A moment in an Alan Whicker programme often plays in my mind when I recall his gifts as an interviewer. In the sequence, Whicker, with his ever-present, immaculately pressed suit and RAF moustache, is admiring the expensive jewellery of the young wife of a European playboy baron. It seems a harmless enough encounter, a coy, enjoyable, faintly flirtatious display of wealth and complacency.
Then Whicker asks whether the diamonds give her a sense of “comfort”. The moment is so quick as to pass almost unnoticed, and the woman isn’t quite sure what she heard.
But there’s a pause and we as viewers realise that there’s something going on beneath the surface – that the baroness’s position is less secure than she realises; and that in a world without alimony she may one day have to live off the proceeds of her precious baubles.
Though he was known as a world traveller, and often described as a “travel journalist”, it wasn’t Whicker’s reporting of far-flung places that marked him out. Lord knows there are plenty of people who can lug a camera around the world and film ethnographic sequences of exotic lands. Nor was it his famously witty scripts, with their plays on words, read in a cadence so distinctive you feel you wouldn’t even need the words to recognise who it was – you could practically hum Whicker’s commentary. (Among the many parodists of his phrasing was Whicker himself in his adverts for Barclaycard.)
No, for my money, what made Whicker special was his talent as a psychologist, his subtle appreciation of the most basic, though often hidden, aspects of human behaviour: relationships, sexuality, ambition, cruelty, the search for status; and his ability to cut to the heart of those human quirks with incisive questions that were always politely put.
I was too young to appreciate Whicker in his heyday of the 60s and 70s. He was already in his autumn years as a broadcaster when I first watched him, as a teenager in the early 80s. His series about Brits making it in America, Living with Uncle Sam, was airing at the time.
But even then I could see there was a maturity to Whicker’s interviews, his gentle probing of his subjects, his ability to get them to open up about their hopes and dreams and vulnerabilities, his talent for allowing people to be themselves on screen and for creating intimacy. It was television for grown-ups.
Whicker’s appearance was deceptive. His conservative, never-changing outfits, his courteous, unflappable manner masked a subversive sensibility. There was a satirical twinkle in his eyes – and his persona was just that: a kind of a construct. He could use it to be sincere and serious but also, when appropriate, as a put-on. He was too shrewd not to realise his unwavering stiffness was a wonderful foil to the strangeness he put himself among. In his comic mode, Whicker was the consummate straight man, acting in partnership with a crazed world.
Later I took the time to watch some of his older programmes. The 1969 profile of “Papa Doc” Duvalier, the notorious Haitian dictator, remains a powerful piece of reportage. The image of Whicker being escorted around the brutalised country in the back of the president’s official vehicle is unforgettable. Famously, by the end of his encounter with Papa Doc, Whicker had so charmed the ageing despot that he was invited for an extra day in his entourage as they went on a shopping spree. But the crew had run out of film and there was none to be found on the island. Rather than risk offence, Whicker endured the heart-breaking charade of a filming expedition with empty cameras.
Other Whicker moments that stay with me: his interview with a top American plastic surgeon in the middle of an operation – and the weirdness of Whicker standing right there in the operating theatre. His famous questioning of an oblivious, tragic John Paul Getty about the payphone the billionaire provided for his guests. His interview with Percy Shaw, the eccentric Yorkshireman who made a fortune from his invention of the cat’s eye, and the shots of Shaw’s house, with no carpet, no curtains and three TV sets in one room. And an emotionally charged scene of a young woman informing her parents that she intended to remain in a convent and in effect abandon them for God.
Very early in my career I heard from a friend with a source close to Whicker that the great man had seen some of my American programmes and that he approved. “He’s got it,” was the verdict. “Of course, it’s all stuff Alan was doing decades ago…” was the less-flattering coda to the compliment.
I was not at that time familiar enough with Whicker’s work to appreciate what a wonderful vote of confidence I was getting – nor do I know whether he later changed his opinion. But I came to treasure those words and also to realise that virtually every subject I’d investigated – weird Americans of all stripes, celebrities, gun nuts, religious extremists, criminals, Ku Klux Klansmen, eccentric celebrities – had been well covered by Whicker… and much more besides.
It was with a strange feeling of awe that I realised the sheer scale of Whicker’s achievements. The nearest I can get to describing it is that he was to Homo sapiens what Attenborough is to the natural world.
I’m sorry to say I never met the man. In my own days covering celebrities, in 2000 or 2001, I put in a request to do an immersive documentary on him at his home in the Channel Isles. His four-word reply, by fax, was: “Thanks but no thanks.”
Disappointing though it was, I couldn’t really fault him. Journalists do well to avoid unnecessary publicity. Still, it would have been nice to be able to let him know how thankful I am for his contribution to television. And to hear those Whicker cadences at first hand.
Alan Whicker: Journey’s End Sun 10:15pm ITV
Alan Whicker’s Journey of a Lifetime Mon 10.00pm BBC4