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Whicker Ask It: Whicker's World Vols 1&2 on DVD

  Alan Whicker was possibly the most famous television journalist of his time and given his heyday lasted around two decades it was his unmistakable style that made him so, with his impeccably dressed and bespectacled image in tandem with his urbane, reasonable yet searching tones. He was born in 1925 and died in 2013, at a point when his medium of choice may have moved on, but was indebted to him nonetheless as he approached every subject, be they mundane or more outré, with that same integrity which could be almost a parody of itself depending on what he was reporting on. Indeed, his indelible persona proved irresistible to humourists, from the Monty Python team who all delivered impersonations on Whicker's Island to Benny Hill who gave us Knicker's World; there was even a disco record in the eighties featuring an impression of him getting on down.

Network in the UK have made a move to keeping Whicker's name alive with two volumes of his documentaries from the ITV archive, though he was well known to channel hop between them and the BBC in Britain, depending on where he could get the best deal. The earliest episode they have is from Whicker Considers, all about the Yorkshire Yeadon Airport which he decided was not international enough. This was a subject close to his heart as not only did his programmes often open with a shot of an aeroplane taking off, but his job necessitated him taking flights around the world, so it's little wonder he should be pressing the head of the Yeadon location to try and compete with the big three British airports of that time. This man seems to know his limitations, however, and sounds rather more sensible in explaining that a modest concern serving the local area is a better business model than trying to take custom away from Manchester, no matter how many more ambitious folks Whicker interviews. An expanded Yeadon is still going, incidentally, so must have been doing something right.

Next up, a day at the races as Alan investigates the world of horse training by talking to the overseers of the business that he tells us generates nine hundred million pounds (in old money, mark you) a year in betting. As this was a Yorkshire Television production, naturally they filmed at a Yorkshire village where according to the commentary people are on average three inches shorter there than they are in the rest of the country thanks to the place producing so many jockeys. We hear from three trainers, two men and one woman, and the latter obviously gets asked if she uses her feminine charms to get her way with deals on her horses, also whether she has any female superstitions, as if this was a woman-only thing, though immediately after we hear from one of the men who if anything is even more superstitious; they curiously both share a suspicion of closed level crossings, if they see one of those on the way to the meeting then they are sure to lose, they believe. It's a rather superficial look but all they could do with just over twenty minutes, plus celeb cameos from Lionel Blair and The Lovely Aimi MacDonald, losing their bets.

From black and white into colour and Whicker is mixing with one of his favourite subjects, the aristocracy, or at least the rich, when he covered The Glorious Twelfth, that point in the calendar (the 12th of August) where the British upper classes took to the countryside to shoot grouse as the season opens. Our host tells us that far from being cruel, it is believed that this activity helps to breed stronger birds as they are disease-ridden beasts that wouldn't normally survive too long anyway, and those that do are examples of the survival of the fittest and would escape the hunters' bullets. Whether you accept that or not, the grouse do end up on the plate as a British delicacy, though you, like Alan, may be sceptical about precisely how appetising they may be, given what he informs us of, though he does learn to shoot with a rifle, starting off with clay pigeons which he proves to be not too bad at. In addition, he gets kitted out in the correct gear, resistant to a hat but accepting it's necessary, though once he gets out on the Yorkshire moors he is less than impressed and more uncomfortable. Animal rights are addressed, but it's unlikely to sway either side of that debate.

Back to black and white for Water Water, a somewhat vague remit for a programme on, well, water, though not to drink as the title suggests, more to pass time on and by. This played up to Whicker's strengths as an interviewer of anyone from any walk of life and his ability to garner art least a minute of interesting quotes from whoever he was questioning, as he simply approaches folks by the river, be they fishing or sailing, and asks them about their motivation. There's the little old lady who loved to be beside the seaside, the old chap who angles for bream in a particularly unlovely stretch of the waterway (we are told that there are more anglers in Britain than football fans) and the even older chap who simply likes to get away from it all, relishing the peace and quiet of puttering down the river. After watching this you can see his point, though the Polish gentleman who is pursuing his dream of creating a lido out of a derelict building and the businessman turning Whitby into, he hopes, a major tourist attraction for yachters come across as less realistic. And that businessman bears an alarming wound on his forehead Alan never mentions... we’ll never know how he got it now.

And again to colour for what is termed The Aristocracy Business, yes, it was Whicker moving among the rich once more, not something he did quite as often as popular memory would indicate, but he did appear to be fascinated with how the other half lived, though he admits here the gentry were outnumbered by us commoners by fifty-four thousand to one back in the late sixties when this was made, so imagine how may more of us there are than them by now. This was basically the host being shown around various estates then sharing a few words with the various Lords, four or five of them, as they open up to Alan about how they spend their money and what they think they can provide to society, which turns out to be not very much on the rates since they are based on the saleable value, and as very few could afford to live in a manor house the money paid to the council was surprisingly low. Lord Gisborough takes Whicker on a walk to the village that bears his name, and Viscount Downe, a true English eccentric (though one supposes he could afford to be), lets him have a look at his laboratory. We don’t learn much we couldn't have guessed, but the interviewer was just warming to his subjects.

It was back to black and white for a standalone documentary which indicated the way Whicker was heading, with the tale of the Picardy Hotel from the wealthy resort of Le Touquet in Northern France. Possibly the reason this was in monochrome was that so much stock footage of the hotel's heyday had to be used, and that was not in colour; around half the programme appeared to be of that type. This was directed by Richard Loncraine, who would go on to a very respectable filmmaking career (the Richard III starring Sir Ian McKellen being one of his best efforts), but it was Whicker, as always writing his own narration, who was clearly the star of the show, aside from the hotel itself. His descriptive passages sounded often like a form of poetry with their alliterative qualities, and nowhere more so than here as he actually took a trip out the hotel which by then had seen far better days. In those days it was a playground for the richest of both France and Britain, and in the nineteen-thirties it was the preferred holiday destination of some of the most upper of upper classes the United Kingdom could boast, in spite of not really being finished and the problems that brought. Whicker's interest in the wealthy was well served by a theme that dwelt on the ghosts of the past, they not realising the party would soon be over, and the final shots of what is left of the Picardy were very evocative.

Whicker's interview with Percy Shaw was one of the most appreciated programmes he ever made, and as it combined his interest in the well off with the handy fact that Shaw lived not too far away from the Yorkshire Television studios, it was ideal for him. Who was Percy Shaw? He was the man who invented the road reflectors known as cat's eyes which are placed at regular intervals along streets to assist the drivers at night to see where the road is actually heading, and he must have saved countless lives. The invention was patented in 1934, and the factory where they were manufactured was still going strong when Whicker caught up with him in 1969 when the inventor was 79 years old. Yet this was no dry lecture, as Shaw was quite a character, some termed him an eccentric for the way he spent his fortune, which was fairly modestly aside from a couple of Rolls Royces. This insight into his home life was talk of the country the day after broadcast, where he eschewed carpets and curtains because he thought they were unhygienic, and liked to spend his not-quite retirement (he remained head of his business) drinking four pints a night and eating crisps with friends in his almost bare living room, with four televisions playing silently until something came on that interested him. As you can imagine, an absolute gift to Whicker.

A stronger hint of the presenter's globetrotting tendencies became more in evidence with his trip to Ecuador to document Christmastime there, though he didn't capture much that was especially festive as those in Britain would recognise it, aside from a brightly coloured parade perhaps. In the main it was the plight of the native Indians that concerned him, obviously taking no pleasure in telling us of the ways the invasion of Spaniards had a detrimental effect on their culture and basically turning them into a community of drunkards, yet feeling it was important to report it since it offered a better rounded view of what life was like there. He did do that activity popular with tourists and reporters alike, which was stand on the equator with one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and the other foot in the Southern Hemisphere, of course. Elsewhere, he resisted the local cuisine, gathered clips of the President whose position of power, as with all Ecuadorian leaders, appears to be precarious, and naturally gave us an insight into the manufacture of shrunken heads, another item of television presenter gold with a more reassuring punchline that you might have anticipated. All in all, a fine example of the art of the travelogue.

Travelling south to Argentina, and Alan took us on a tour of the region in and around Buenos Aires in the company of racing driver Gastón Perkins, whose name as you may work out was of British origin. Even back in 1969 when this was made there was tension between the two nations, and to Whicker's credit he didn't play down that in his conversation, but neither did he lead with it, preferring to spend the first half finding out about the country and its attitudes of the day, which turned out to be pretty conservative but happy under the rule of the Generals, or at least that was the impression offered by chatting with Perkins and his wife, with none of the troubles of living under a military junta arising. Perkins had a pretty good year when this programme caught up with him, though typically for an anticlimactic ending when they get to filming a race he was in he crashes out, but more interesting was the demeanour of the typical Argentinian which our host probed, from the male machismo to the lack of gumption, then topical for the foot and mouth that had spread from Argentinian livestock to Britain or the always problematic Falklands question. It's very amusing to see Perkins lose his temper with his mother when she avers he is part English; in spite of the huge contributions the large British settlement there made, there did appear to be resentment.

For the second box set, episodes of Whicker’s New World were the order of the day, as the title suggests it concerned the United States and all the interesting matters that he could uncover there, starting with cryogenics, also called cryonics, that is the freezing of dead bodies with a hope they will be revived at some time in the future when technology advances to a sufficient state of accomplishment. That this has still not happened all these decades later puts a rather sad tone over the footage of Whicker interviewing the relatives of those who have been frozen, as presumably they will be dead themselves by now without ever having seen their loved ones brought back to life. But he interviews the exponents of this process, and they all appear to be very optimistic, with the father of cryogenics, Robert Ettinger, telling us he expects it to be a trillion dollar industry eventually and brushing off scepticism with claims that if you are never frozen then you'll never have the potential for bring reanimated. Whicker puts some pointed questions to the cryogenics folk, such as what happens if you come back as a zombie (!), and there is one doctor who is outraged at the whole business he regards as a racket. But Ettinger was serious, and indeed was frozen himself when he died in 2011. He hasn't been revived yet, however: nobody has.

American children were the subject of the next episode, where the common in Britain impression of them as a bunch of precocious brats was investigated by Alan when he visited various establishments to prove that they were simply growing up too fast. He went to New York City and interviewed what he frequently described as the "moppets" there, starting with a school that has its own television station, run and operated and presented by the kids. Naturally, they turned the tables on him and questioned him back, but he was impressed with their professionalism though when he interviewed them in return, their answers that they wanted to become nuclear scientists obviously bemused him in the subjects' self-possession. A child modelling school was attended too, little ones who made big bucks by appearing in commercials (they either come across as overconfident or gauche, with no in between), though Whicker also asked the opinions of children from a poorer area, who were noticeably more forthcoming when the matters of politics and Vietnam arose, with every one a potential draft dodger and unconvinced by Nixon. Whether the thesis that these youngsters were in any way missing out on their childhood thanks to modern pressures stood up was debatable, but they did not seem to be feeling too badly about it.

This study in The American Lifestyle, which everyone in Britain was drawn to either to be attracted or to tut their way through the programme, continued with what Whicker termed the Swingles, a word which appeared to be a contraction of swingers and singles. This was ostensibly an examination of the dating scene among the new generation of funseekers, though for every bright young thing that he interviewed, there were a lot rather older, middle-aged and desperate individuals who fancied their chances with a younger model. The concept of computer dating was treated with a "Heh, those crazy Americans!" approach, as if sceptical that feeding your personality details into such a thing would ever result in romantic success, and when Alan tries it (the matching process looks laughably archaic even with the technology) he meets a lady who admits it didn't work out for her when she tried it, and presumably when she showed up to her date and Alan Whicker was there with a camera crew it put her off even more as she says she would never try it again. Our host gets somewhat conservative here, for he decides this Swingles scene is filled with unhappy people, which may be true, but the old ways of getting married young and having to stick with that partner for the rest of your life whether you loved them or not are perhaps not as promising as he thinks they are (and he never married or had children himself).

In a break from that American series, Whicker delivered one of his most famous documentaries when he interviewed Papa Doc Duvalier, then the President for Life of Haiti which under his rule had become the single poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. His people, as we can see, were dressed in rags and living in slums while he lorded over them from his palace, occasionally emerging for official occasions but more often than not orchestrating the machinations of his civilian army the Tonton Macoute who were lavished with all the firepower they could muster and proceeded to terrorise the entire nation through a campaign of violence, bribery and spying. White faces were unwelcome, so you can imagine Whicker was taking his life in his hands by arriving there, except in the actual talks you had the impression Duvalier was relishing the chance to put his side of the story to a popular media figure when he would be well aware it would be broadcast across the globe. He remained a curiously unassuming person for someone who has caused so much horror and misery, rambling about conspiracies painting him in a bad light and his dislike of Graham Greene's then-recent novel The Comedians which painted a scathing picture of Haitian life (also interviewed was an affable hotel steward who was depicted in the novel and was put out about being described as sinister in it). Baby Doc, Duvalier's teenage son and successor two years later, put in an appearance too, but it was the President for Life who was the focus, his mild demeanour rather chilling when you knew the atrocities he was capable of.

Back at The New World, and Whicker begins this episode shrouded in mystery as he ponders what could be behind the walls of a large establishment known as The Greenhouse. He quickly clears that up as he informs us it is a health spa, which can't have been a new idea in 1969, but nevertheless was presented as a great novelty, probably because its clients were very rich. The idea is that thirty-five places are filled by wealthy ladies of a certain age who wish to lose weight, look good and generally knock a few years off their normal appearance, though now that set up is so prevalent this looks less like the well-off spending their money in crazy ways and more like something perfectly reasonable, such is the way these spas caught on across the world. Still, if this comes across as rather more mundane than its lavish surroundings might have appeared at the time, at least Whicker secures some decent interviews, some with less sparkling company (only because they sound so prosaic) but others with real characters, including a minute with the man hired to dye the grass green so that even the outside flora gets a makeover. But this was more or less a few clips of some middle-aged and older women doing exercises, eating vegetables and having pedicures, so that when the head of the company tells us some of them cheat and sneak bottles of Scotch into their rooms, you wish we'd seen more of that.

The passenger jet taking off heralds another Whicker's New World, but then we're straight into our man taking a lie detector test. No, he hasn't been arrested, he's trying out the latest technology which big American corporations are using to weed out the best employees from the, well, less suitable shall we say, and a polygraph is claimed by its operator to be the future of such mechanisms, even though no such test has ever been proven to work conclusively, not a fact he mentions in his spiel. But the way these businesses keep a watch on their employees with a file on everyone to be shared around other companies comes across as something akin to the sort of secret Communist police state that was in force across the Atlantic, and Whicker is keen to note the irony of the Land of the Free being so wrapped up in restrictive practices when it came to hiring and firing. This takes its toll, and he visits a retreat for powerful executives who couldn't face the rat race anymore and submit to woodwork in an exclusive forest location, a sobering reminder of the huge pressures keeping a job, even a successful one, that would grow more prevalent as the decades rolled by. Plenty of experts here for Alan to get his teeth into, but his concern for the modern worker is obvious as the technology runs away with itself.

The fear of the future was apparent throughout this American series, but nowhere more than in its final episode where our host took on the retirement communities springing up across the sunnier Southern states, places the elderly, or what became known as senior citizens in the parlance of those businessmen who ran them, were safe to live out their twilight years in peace and quiet. That was the motivation for thousands of them to move away from neighbourhoods they might have lived in their whole lives yet now they felt alien and unfriendly to the old folks as the younger generations encroached on their existence, and not even the prospect of watching the grandchildren grow up was a particular enticement to sticking around, in fact it might have been another good reason to get away. Those businessmen interviewed are slick and feel no qualms about giving their prospective clients the hard sell, and it appears to have done the trick as the populace we see in Arizona and California do not look appreciably less comfortable in a location that caters to their every need. One pressure group leader is not so happy, as he claims these places merely shuffle the elderly off to somewhere they won't be in the way, all the better to be forgotten about and essentially ignored so the younger ones can get on with life without them. The ultimate fear of what lies ahead, death, is what this boils down to, but irrelevance is present in that disquiet as well.

Death was very much the subject of the hour-long interview Whicker conducted with Count Carl Gustaf von Rosen, termed the Pugnacious Pacifist in the titles. As he combined two of the interviewer's interests, air travel and wealthy people, he would be a perfect choice, and so it was, all Alan had to do was ask a handful of pertinent enquiries and the Count would regale him with the tales of his extraordinary life. He was born into a noble Swedish family but paid no attention to school, it was aviation he was interested in, a method of travel still in its infancy. After a period as a stunt pilot, he began his humanitarian works as he disliked war so intensely that he was determined to do everything in his power to help its victims, thus began a career of flying out to war zones and carrying out relief missions. As if that wasn't enough, he was the nephew of Herman Goering which had him arrested as a spy by the British, but also as a spy by the Nazis; he was almost executed by both. His most recent conflict at the time of the programme had been the Nigerian war on Biafra, where he was so disgusted with the Nigerians that he temporarily set aside his pacifism to conduct a do it yourself bombing raid on a military airport of theirs (be warned, there is war footage here that is very gruesome). He would go on to be killed in 1977 in a Somalian raid, a sad end for an unassuming hero who saved many lives in the direst of circumstances. Also, watch out for the blue tit that helps itself to his scones while Whicker chats. So ended the second collection of a valuable insight into the world of the late sixties by one of the finest documentarians of his generation.
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006