Last week I observed that Jeremy Paxman’s complaint that Winston Churchill was a giant compared to today’s miniatures applies just as well to broadcasters.
Perhaps mindful of this a friend kindly sent me a dvd compilation of the 39 interviews presented by John Freeman in the famous Face to Face series broadcast in the late fifties. The interviewees were the great and good and not only was this was the first attempt at such interviews, arguably 55 years on still the best.
One of the reasons for this becomes readily apparent from the first of the three interviews I watched last night – with eminent barrister, judge and jurist Lord Birkett namely that you only see the face of the interviewee. It was probably the next famous interviewer David Frost who ensured he had equal if not greater profile – in very sense – and the modern presenter like Jonathan Ross or Jeremy Paxman styles himself as star of the show. There was no studio but two armchairs facing each other with the camera behind John Freeman.
Freeman himself was educated at Westminster and Brasenose College, Oxford, was called to the Bar, fought in the war and was Labour MP for Watford. In a age when information was less accessible he was always totally informed on his subject.
Lord Birkett was particularly interesting on the Nuremberg trial which he attended as a alternative judge. He corrected the misconception that obeying orders was a defence in international law, it was at best a mitigation.
Bertrand Russell aged 89 was so aristocratic he might have been a cousin of Alec Douglas Home but his radical passion, for which he served 2 prison sentences, and superb intellect burned brightly despite the years.
Dame Edith Sitwell in dress and manner might have walked out of one of Oscar Wilde’s plays. Her diction and vocabulary were crystal glass upper: stupid with short u sound not stewpid, gel in place of girl and frequent use of the word impertinent to describe young people. In short she was a glorious eccentric. One curiosity of the three interviews was in every one Freeman made a not so delicate enquiry into his subject’s wealth for which he seemed to have an interest bordering on the obsessional.
I have still to watch the interview with Gilbert Harding when he was reduced to tears in talking of his mother’s death and Evelyn Waugh who was combative and curmudgeonly.
Jeremy Isaacs and Welsh TV tried to revive the formula without anything like the same success. John Freeman became the US ambassador and ended a distinguished broadcasting and political career as a bowls commentator.