Excuse me for pressing you on this, but…

Icons: Four of John Freeman’s most famous interviewees.

Have we lost the art of the interview? A series of classic conversations with 20th-century icons has just been reissued by the BBC. It reveals the surprising power of old-fashioned TV.

People were expecting fireworks as John Freeman began his interview with TV personality Gilbert Harding. Not for nothing was Harding known as “the rudest man in Britain”. But then Freeman asked him if he had ever seen a dead body – and Harding, remembering his mother, started to cry. Apologising for his rudeness, he said, “I am profoundly lonely… and would very much like to be dead.”

This was just one of the extraordinary answers elicited by Freeman in the series Face to Face. Running for 35 episodes between 1959 and 1962, it attracted up to four million viewers – an amazing number at a time when many people did not yet own TVs. Among the famous figures interviewed were Carl Jung, Henry Moore, King Hussein of Jordan, Stirling Moss, John Osborne, Otto Klemperer and Bertrand Russell.

Freeman’s interviewing style seems extremely old-fashioned now. He lets his subjects talk for as long as they like without interruption. When he wants to know more, he says courteously, “If you don’t mind, I am going to dwell a little on this point” or “This might seem impertinent but…” The programme’s producer said that he had chosen Freeman "because he was highly skilled at probing closely without causing offence".

In his interview with Martin Luther King Jr, he asks the black civil-rights leader about racial discrimination in his childhood. King recalls how his two best friends were white boys – until, at the age of six, their parents told them not to play with him. He tells of the strict system of segregation, which meant that he could not go to a public park or swimming-pool, and the violence of the police and the Ku Klux Klan: “I can remember seeing the Klan actually beat negroes on the streets of Atlanta.”

One of Freeman’s most easily annoyed interviewees was Evelyn Waugh. Asked why he had agreed to appear on the programme, the well-heeled novelist famously replied, “Poverty”. But Freeman always kept his cool and resisted the temptation to goad his guests – unlike some modern interviewers who sometimes annoy their subjects so much that they walk out.

For some guests it was nevertheless a life-changing experience. Tony Hancock’s brother said that it started the comedian on a path to self-analysis that ultimately led to his suicide.

Another striking aspect of Face to Face is that Freeman never draws attention to himself, even though he is as distinguished as many of his subjects. He had been a high-ranking soldier and an MP, and was editor of the New Statesman at the time the programmes were made. He went on to become high commissioner to India and ambassador to the United States.

Despite the programme’s title, we do not even see his face – only, occasionally, the back of his head when the camera draws back. There could hardly be a stronger contrast with today’s chat shows, such as Oprah Winfrey’s, that are named after their hosts and emphasise them as much as the interviewees.

Have we lost the art of the interview?

Head to head

Some say, yes. Few TV interviews now last for as long as Face to Face’s 30 minutes, so there is little chance to get to know their subjects. Interviewers constantly interrupt their guests and try to catch them out, rather than putting them at their ease, with the result that they seldom really open up. Egotistical print journalists often write as much about themselves as about their subjects.

Others argue that the best interviewers can still guide people into talking about themselves with astonishing frankness. Everyone likes to be made the focus of attention and listened to; they simply need to be asked intelligent questions and given a sympathetic ear. Documentary makers and print journalists sometimes spend days with their subjects to win their trust.

You Decide

  1. Many celebrities demand to be notified of questions in advance so that they can prepare answers. Should interviewers agree to this?
  2. Is it right for interviewers to ask politicians about their private lives?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you have a chance to interview the person you admire most in the world. Make a list of 20 questions you would ask them.
  2. Interview an older person about their life. Video the interview and then ask them how well they think you conducted it.

Some People Say...

“Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn't have in your home.”

David Frost (1939–2013), British broadcaster

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the balance of power in interviews has shifted in the last 25 years. It used to be that most celebrities were grateful to the media for the publicity they afforded. Today, the biggest stars know that chat shows and magazines are dependent on them, so they can set their own terms – demanding approval of who interviews or photographs them, and even the right to edit the finished interview.
What do we not know?
One area of debate is over which TV interview has been the most successful. A strong contender is David Frost’s with ex-President Nixon in 1977; at the end Nixon apologised for the Watergate scandal for the first time. The one with the most viewers, so far, was Oprah Winfrey’s with Michael Jackson in 1993; it attracted an audience of 90 million viewers. Barbara Walters’s interview with Monica Lewinsky, which badly damaged Bill Clinton’s presidency, drew 70 million in 1999.

Word Watch

Carl Jung
A Swiss psychiatrist who was one of the most important figures in the development of psychoanalysis. Freeman interviewed him shortly before he died.
Henry Moore
The most revered British sculptor of the 20th century, best known for his abstract figures.
King Hussein of Jordan
A key figure in Middle Eastern politics, he ruled for 46 years and led Jordan through difficult times to become a stable modern state.
Stirling Moss
One of Britain’s greatest Formula 1 racing drivers. Although he never won the world championship, he finished as runner-up for four years in a row.
John Osborne
A dramatist whose 1957 play Look Back In Anger marked the start of a new era in British theatre.
Otto Klemperer
A Jewish musician who was expelled from Germany by the Nazis in 1933 and became one of the world’s most respected conductors.
Bertrand Russell
A world-famous British philosopher and ardent pacifist.
Evelyn Waugh
A brilliant satirical writer whose books include Decline and Fall, Scoop and Brideshead Revisited.
Tony Hancock
A hugely popular comedian best known for his radio and TV show Hancock’s Half Hour, which included sketches such as The Blood Donor.
New Statesman
A left-wing political magazine dating from 1913. George Bernard Shaw was one of its first directors.

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