❉ BFI’s centenary celebration revealed there was much more to Whicker’s world than the suave, bespoke-suited gent, writes Rob Fairclough.
It’s great to have the British Film Institute open again on London’s Southbank. It’s not just a place to indulge your favourite film or TV enthusiasms, it’s a great place to have your cultural and historical horizons expanded. I’ve missed that. There’s only so much cultural expansion you can get from Netflix or Amazon Prime.
I already knew about Alan Whicker. Everyone my age does. The suave, bespoke-suited gent who jetted first-class around the world, observing and wryly but astutely commenting, was a fixture of British television from the 1960s to the 2000s; effectively, he was so well known he was the documentary equivalent of Eric Morecambe (with the same glasses, even). Alan was such an identifiable one-man brand that he was easily spoofed – the sure sign that you’ve become part of the national psyche – by everyone from comedians like the Pythons, Benny Hill and Spike Milligan, to funk group The Evasions, with their 1981 hit ‘Wikka Wrap’ (“One nation under a groove… what’s going down brother, love one another”).
That’s the stereotype. It’s a classy one, and Alan’s polite, blazer-wearing, Englishman-abroad-schtick certainly helped invite revealing disclosures from his interview subjects, most famously François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, the murderous dictator of Haiti. But, as the BFI’s excellent centenary celebration of Alan’s life and work revealed, there was much more to him than that. So much so, that afterwards I immediately invested in every available DVD of his work.
Esteemed guests David Green, Michaels Palin and Parkinson and Jon Culshaw, together with Jane Ray, Alan’s radio producer in the 1990s, highlighted three significant points about him:
1: Alan invented a style of TV journalism that was brand new and fully formed when he joined the BBC’s Tonight current affairs programme in 1957. Gone was static, humourless reportage, in was on-the-move, inclusive journalism that not only took the viewer into the heart of the action, but was counter-pointed by intelligent, witty and insightful commentary.
2: Like so many entertainers of his generation, Alan’s singular abilities were formed by his experiences in World War II. Working in the Army and Film Photographic Unit, he learned how to be appraise, evaluate and report precisely under extreme conditions, a skill set Alan took with him into his career as a foreign correspondent, reporting from the frontline of the Korean War (1950-53). Captain Alan Whicker was also something of a war hero in WWII, arresting the British traitor John Amery and an SS general.
3 is perhaps the most affecting: Alan’s belief in encouraging future generations of documentary filmmakers. He was a shareholder in Yorkshire Television and inherited some of the fortune of the millionairess Olga Deterding (who he lived with for three years), significant financial windfalls that in 2015 helped establish The Whickers, an organisation committed to funding promising documentary-making talent. Up to £100,000 a year is available and there’s an annual awards ceremony.
Touchingly, from the stage of NFT1, Jane took the opportunity to present Alan’s long-term partner, Valerie Kleeman, the tireless head of the foundation’s awards committee, with her own Whickers award. “We’ve made one specially,” Jane announced, retrieving it from the top of the auditorium’s piano. “There are many young people around the world who couldn’t have done it without you.’’
The recollections of the two Michaels were warm and wonderful. Parkinson revealed that watching Alan made him want to become a broadcaster, and that he learned so much of his own interviewing technique from observing Alan at work. I hadn’t realised that Whicker was the first choice to present Palin’s BBC travelogue Around the World in 80 Days (1989) and that when he got the gig, Michael thought the only thing to do was take some pointers from the great man himself.
Interviewer Dick Fiddy couldn’t let Palin off the stage without asking him about the famous ‘Whicker Island’ sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus (in 1972), which saw Michael, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman and John Cleese suit and ‘tache-up on Winterton beach near Great Yarmouth. Alan dropped the team a line to compliment them on their satire and ended by saying, tongue-in-cheek, “You’ll be hearing from my solicitors”. The Pythons duly sent back signed photos of them made up as their hero with the sly note, “Here’s some evidence for them.”
Impressionist Jon Culshaw was on hand to discuss Jonathan Williamson’s new audio play The Other Side of the World, in which he plays Alan. After discussing how honoured he was to be recreating one of the most recognisable voices in broadcasting, he brought the house down by saying Alan’s was “one of those voices where you think ‘I might speak like this all the time’.”
If you want definitive proof of how iconic Whicker was, you only have to look at the second documentary on the bill today, The Lord Is My Shepherd and He Knows I’m Gay. Made in 1973, this moving film is extraordinarily progressive, as Alan investigates the gay liberation movement in America, beginning with a gay wedding in San Diego. He asks awkward questions on behalf of an uninformed audience – do long-term relationships between homosexuals not last because gay men are promiscuous? Is homosexuality an illness? – and, throughout, is even-handed and non judgemental.
Alan edited all of his documentaries, and the last few minutes are a lasting testament to his journalistic integrity: 30 gay men were burned to death in New Orleans by homophobes, their bodies so badly disfigured that they could only be identified by their teeth. The documentary ends where it began, in a gay church, as the congregation mourn and celebrate the gay lives lost. It’s really hard to imagine this programme being transmitted on ITV, in England, in 1973, and that makes it a most remarkable piece of television.
I learned a lot at the 100 Years of a Visionary: to always look beyond the obvious, that preparation is always the key to good journalism, how important documentaries are as an insight into how the world works and changes. In Alan’s work there’s also a nostalgia for a time that’s now gone: international travel wasn’t that common when he embarked on his travelogues, so any new port of call, whether it was Haight Asbury at the height of the hippie revolution in 1967, or the idle rich sitting out a recession on the QE2 in the 1980s, drew us in as it was exotic, unfamiliar territory.
Today, for better or worse, Whicker’s world is everyone’s world.
❉ ‘Alan Whicker: 100 Years of a Visionary’ took place at BFI, 7 August 2021. Visit The Whickers’ website https://www.
❉ Robert Fairclough writes on a variety of subjects, including mental health and popular culture (sometimes both at once). He has written six books, contributes to magazines and websites, and writes regular blogs about projects he’s involved in for The Restoration Trust. He can be contacted on email@example.com, and his website can be viewed at www.robfairclough.co.uk