In an age when almost all celebrity interviews come with an attendant plug, it’s easy to forget that televised conflabs used to be a very different encounter. The growing influence of the publicity trade, plus the growth of social media, means that celebrities are no longer required to do interviews with skilled interlocutors if they don’t want to. And if they do they can generally keep it to a manageable six minutes on This Morning, no personal questions, all smiles and so on.
The work of Louis Theroux (excellent documentaries with the rock star Pete Doherty, boxer Anthony Joshua and Dame Judi Dench), as well as the archive, however, shows that there is another way. In the right hands, a celebrity can reveal intelligence, depth and humour that their gilded public persona might have kept hidden.
Here are five of the great TV interviews.
Gilbert Harding/John Freeman (1960)
John Freeman was a Panorama journalist who, on the series Face to Face, practically invented the idea of the celebrity interview as a chance to chip away at a persona or look behind a mask. The set-up for his one to ones was telling: viewers could only see the back of Freeman’s head in silhouette as he sat in front of his subject. The lighting was stark and the message – spotlight’s on you, buddy – was clear. Critics at the time called it “torture by television”.
In 1960, having spoken to Carl Jung, Henry Moore and Evelyn Waugh earlier in the series, Freeman sat down with Gilbert Harding, then a renowned name thanks to multiple appearances on TV quiz shows. Freeman asked his mark if he had ever been in the presence of death. This caused the usually spiky Harding to break down in tears – his mother had recently died. (Freeman later expressed regret at his questioning, claiming he hadn’t known about Harding’s recent bereavement.)
WH Auden/Michael Parkinson (1972)
When did you last see a poet on a prime time chat show? On Saturday 7 October, 1972, just before Match of the Day, arguably the world’s most famous poet at the time, WH Auden, sat down with the late Michael Parkinson. A year later Auden would be dead – this was both valediction and retrospective, and it worked because Parkinson evidently admired Auden’s poetry and, crucially, knew when to let the great writer speak.
The discussion, as permitted by what today would be seen as a hugely generous 45 minutes, wended its way from Auden’s first poem to his current position on the American lecture circuit (“they’re tiresome but they pay.”) Nothing was off limits, Auden smoked throughout, recited his 1969 poem Moon Landing from memory and admitted he’d taken LSD.
On composing poetry, he said: “the subject looks for the right form, the form looks for the right subject. When these things come together then you’re able to write.” You could say the same about interviews. (Parkinson’s other guest, by the way, was a certain Sir John Gielgud.)
Francis Bacon/Melvyn Bragg (1985)
A 1985 edition of The South Bank Show saw presenter Melvyn Bragg sit down with the man he introduced as “widely held to be the greatest living painter in the world”. They started with Bacon and Bragg going through a slideshow of Bacon’s work and moved on to a conversation in his studio (“Why do you use the wrong side of the canvas?”) It remains one of the great elucidations of how and why an artist creates art, as well as a superb potted autobiography. And it is Bragg, in conjunction with director David Hinton, who does the elucidating with incisive questioning and a keen eye.
By the time the two of them sit down for the legendary tête-à-tête at the Colony Room Club (where they are both a little tipsy, and all the more fluent for it) the interview has deliquesced into abstract musing and, at times, drunken, dishevelled, gibberish. Yet even that adds something to our understanding of Bacon as a dissolute genius. And the whole thing is about as far away from a PR puff piece as it’s possible to be.
Elizabeth Taylor/Michael Aspel (1988)
Forty minutes of Lipstick Liz and only Lipstick Liz, from a time when film stars still carried a mystique, but before they learned you didn’t have to give straight answers to straight questions. Aspel was the same age as Taylor: he said in his opening monologue that he’d written to her when they were both 14 and she’d sent him a signed photograph that he kept in his blazer pocket for years. He called Taylor, “my partner for the evening,” and this interview is a classic example of how a great dialogue takes two.
Aspel goes straight in on Taylor’s weight loss, her struggles with addiction and a raft of personal questions that these days would see him marched out of his own career. But Taylor deals with it like a grown-up, not a petulant child, showing humour, resilience and winning candour. In so doing she evinces real star quality.
Dennis Potter/Melvyn Bragg (1994)
In March 1994, the screenwriter Dennis Potter left the world one last defining piece of television with this interview with Melvyn Bragg. It began with Bragg asking Potter how and when he found out that he had terminal cancer. Thereafter, Potter swigged liquid morphine throughout their conversation to dampen the pain as he meditated on art, transience and death. He was well aware that the interview would go down as his last words.
Bragg, however, ensured that things never became maudlin or self-regarding. Indeed, it’s easy to remember the Potter interview as overwhelmingly sad when at times it – he – is very funny. Nonetheless, his lyricism, guided by Bragg, remains a constant throughout. “The only thing you know for sure is the present tense, and that nowness becomes so vivid that, in a perverse sort of way, I’m almost serene.”