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Memory Lane: Feeding time at the zoo with Ted Heath

Blog | Jun 02, 2023

In the summer of 1976, I had a phone call from Ted Heath’s PA. I was working at Westminster as a political correspondent for the BBC.

Would I like to help set up an event on TV, I was asked, to celebrate Heath’s 60th birthday? Heath had lost both the premiership, and the leadership, of the Conservative party. So he needed cheering up.

We hit on the idea of getting him to go to London Zoo to feed one of the two pandas that Mao Zedong had presented to him during a visit to China in 1974.

Heath had given Mao two very rare Père David’s deer, and a book by Charles Darwin. One panda, a female, was called Ching Ching. The other was a male called Chia Chia but, as Heath said sadly in his autobiography, ‘they never multiplied’.

The great man turned up at the zoo; he was not in a co-operative mood. We set up the camera, but he turned his back on me, and started stuffing bamboo shoots through the cage to the charming panda, who showed a warm appreciation.

I put a few gentle questions over Heath’s shoulder. He resolutely refused to turn round and face me. I began to lose patience and started asking daft questions. ‘Do you think he recognises you?’ I said, in quiet desperation. The famous shoulders shook a little with mirth.

But he wasn’t giving much, and he provided me with the only political interview I have ever done in which the face of the interviewee is not seen.

After he had gone, the cameraman got down to panda level and took some very attractive shots of the rare beast, which at least looked at the lens, in contrast to the prickly big beast I had tried to film.

On the way home, the cameraman called to me from the back of the minivan, ‘You should have said, “Mr Heath, do you have the same trouble mating as your panda?” ’

By Peter Hill, Petersfield, Hampshire, who receives £50

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