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Kinnock takes a dive into the sea, 1983 by Brian Harris

1 November 2022

The dream ticket of the election by the Labour Party National Executive Committee of left-leaning Welsh firebrand Neil Kinnock as Labour Party leader and right of centre professional Yorkshireman Roy Hattersley as his deputy at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton 1983 was supposed to herald a new dawn for the party after the terrible mauling (the worst election result for Labour since 1918) under the previous leader Michael Foot by Margaret Thatcher of the Conservative Party.

As is tradition at all party conferences by the sea-side, the leader and his wife always have an ‘impromptu’ heavily stage-managed walk along the promenade preceded by photographers and television crews, all very contrived and set up. The situation nearly always results in a set of dull predictable images. This bright October Sunday morning was, on the face of it, no different. The press, the politician, his wife Glenys and Labour Party minders assembled on the seawall looking out to the cold grey English Channel slapping onto the beach below. The Kinnocks were making small talk with a couple of local lads fishing. This was just so dull and uninteresting that the pictures had no chance of making the next morning’s papers.

I was nominated by the other photographers, as ‘the man from The Times’, to ask Neil and Glenys if they would like to go for a walk on the beach. Neil looked hesitant and his press office minder, the moustachioed Peter Mandelson, wasn’t sure either. I mentioned a beautiful photograph taken of the young Bobby Kennedy running along a beach in Oregon with his dog shot for Life magazine by Bill Eppridge, and how he, Neil, being the new young leader of the labour party could perhaps reprise the picture. I used the button words ’young and leader’, he was hooked, ‘Oh yes boyo, I remember that picture’ he enthused in his wonderful welsh lilt, although I’m not sure he did, but he wasn’t going to admit that to me. I turned to all the other photographers and TV crews and told them that Neil and Glenys would go for a walk on the beach as long as we all stayed here high up on the seawall and out of their way. Perfect, a great vantage point.

Neil and Glenys, hand in hand, merrily skipped down onto the beach like a couple of teenagers in love. The shingle beach at Brighton slopes and falls quite sharply and keeping a foothold, even for the young at heart, can be difficult. The photographers and TV crews zoomed in on the couple skipping merrily along using telephoto lenses when all of a sudden Neil and his wife went over the final shingle edge at breakneck speed. There was never any chance of Neil saving himself. He went in. Neil Kinnock, newly elected leader of the Labour Party, had fallen into the sea.

Splash, bang, wallop. It all happened in a matter of seconds. Glenys tried frantically to pull him upright out of the crashing surf but his footing and dignity were well and truly done for.

Of course this was duly recorded by one and all, except for the photographer from the Press Association. The PA were on an economy drive that week and the photographers were all issued with 20 exposure cassettes of film. He was on frame 18 as Kinnock started his run down the beach…..all I could hear as he ran out of film after two frames was. ‘f**k, f**k, f**k’. Another photographer was using a new telephoto lens for the first time and although he could see what was happening with his open eye he couldn’t find the subject through the viewfinder. The Daily Mail snapper had his camera on ‘auto exposure’ and as a consequence had a beautiful set of silhouettes as the white surf completely blew out his auto exposure settings. Another photographer who shall remain nameless to save his shame never even made the ‘photo-call’. As we all left the beach he was walking towards us completely oblivious to what had happened a few minutes earlier. He asked where we were going and what we were doing, we were all a little smug. When told that he had missed Kinnock running down the beach and falling into the sea he responded by saying, ’…but no one told me he was gonna do that this morning…’, no, I’m sure you weren’t told, you just have to get up a little earlier in the morning and be prepared for the unexpected!

I and a couple of the other photographers had the complete set, the run in, the fall and the pulling out. Moustachioed Pete was not amused, nor was a young Charles Clarke, Peter's boss and neither was Dave Hill the Labour Party chief press officer and boss to both Pete and Charles. A somewhat damp and bedraggled Neil and his very dry wife walked towards us as they came off the beach and asked ’I trust you boys that none of those pictures will get published’. Yeah, right oh, boyo ! The following morning my paper, The Times, ran the 4 pictures across the entire 8 columns of the front page. There were cartoons alluding to Kinnock walking on water and the popular satirical TV show ‘Have I got News for You’ ran the TV footage every week…..for about 20 years!

It has been argued that Kinnock never became Prime Minister because of that one little trip. I’m sure the fall didn’t help his credibility at home but both he and his wife seem to have done very well in the European political scene ever since. Maybe he was making an early pre-emptive dash for Europe, just over the water, when he ran down that Brighton beach all those years ago?

Brian Harris has been an editorial, news and current affairs photographer since 1969. Fascinated in his teens by the alchemy of the darkroom in the 1960s Brian started to combine his school work with photographing weddings and football matches in his native Essex. A job as a runner at the Fox Photos agency at the age of sixteen set Brian on the path that would shape his life.

In the 1970s Brian worked in the heart of London’s Fleet Street, freelancing for The Sun, The Times, News of the World, the BBC and United Press International, covering everything from IRA bombings to celebrity news, until joining The Times as its youngest staff photographer aged twenty-five. When The Independent launched in 1986, Brian became its first staff photographer, playing a key role in forming the renowned Indy style of intelligent editorial photography. In his fourteen years at The Independent, Brian travelled the world to cover the stories that defined the era. Since going freelance in 1999, Brian has staged several solo exhibitions, notably at Photofusion Photography Centre, and has contributed to exhibitions organised by the British Press Photographers’ Association. In 2006-7 he collaborated with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on Remembered, a major illustrated book of his photographs and a series of international touring exhibitions chronicling the CWGC’s work caring for the graves of over 1.7 million Commonwealth war dead.

This piece for EPUK's Showcase comes from Brian's book ‘…and then the Prime Minister hit me…’ a 320-page hard back account of his 50 plus years shooting news for agencies, national newspapers and magazines in the UK and overseas. It retails on Amazon at £68 plus P&P but for EPUKER’s Brian is generously offering it at £55 inc UK P&P - just email him for details at brian@brianharrisphotographer.co.uk

See more work by Brian Harris

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