In-depth, revealing, profound: the Sixties TV show that respected its viewers' intelligence

As BBC Four rebroadcasts a famous 1960 interview with Evelyn Waugh, Simon Heffer looks back at the greatest TV interviewer of all time

Evelyn Waugh on Face to Face in June 1960
Evelyn Waugh on Face to Face in June 1960 Credit: BBC

Connoisseurs of television can watch this week a screening of the Face to Face interview from 1960 between John Freeman and Evelyn Waugh: one of the most gripping encounters not just of that magnificent series, which ran from 1959 to 1962, but quite possibly in the history of broadcasting.

Freeman was a man of conspicuous talent and achievement, and few could have more poise and self-confidence in taking on someone as willingly rude and difficult as Waugh.

An Oxford graduate, Freeman had served in the Coldstream Guards during the war with such distinction that Field Marshal Montgomery described him as “my best brigade major”. He became a Labour MP and a minister, but left Parliament in 1955 to become a presenter on Panorama. After Face to Face he edited the New Statesman, was High Commissioner to India and Ambassador to the United States, and then chairman of London Weekend Television. He died in 2014, weeks before his 100th birthday.

For all his achievements, Freeman was no egomaniac. The programme was about his subject, not about him. He was chosen because he was a serious man who would ask serious questions, but not in a way that would cause offence. All one saw of him, if one saw anything, was the back of his head. They may have been what we would now call celebrity interviews, but the interviewer was not the celebrity.

The questions were designed to reveal, and not to goad, trap or humiliate. Freeman’s formal, gentlemanly and brisk manner, as much as the allure of some of his subjects, was why the programmes were so feted, and why they make such compelling viewing still.

Hugh Burnett, Face to Face’s producer, had struggled to persuade the BBC to accept the idea of such in-depth interviews. It took two years before Grace Wyndham Goldie, the head of Talks, would agree: and this was an age when the BBC respected its audience, believing it capable of absorbing half an hour of intelligent discussion without brains being overloaded.

The interviews were occasional: nine in 1959, 15 in 1960, five in 1961 and six in early 1962. The range of interviewees was remarkable, making many of the conversations precious historical documents in their own right: people such as Bertrand Russell, Tony Hancock, Henry Moore, Stirling Moss, Martin Luther King, Lord Reith and, on June 26 1960, Waugh.

Comedian Tony Hancock was a guest on Face to Face Credit: Getty Images

He tried to intimidate Freeman before the programme by informing him his name was pronounced “War” and not “Woff”; a fact of which Freeman was well aware.

Gilbert Harding, one of Britain’s earliest television personalities, cried when asked whether he had ever seen a corpse; he had recently seen his mother’s, whose death had brought him a terrible loneliness. It was claimed Freeman’s probing lifted up a stone in Tony Hancock’s psyche that triggered a decline that ended with his suicide eight years later.

What distinguished Face to Face from later television interviews was that the interviewees agreed to be questioned about themselves, in an almost psychiatric fashion, and not about a book, film, record or show. Freeman used the same method of interrogation with Carl Gustav Jung and Lord Hailsham as he did with Albert Finney and Adam Faith.

No one was patronised; nothing was played for laughs; there were no softballs to help bring along the audience. Above all, there was no need for sound bites, because there was so much time; no one else came in and sat on a sofa and joined in the banter. That Face to Face was the gold standard in television interviewing explains why, in 1989, the BBC revived it, running about 60 interviews over the next nine years, with Jeremy Isaacs taking over Freeman’s role.

Like Freeman, Sir Jeremy is an homme sérieux with a considerable hinterland. His questioning was predictably intelligent, if sometimes more expansive. Although it ran for much longer, the revival never quite captured the intensity of the original: it seemed less austere, slightly less concentrated on the subject.

Critics suggested that part of the failure to match the original was that so many who came on were, unlike their counterparts from more than 30 years earlier, seasoned television and especially chat show performers, and well in their comfort zones.

Michael Parkinson interviewing Helen Mirren in 1975 Credit: BBC

By that stage, television audiences were used to Michael Parkinson, who was by far the best of the next generation but pulled increasingly towards the field of show business, and Russell Harty, a man far more intelligent than he contrived to seem, who easily strayed into high camp. David Frost sought to be more serious – and achieved a coup in securing the confessions of Richard Nixon – but his interviews were very much about him, and he became increasingly self-parodic. Nor could he always resist jumping on a bandwagon when he saw one, as anyone familiar with his attention-seeking 1969 interview with Enoch Powell will know. Freeman was a seeker after the truth: Frost and others like him became seekers after sensation and effect.

The more discursive, profound style of interviewing migrated to current affairs programmes, such as Panorama, where Robin Day held sway in the Sixties and Seventies, or Weekend World, with the peerless Brian Walden; and to high-end 
arts programmes, such as The South Bank Show.

However, those who were neither politicians nor creative artists were edged off the screen: where the Bertrand Russells, Jungs or Victor Gollanczs would fit was not clear.

The sports stars, film stars and pop stars whom Freeman so brilliantly led out of their comfort zone were left to the sycophancy of celebrity interviewers, who would seldom venture more deeply into their consciousnesses than to ask fatuous questions about their glamorous lifestyles: which the viewing public, having by now acquired a form of intellectual Stockholm syndrome, absolutely loved.

Of course, many of the people who might be suitable to appear on such a programme these days would recoil in fear from such questioning, and would prefer to relate to their public via Instagram; but equally, one hopes, some wouldn’t, and they would by definition be the most interesting of their cohort.

We would also need to reinvent the notion of the public intellectual, because such people were in part created by appearances on intelligent television discussion programmes and when such things ceased to exist, so to an extent did they. And where such people do exist, hiding in universities and in the privacy of their studies, a climate has been created in which they are often afraid to speak out for fear of being “cancelled”: but a programme such as Face to Face might just turn that tide too, by daring the mob to seek to silence them.

Perhaps it is time to revive the Face to Face format again, as austerely and sharply as in Freeman’s day.

A few years ago, having recorded a series of half-hour interviews for Radio 4 that went down well at the BBC, I asked, gently, whether I might try some on television, in the Freeman mould.

There was no interest, which I surmised was because the sheer pursuit of truth was deemed of little interest to a modern audience.

Yet today we need it more than ever. The great figures of our public life and discourse deserve to be examined with the seriousness and consideration their status merits – but, more to the point, the viewing public deserve that too.

Face to Face: Evelyn Waugh is on BBC Four at 11.05pm on Thursday