One of the big stories in the news today is that someone somehow got through to David Cameron on the phone, and pretended to be the head of GCHQ. Cameron says that he realised that it was a hoax fairly quickly and hung up.
I suspect that a lot of people are wondering: “Surely it can’t be that easy to get put through to the Prime Minister can it?”
Well let me take you back a few years. I couldn’t put a firm date on when we did this, but I’d hazard a guess that it was sometime around 1983 or 1984. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and it was a school holiday – perhaps half-term.
My friend Patrick and I were around 13 or 14, and we were a bit bored. We both had ZX Spectrums which ate up a lot of our time. And that also meant we had cassette players which you didn’t have to just use for loading and saving programs. Around at my friend’s house, they were far freer with letting us use the phone; my parents counted the minutes like hawks at home.
So we had a heady mix of time, a cassette player and microphone, and free access to the phone. Who could we call?
We decided to call Maggie herself.
I can’t say that we had anything specific to say to her. Yes, the Falklands were over, no the miners’ strike probably wasn’t. But aside from having previously lived next door to a Conservative councillor, I can’t say that I was especially politically aware at that age.
How would you start if you wanted to phone the PM? Well today it might involve a bit of searching on the internet. But in those days it made sense to call Directory Enquiries. Which is what we did.
There then followed a series of calls as different people either gave us different numbers or occasionally transferred us.
I think we started with a generic Houses of Parliament number that Directory Enquiries had furnished us with. Then we moved onto a Commons specific number. Then we got put through to an internal switchboard, until we got the news that Mrs Thatcher was not in Parliament that day. Had we tried Downing Street?
Another number was given out, and before long we had got through to her office.
I don’t recall at any point, anyone asking us what we wanted her for. Just helpful people giving us helpful information. In truth, we had no idea what we’d say if we got hold of her. Patrick was doing the talking, and his tone of voice was quite authoritative. He spoke “the Queen’s English.”
Finally we got through to someone who left us on hold as he went to find her! A few moments passed.
Alas, she wasn’t available. Sorry.
And that was it. So near, and yet, so far.
Now in truth, someone might have caught onto us in the end, and humoured us by putting us on hold before politely getting rid of us. But at the time, it felt very real, and at the time, we were pretty certain that some Private Secretary had gone to look (we watched Yes Minister). What was very apparent was that if you spoke with enough conviction, people didn’t ask questions.
I think that remains true.
We played quite a few prank calls at the time, usually recording them (Though I don’t believe a tapes of any of these, including the Maggie call exist now). We pretended to be DJs on air with Capital Radio, phoning a woman at random and saying that she was live on air and had won a competition. We tried to recruit a plumber we found in the Yellow Pages into MI5 – plumbers were useful for gaining entry to plant bugs of course! We phoned a zip company telling them we had an emergency: one of their zips had got “caught” in the flies of our jeans and we needed emergency help to free it up.
But it was the Maggie calls that were the most memorable.