‘We were there with the history makers, really finding out what they thought and felt’ – in conversation with Norma Percy

  • Themes: Culture

EI's Angus Reilly talks to Norma Percy, the celebrated documentary film-maker, whose work, over more than three decades, has offered extraordinary insights into the workings of international politics and its leading players.

Norma Percy with Bill Clinton.
Norma Percy with Bill Clinton. Credit: Mick Gold

Norma Percy has been a documentary filmmaker since the 1970s. Her work includes End of Empire (1985), The Death of Yugoslavia (1995), The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs (1998), Endgame in Ireland (2001), Israel and the Arabs: Elusive Peace (2005), Iran and the West (2009), Putin, Russia and the West (2012), Inside Obama’s White House (2016), and, most recently, two series of Putin vs the West (2023 and 2024) on Russian foreign policy and the war in Ukraine. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Angus Reilly: As a documentary maker, why do you consider yourself to be a historian? 

Norma Percy: Perhaps it sounds pompous, but it’s a justification for our style of not incorporating analysis, prediction, or finger-pointing – just what happened.

What we do is to try and show on television what it was like inside the room when the big decisions were made. To get there, you need a truly multi-sided view, and you only go to people who were there, which means presidents and prime ministers, and their top aides. No journalists, no historians, just the people who were there on as many sides as you can get. This gives everyone a level playing field and lets them tell the story as they want and then you pull these pieces all together.

When you go in there to interview someone, it’s like learning a language as you begin to see it from their view. Then the editing is a question of going the other way with all the different perspectives and making something compelling and simple for the viewer to understand.

How did you begin working in television? 

It was a couple of lucky accidents really. I had come from America and started a PhD at the London School of Economics when the government put up overseas student fees substantially and I needed a job. John Mackintosh – a truly wonderful Labour MP who had been a distinguished politics professor and written the definitive book on the British cabinet – had some money to write a book and hired me as his researcher. That was after Harold Wilson’s landslide in 1966 and it was a bit like 1997 with an influx of good new young Labour MPs.

It was a time of late-night sittings and I learned a lot more from sitting around in Parliament’s bar listening to the gossip than from my time studying political science. John summed up the life of a backbench MP as being like a child in a Victorian family: you peer over the bannister at the grown-ups having their interesting conversation below, catching snippets. What keeps you going is the feeling that someday you’ll be a grown-up too. I knew I’d never be a minister, but I certainly enjoyed the gossip, and it’s what led to my career in documentaries.

Lucky accident number two was, just as the grant was running out, Brian Lapping turned up. He had been a serious print journalist and had been hired by Granada to find new ways of putting politics on television. With Brian, for a programme on how Parliament worked, we recreated a Select Committee and held a mock House of Commons debate about what was wrong with Parliament with some of the great debaters of the time, like Michael Foot and Richard Crossman.

We worked for ten years looking for different ways of getting inside the room. Brian came up with an ingenious idea of journalist reconstructions. When a big crisis in cabinet broke, the journalists who got the best inside stories would go back to their principal source, get briefed and then play him in the recreation (until Mrs Thatcher came in, it was almost always a him). The trouble with that was, that, though we got an accurate account, nobody believed us. We then found out that there was usually a participant – a minister or European prime minister – who had resigned and they could partake in authenticating it. The most fun parts were the arguments before each scene in which the journalists argued about what really happened and who had the best sources.

Eventually, we decided it would be better to turn to real people – the top politicians who were actually there inside the room and took the decisions.

You started working in the 1960s, the decade of the Vietnam War, which was the first truly televised conflict, and it was a conflict orchestrated by a group of American policymakers in a room in the White House, which is exactly the kind of event you focus on in your programmes. What influence did that era have on you?

Vietnam was the story I missed. It was either too soon or too late for me, decades later I’m not sure which. The other one we never got to properly do was Cuba. We did eventually make a series on Cuba in 2018, but all the policymakers of the 1960s were dead. That was a time when top-level politics seemed to matter. I was an undergraduate during the Cuban Missile Crisis, at Oberlin College in Ohio and we all went to the one television we had access to in the boys’ dorm and phoned our parents, which otherwise was something one rarely did.

I was originally from New York City, which gave me a terrific advantage and immersion in culture in high school that people only typically get at university. My grandfather was also a tennis umpire, so I went to Wimbledon aged 15 and danced at the Wimbledon ball with that year’s winner. That experience made me a committed Anglophile.

At university, I would stand at a lectern in the library lobby and avidly read the Economist. At home, McCarthyism and the Civil Rights movement were the defining memories of that time for me. People would drop out of university to go and work as civil rights organisers in Mississippi.

How do you think about your programmes in relation to documentaries of a similar period and approach, such as Jeremy Isaac’s The World at War and The Cold War

Both Brian and I were inspired by The World at War, where you had the secretary to the emperor of Japan himself talk about how he had to go in and tell the emperor that the game was up, and the war was over. That moment had everything. Having been used to the Western history of the Second World War, seeing the other side and being made to feel sympathy for it was an eye-opener.

We set out to do the same thing: tell history through accounts from the top-level participants themselves. Brian had been the Commonwealth correspondent at the Guardian and it had been one of his dreams to make End of Empire (1985) to look at the most important former colonies.

It turned out to be the perfect story to do by that method. At the end of the British Empire, the flags come down, the wars are over, the rebels and terrorists are presidents and police chiefs, and the British civil servants are retired, living in Surrey and writing their memoirs.

You’ve got to find the small, surprising stories as well as the big events. That’s the way you get what it was like to be inside the room. For example, the fact that it was a terribly hot day and the participants couldn’t wait to get back home for a shower and therefore they agreed to something perhaps ill-advised. These moments are more elusive but so important.

I think the essence of what’s different in our programmes, as opposed to The World at War, is our reliance on interviews over narration. Jeremy Isaacs used the omniscient voice of the wonderful Laurence Olivier to give a full and comprehensive history. What we do is a bit different. We go to the principals and find out what happened. We record on sound first and build up our scripts from the interviews while other people write scripts and then put in, as plums in the pudding, the interviewees, which is faster. We try and get an initial off-the-record interview with everyone. This had an advantage at a time when these programmes were made on film, an expensive medium. We would hear the whole story off the record first, put together a script and try to film only the bits we would use. It also meant you could get to know a subject so you’re an old friend by the time they sit down in front of the camera.

How do you effectively bridge from a historical subject to contemporary issues in your work?

The 50 Years War (1998) on the Arab-Israeli conflict was the last of the style that began with End of Empire – programmes which waited until a conflict felt finished and looked back with a certain amount of distance. That was the brainchild of Michael Jackson, controller of BBC2, who had been reading the revisionist historians like Avi Shlaim, and it was commissioned in the wake of the Oslo Accords, which did indeed feel at least like the beginning of the end. By the time we got started, however, Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated and the atmosphere had drastically changed.

One of the difficulties of our job is trying to be a historian, but also somehow taking it up to the present. You have to make it so that people are still interested but distant enough for people to feel able to talk freely. We used to be in documentaries – now our programmes come under the current affairs slate, there’s more pressure to bring them right up to date.

In our pitch for The Second Russian Revolution (1991), Brian had an original idea: let’s get Gorbachev to be the narrator. We didn’t pull it off. We made all sorts of ridiculous claims in that pitch, but the essence of it was that we were going to get the Politburo to tell us about Gorbachev.

We had done a recreation of the 1985 summit between Reagan and Gorbachev in Reykjavik with actors. The Canadian actor playing Reagan was just like him, but he drove Timothy West, who played Gorbachev, wild because he was so like Reagan that he couldn’t learn his lines. But the problem with actors playing politicians is that you were judged on whether they were a good lookalike or not.

When I sat down in front of my first Politburo member for The Second Russian Revolution, I tried a ploy that had worked very well on British cabinet members: ‘Tell me about the discussion on the night you selected Gorbachev to lead the Soviet Union, just as you told your wife when you got home.’ But the look of complete horror that passed his face at the idea of telling his wife anything about what happened in Politburo made me realise it wasn’t quite the way to do it.

Glasnost (Gorbachev’s policy of openness) was beginning to take hold when we went for our first research trip in 1988 and then 1989 was the miraculous year. We started getting people to talk to us and by the time the series was broadcast we had got pretty much all the key players apart from Gorbachev himself. Then, on 19 August 1991, there was a coup attempt against him and we set about making extra episodes. Everybody was on holiday but we got the team together and rented two flats in Moscow belonging to the Bolshoi – one as the bedroom and office and the other as the edit suite.

After I’d put the rough cut together, the British ambassador had us to dinner and his wife invited five of Gorbachev’s closest aides to dinner (she made curry as she thought none of them would turn up, and at least that would keep). They all turned up and as we watched, they started arguing among themselves in Russian. One of them said to another: ‘You were in your dacha just across the river from Gorbachev, you could have done more to stop the coup.’ From those arguments, we felt our programme was completely validated – they were not disputing any of the facts we put forward but attacking each other for not doing enough. We were there with the history makers, really finding out what they thought and felt.

How do you choose and convince subjects to sit down for an interview with you?

With difficulty – I write a lot of letters and the team makes a lot of phone calls.

The very first thing you do is write a rather pompous letter. It helps to have the back catalogue, so that you can point them to your previous work. The case we make to them is that they can get a fair hearing to a wide television audience. The subject gets a long time to discuss what they thought and did. But because the programme is multi-sided, the overall is trusted and credible as a definitive account.

When the letter is ignored you need to find another way to the person. When we were making The Iraq War (2013), we needed Dick Cheney. We had first wanted to make that programme after the war began in 2003, but when it started to go wrong after David Kelly’s death no one wanted to talk to us – only the French, because their scepticism about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction had been justified.

Ten years later we decided to try again and we sought out Cheney. The person I got to ask him was Charles Powell, who had been Margaret Thatcher’s foreign policy advisor, and Cheney agreed to do it. We booked our tickets to see him at his home in a ski resort in Utah but, three days before, he cancelled. I panicked, thinking that he thought of us as some lefties who were against the war. To get to the bottom of it, I approached Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense at the time of the war, who liked our method.

Wolfowitz found out that what had happened was that another television company had secured a fly on the wall with Cheney, and they spent a week with him. Cheney took them fishing and he got the biggest fish he’d ever caught. He invited friends around to watch the programme, but the sequence wasn’t in it – they hadn’t used it. He was furious and said he’d have nothing to do with television from then on.

Liz Cheney, his daughter, convinced him at last to do it, telling him not to be silly. And he agreed to do it; he opened the door in a cowboy hat, he was genial, and he gave us a really good interview.

My motto is: anyone worth having says no at least three times, so you have to persist. We hadn’t got Yasser Arafat for The 50 Years War  but he agreed to speak for the next series, Elusive Peace (2005), on the Arab-Israeli conflict from 1998 to 2004. At that time he was holed up in his ruined compound, the Muqata. He never made appointments in advance, so journalists would have to just go to Ramallah and wait to be summoned. We did this three times without success.

Finally, we were summoned. After the Israelis bombed the Muqata they left all the rubble in place, so we tripped through the rubble, our best-pressed linen wilting in the heat. The gatekeeper questioned us and then disappeared. When he came back, he said, ‘El Rais will see you for lunch,’ and we went in. Arafat was sat at the end of a long table, the usual black and white keffiyeh sticking up out of a pile of papers. He paid absolutely no attention to us and didn’t look up when I started to ask questions. My colleague asked – it was the right question – ‘Mr Chairman, you have met all of the great names of the 20th century, tell us what they were like.’ So he looked up and the stories started coming out. Over lunch, he went through names – de Gaulle, Khrushchev, Castro – while picking over a plate of boiled broccoli that he ate with his fingers. When he started handing me choice morsels, I felt I had made it.

Do you ever feel troubled interviewing terrorists, like members of Hamas, or war criminals like Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia during the wars in Yugoslavia? 

I find Milosevic is the easiest to talk about because he’s dead – and when I met him he was president of Serbia and had not yet been convicted as a war criminal, although it was suspected his men had done some terrible things.

First of all, you have to trust your viewers. Sir Denis Forman, Brian Lapping’s mentor, who established our brand of documentaries at Grenada during the 1980s, always used to say: ‘Never underestimate the intelligence of your viewers but always underestimate their knowledge.’ You have to supply the facts to them, but they have a good sense of judgment. We believe if you put, when Milosevic says, ‘Ethnic cleansing, moi?’, the viewer has enough sense to know that this man is not to be believed.

We try not to make people look like liars but Milosevic was a bit of an exception. He gave us an hour’s interview of which most of it was economical with the truth. But because he was Milosevic, he was the main character of the story in The Death of Yugoslavia (1995) and we had to use it.

The person who made it clear he was lying was Borisav Jović, who was Milosevic’s right-hand man. I never quite understood why Jović spoke so frankly to us. I think that he thought he was the master strategist, and that Milosevic got all the credit so, with us, he went back and explained it all step by step, in extraordinary detail.

How were you able to secure an interview with Milosevic?

After The Second Russian Revolution, we were looking for our next project and somebody from Austrian television came to us and said that, while they were close to the Croats and could get access to their top politicians, the real story was the Serbs, but they wouldn’t sit down with them. So, they suggested we cooperate with them and use our techniques to provide the access to the Serbs.

We did initial research trips and were slowly trying to convince Milosevic to do a research interview. The night before, my colleague and I almost came to blows deciding what questions we wanted to ask him because whatever he said we would need him to come back and say it in front of the film camera. Milosevic was very defensive: if a Western journalist asked him what he had for breakfast, he would be looking to see if ‘You’re a war criminal’ would follow.

We were sitting in front of Slobodan Milosevic, but we didn’t quite know how far we could go. We had one question that was a bit risky about a secret meeting between Franjo Tudjman, the president of Croatia, and Milosevic, whom we had spoken to Tudjman about. Milosevic completely denied the meeting, but he talked about it in a way that fleshed out our picture and confirmed to us that it happened.

I got on with Mrs Milosevic and perhaps that was the moment I began to feel a little bit queasy. She thought of herself as a socialist and I had grown up in the Labour Party in Britain, so I used that to establish a rapport. She asked me how we addressed each other in the Labour Party. I said ‘Oh, Comrade of course.’ She said ‘We’ve switched to Mr and Mrs. I think that’s when we began to go wrong.’ She understood that we offered her husband the opportunity for the fairest account he would get in the West and tried to convince him to do an on-the-record interview. One of our team would phone up Mrs Milosevic at home and she would say ‘He agrees in principle, but it’s like going to the dentist: please not this week.’

By the time we got the interview, we were far along in the editing of the series. We arrived with the crew but then Milosevic’s press advisor said to me: ‘Oh by the way, you can use this in your programme but the condition of the interview is you also transmit this whole interview as part seven of The Death of Yugoslavia, ok with you?’ I thought for a minute and just said: ‘Oh, sure.’

When we got back to the hotel, I couldn’t sleep because I thought, firstly, this man had told us a lot of lies and, second, I had told him a lie. I couldn’t possibly get the BBC to air the whole interview and he might send his hitmen to London to get me if I didn’t! The next morning I was almost in tears and I phoned the controller of BBC Two. Fortunately, the channel had just moved to 24 hours a day and they were looking for material in the middle of the night. It was broadcast at two o’clock in the morning.

When we were editing the programme and putting a date on the pictures of the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995, I realised that the interview had taken place the very same day. I had been sitting in front of Milosevic as his men had been carrying out the massacre. There’s a picture from the interview. I had worn a long, flowery, Laura Ashley dress because we thought he would find it less intimidating. In the picture, everyone is smiling apart from Angus MacQueen, our director, who was very proud that he was scowling.

We were talking to him about the events leading up to the Bosnian War, where the massacre happened. No one knew anything about it yet, so I wouldn’t have been in a position to ask him about it then, but of course, we never point fingers, we tell the story of what happened.

Did Milosevic’s trial for war crimes affect your view of journalistic responsibilities to your subjects? 

Those issues came after The Death of Yugoslavia with our sequel The Fall of Milosevic. The Hague Tribunal was pursuing cases against Serbian figures and one of the advisors on the programme was helping them and wanted to get the tapes of our research interviews.

We had sworn to everyone that the initial research interviews which were off the record would not be seen by anyone. There was a big argument on the team about what to do and others wondered why I was being so honourable to war criminals. They were being tried for war crimes, though they hadn’t been found guilty yet, but off the record is off the record. I took the box of research interviews and kept them under my bed in case some helpful person in the office gave access to an outsider without knowing their status.

We keep our research interviews in our secure archive and make the transcripts of the filmed interviews open to scholars. It’s one of the reasons we’re able to promise the most objective perspective to our interviewees.

How do you feel about the figures who show no remorse for their actions, who embrace committing what we would consider to be atrocities? In Elusive Peace, for example, you interview terrorists from Hamas who orchestrated attacks on civilians. 

There’s a sequence in the second episode that follows a suicide bombing in March 2002 in Nethanya, in which 30 people were killed. We were in Jerusalem for a research trip and were wondering about how we could get Palestinian perspectives beyond the negotiators who were on CNN all the time. It could be dangerous to go into a refugee camp in the West Bank or Gaza, but someone noted that there were lots of Hamas supporters and fighters in Israeli jails. It’s not really as brave as it looks on camera and the only danger was that the person doing the interview had to smoke a lot of very strong cigarettes with them while they talked.

We ended up with the person who recruited the suicide bombers and the driver. It’s another good example of letting people talk about something they believe in, and somebody of a different point of view would see them as terrorists, while their supporters consider them heroes. The person who drove the suicide bomber said the attack was a wonderful success and that he knew people would be killed but he couldn’t have hoped for so many – these were Jews on Passover. We took exactly what he said and then the next scene is Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, hearing about it at his Seder and then going into a cabinet meeting where they discussed how to take revenge. They even talked of killing Yasser Arafat.

You have done four programmes about Russia since the end of the Cold War. How have your experiences of engaging with the Kremlin changed over those 30 years? 

In 2022, Adam Barker at the BBC suggested that we go back to Russia, as it had been ten years since we did Putin, Russia and the West. Being a small independent company, when the BBC comes to you, you listen!

We’d made Avenging Terror (2002) after 9/11 and had interviewed Putin. He told a story about playing snooker with Tony Blair, which just captured how 9/11 brought people together. It was an extraordinary moment in time. In 2012, Putin had a moment in which he seemed to really care about what the West thought of him. He also liked our first series, The Second Russian Revolution. No one knows why Putin does what he does, but we were given extraordinary access to the Russians.

We could never get that now. We began work on the next series, Putin vs the West: The Path to War (2023), six months before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and so we looked for the people who had dealt with him. We had two programmes ready, the first on Russia and Ukraine in 2014 and the second on Russia and the Middle East, but we were floundering around for a third programme. We were looking at cyber warfare, but not really seeing how we could do it all. Suddenly Putin invaded Ukraine, and we had our third programme.

Zelenskyy agreed to an interview in principle but wouldn’t give us a date. When we were finally told, our Ukrainian researcher was on holiday in Germany and I had just lost my four front teeth and had to go to the dentist the next day. We thought that our interview was going to be in the afternoon, but they rang to say that it was the first of the day and it had to be in Ukrainian, not English.

Tim Stirzaker, our series director, asked the questions from London. Our Ukrainian producer, who was in Croatia at the time, translated the questions for Zelenskyy. He gave the answers, and the woman in Germany translated them into English for the team. I was listening at the dentist’s, with my laptop on my knees.

Zelenskyy was excellent. It was surprising to see an actor sounding so natural, so spontaneous. We filmed that in November 2022 and he insisted on talking about the war too, not just the lead-up, so we had material for the later episodes.

We realised that we badly needed Russian voices. Fortunately, the embassies in the UK and America have a certain amount of autonomy, particularly Andrei Kelin, the Russian ambassador in London. He’s very like Putin in a way; he has that perverse sense of humour and self-confidence, it feels like he’s always playing a little game. He worked as an effective stand-in.

In the most recent series, Putin vs the West: At War (2024), there was the UN sequence in the first episode in which the Security Council is meeting as Russia begins its invasion. If you look at the footage in the archive, you knew it was good, but you needed the interviews. Early on, we got the British ambassador and the Kenyan ambassador, who told the story beautifully. But the person who really had a story to tell was the Russian ambassador, who was actually chairing the meeting, and you could tell from the newsreel footage the surprise on his face when he read on his phone that his boss had just launched the invasion. The UN Secretary-General, sitting next to him, asked if he knew about it and he said no, and you could tell that was true.

So I really wanted to interview him. We were conducting a long, drawn-out negotiation with the Russian mission to the UN and then the night before we were to film at the UN, he agreed to do it. He just somehow made it definitive.

Why do people like that, so accustomed to spin or lies, tell you the truth though? 

I think in those really important moments, the momentum takes you to tell the truth. But I don’t know why he agreed to do it. Ambassadors like to say with a wry smile that the job is a license to lie for your country.

For our programmes, you have to convince them it’s worth talking to you because you’re asking for something that’s a lot more trouble than shooting your mouth off or saying what you think is going to happen tomorrow. We’re asking people to go back and look at their notes. Another reason we talk to people twice – first in an off-the-record research interview and then on camera – is that they have time to go back through the events and gather more details. But you have to persuade them it’s worth taking the time to do it and that you will be fair to them.

We don’t have any secret weapons for getting people to tell us things. You may find what I’m going to say controversial. I believe that all politicians are reasonable people. By this I mean they think through the reasons they do something and usually they believe in them. If you make the conditions right, they’ll tell you what they are and why, or at least how, they did it.


Angus Reilly