One on one interviews - 50 years on and still the best
These one on one TV interviews conducted by John Freeman for the BBC TV series "Face to Face" remains the standard by which all such interviews are to be judged. They remain for all time incomparable portraits of those prominent British and often leading world figures - political leaders, artists in all fields, even a King; who agreed to subject themselves to an at times merciless interrogation. What distinguished the series was the intelligence and probing remorselessness of the questions.
Each programme opened with an impressionistic of the subject by famed artist Felix Topolski then mixed through to the largest possible close up of the subject's face, harshly lit against a black background, where the slightest facial tic or emerging tear was clearly visible. And it was here that the camera remained throughout most of the interview -purposely to catch the facial tics and emergent tears. Painful memories were probed remorselessly. Gilbert Harding - middle aged bachelor and short-tempered opinionated newspaper columnist and TV personality, welled with tears when asked if he recalled the death of his mother. Celebrated British author Evelyn Waugh, who had had an episode of mental illness, was asked if he ever feared that it might return. This appalling question Waugh, tough former wartime SAS officer, dealt with calmly. But the one question for which Waugh seemed entirely unprepared was an apparently innocuous one - "the size of the establishment" at his childhood home (ie did they have servants?). Behind the question was the knowledge that Waugh's background was humbler than as he later affected. Freeman had homed in, as he intended, on the subject's most painfully vulnerable spot.
How could a journalist, however good, ask such cogent sometimes devastating questions? The answer emerged some time later. Freeman, the most intelligent interviewer ever to appear on British television had had a collaborator - a psychiatrist. To Freemans innate forensic skills were added clinical insights. It was difficult at times to imagine why some consented to appear - why they should put themselves through the pain. Some may have wished to face some event which they had not had the courage to face by themselves - to admit to or atone for something said or done - or not said or not done. All interviewees as well as the viewer were conscious of the sense of occasion, that a lifetime's achievement was to be probed, evaluated and - extraordinary for such a transient medium - recorded in stone.
Freeman, whose career included an ambassadorship to the United States and editorship of the British highbrow journal, The New Statesman, was an exotic and unusually gifted individual even by the BBC's standards of those days. Only in one interview - and Freeman has a quite opposite account of this - was he bested by his interviewee. This was with a figure of Old Testament reputation, appearance - and possibly self-regard: Lord Reith - founder in 1922 of the BBC itself.
Freeman's technique had been in part to pursue subjects' vanities and self-deceptions and to expose them. Reith, gritty son of a Scottish Presbyterian Minister, evidently knew exactly what to expect. Instead of withholding and covering up - and thus revealing weakness - Reith's candour at times so exceeded Freeman's expectation as to cause the line of questioning to abruptly end. Instead of an admission of an error of judgement being slowly prised out, Reith immediately admitted to having made a major mistake. Asked if he thought he might have made some modest contribution, Reith instead firmly laid claim - with some justification - to incomparably grander achievements. Following each wrong-footing of his interviewer Reith smiled and asked courteously, with perhaps false diffidence, if his answer had been satisfactory. It was, as Reith surely intended it to be, a masterful public demonstration that he had fully got the measure of his interviewer.
Reith's high seriousness of purpose and apparently biblical morality formed the BBC and a recognisable residue still remains - including the adjective Reithian defining that set of ideals which should govern a public broadcaster. That it is only a residue - and not the heavy pall it would be today - is due to the moral and entertainment revolution that took place in post-1960s Britain in which sexual liberation and with intolerant self-righteous zeal. Those zealots in the vanguard of this revolution were not content simply to disregard Reith, he became for them a figure hated with the exaggerated passion that a teenager might have for an overly moralistic parent. In an interview with Freeman long after Reith's death Freeman spoke surprisingly of Reith's "pathetic" wish to be liked. Given the nature of their earlier unequal encounter it seemed that here it was the interviewer's own weaknesses that were for once being sharply exposed.
Freeman is still alive (2006) and can be seen, a tall and impressive figure, doing his shopping at his local supermarket. But while good humoured and civil, he declines to talk about Face to Face. He has, he says, retired from all that. In a very full life there are probably many other achievements he values more.
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