Alan Whicker on his career highs and lows

In 2009, the late Alan Whicker told Radio Times about his most dangerous, most memorable and most bizarre interviews

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Favourite interview

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“Well, where do you stop? Obviously there are certain people you interview whom you might like more than others, but picking out a favourite tends to disparage the others and i don’t like to do that. i did think the silent nuns were wonderful, though [Whicker’s classic 1972 visit to the Poor Clares convent in solihull, West Midlands].

“They only had two 40-minute periods a week when they were allowed to talk, and there was one nun, sister esmeralda, who just loved to talk! She was so adorable, and you just knew she was going to get into trouble. I was enraptured by them all, and that moment when sister gertrude says, ‘Oh I do like to talk’ is enough to make you weep. They’re all dead now, bar one.”

Least favourite

“The Queen Mother of Jaipur [the legendary beauty gayatri Devi] is the one that springs to mind as less successful than it could have been. I thought at the time that she just didn’t want to be interviewed, or was simply having a bad day, as we all do.

“Afterwards, when I was watching it back I noticed that she had a cold sore on her lip. And she was a great beauty, so I think maybe she felt she wasn’t looking her best and she took it out on me. I’ve seen her once or twice since, though, and it’s been fine — no problems at all.”

Most bizarre

“That would have to be the witch doctors I interviewed just outside Charleston [south Carolina] in 1977. Basically, they would curse to death anyone you wanted for a mere $500. They showed me how it would work — not bloodthirsty at all: whoever you picked would simply walk under a truck and that was that.

“The chief witch doctor who ran the place was very pro-english and so he offered me a deal that really made me think. When it came to seriously having to pick someone I wanted dead, however, I couldn’t find anyone to fit the bill.”

Most dangerous

“Papa Doc [infamous ruler of Haiti with whom Whicker managed to secure an exclusive interview in 1968]. He really was a fatal man, and if at any point he had changed his mind about me he could have had me killed.

“As it happened, we became quite friendly as the show went on and it ended up with him inviting me to go Christmas shopping with him. I wouldn’t say I was frightened. More apprehensive. I can still remember the audible sigh of relief from the crew when I switched my questions from antagonistic to a bit more placatory.”

Most memorable

“They’re all memorable to me, but one I was watching again recently, which I was very happy with, was Peter Sellers [the actor’s last-ever interview in which he eerily foretold his own death just weeks before he died in 1980]. It was so nice to see him as he should be remembered, not as some dummy, but as the very sensitive man he really was.

“Just as he was coming out into the garden to do the interview, he sort of stumbled and swayed and looked very grey around the face. and I remember our producer David green saying this could be his memorial programme, his obituary. Which of course it turned out to be.”

The one that got away

“The one I always wanted to get was Howard Hughes, but unfortunately by the time we got close to him he was already walking around with Kleenex boxes on his feet. I felt we would have simply been holding him up to ridicule, so we didn’t go any further.

“Is there anyone I would like to do today? My dear chap, if there were, you’d be the last person I’d tell. I’d keep them all to myself.”

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Interview taken from Radio Times, 21-27 March 2009