely quoted, none more so than his genteelly savage critique of the Liberal party leader David Steele during the dark days of parliamentary impasse in 1979. Steele, he famously said, was a man "who had passed from rising star to elder statesman without any intervening period whatsoever". Brilliant.

Alas, Foot was ill equipped for the tailored suits and smooth sound bites of the modern era. His brief tenure of the Labour party leadership ended in failure and derision, both for his policies (his 1983 election manifesto was described as "the longest suicide note in history") and his personal appearance (his reputation never recovered from the time he attended the Remembrance Day ceremony in Whitehall wearing what appeared to be a donkey jacket).

Yet he bore both triumph and disappointment with extraordinary grace. As somebody once said, "he was a good man fallen among politicians -" Well, now he was gone. But while the Tsar for the Elderly and I sat deciphering the various tributes to this fallen parliamentary colossus, the members of the boy band barely looked up. Why should they? His name meant nothing to them. Unkempt, incorruptible and (the worst crime of all in modern Britain) very old, such qualities as he represented are no longer fashionable, either in pop culture or politics.

Yet I, for one, will miss him. And you can quoit my own hat. Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London