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Whicker's Slicker: Whicker's World Vols 3&4 on DVD

  Alan Whicker, that much-imitated and much respected television journalist, an interviewer par excellence, continued his self-titled adventures into 1969 when Europe and Australia beckoned, the presenter targeting his usual array of notable subjects. Whicker in Europe sported an opening sequence where flags of the Continent would merge and turn into one another, though not before we had seen one of those passenger aeroplanes take off, still a status symbol at this point.

France was his first port of call, and the Count Robert-Jean de Vogue, an aristocrat who oversaw the Moet-Chandon empire in the country's Champagne region, where Whicker informs us wine has been made ever since Roman times, though it wasn't until monk Dom Perignon discovered a method of getting bubbles into one particular brand that the most celebrated tipple was created. Whicker is as much fascinated by the drink as he is the Count, littering the half hour with facts and figures, but it is the owner that proves the most intriguing, an effortlessly charming so-called "Red Marquis" thanks to his Communist working practices with his employees that see them getting an excellent deal for operating in his company. Whicker tries to coax out war stories as the Count was a hero of the French Resistance, but he is reluctant, saying those days should be left to the past and we should look to a brighter future, and you understand that while wondering what he had seen, he seems so urbane and genial, not the picture one has of a warrior. He died in 1976. And Whicker manages to find villages called Bouzy and Dizy for a little visual punning.

Second, Italy and one of the Boys' Towns where the nation's orphaned and neglected young boys were taken in by a charitable institution to give them a proper start in life that they would not otherwise have. These were run by the Church, and Whicker settled on Monsignor John Patrick Carroll-Abbing for his interviewee, a man born in Ireland, brought up in England and living in Italy to perform good works for the religious operations there. He has a lot to say for himself, so much so that our host barely gets a word in edgeways for a change, but his philosophy on getting those who need help to help themselves is an interesting one since he agrees that charity is necessary - he would not be there otherwise - yet "a boy who can't work can't eat" so the pupils must learn the value of honest toil, and not only that but how a proper civic duty is carried out too, so there is a special council of boys where their dealings are discussed and budgets allotted. Certainly there are problematic children and teens there, but the Monsignor refuses to use corporal punishment (refreshing considering some of the horror stories these Catholic institutions bred down the years).

Third up is Germany, where Whicker meets one of the richest men in the world, already what he was best known for, conversing with the wealthiest in our societies. He was Prince Johannes von Thurn und Taxis, who may not have been famed at the time outside of his homeland, but would as the seventies went on become a celebrated socialite and gay icon thanks to his professed bisexuality - Whicker does ask him if he is courting as the episode nears its end, but he prefers not to be drawn too far. Visiting him at his palace, the presenter establishes who this man is for the audience, which naturally involves wandering the gilt-edged halls of the building, and making sure we are well aware of just how loaded this guy is (though he would die $500 million in debt in 1990), only the most engaging parts of their chat involve the description of what the Thurn and Taxis family got up to during the Second World War, make life as difficult for the Nazis as possible, essentially. You can detect a camp quality in the Prince's demeanour with his dry sense of humour as yet again the programme strikes gold with its subjects.

Next was another religious man, Pastor Eiliff Krogager, who happened to be one of the richest men in Denmark thanks to his canny business sense that saw him establish a travel agency there. Thanks to his lack of interest in making a huge amount of money for himself, the company flourished as it provided extremely cheap package holidays with the benefits of his frugal nature spent on the journey and accommodation: Whicker informs us a trip to Italy to spend time in a top hotel with all meals laid on would set Brits back twenty-seven shillings, which in today's money would be an unthinkable one pound thirty five pence. No wonder the pastor was so well-off, as he ferried over a million passengers across the skies of Europe and along the roads, and Whicker is most engaged with his computer that manages the entire operation and of course is the size of a small warehouse, but what of the man's holy beliefs, can he be judged a success in those terms when his congregation barely reached twenty parishioners? But here is a man not interested in numbers, and this episode paints a remarkable portrait of him.

Giuseppe Cipriani was the owner of the famed Harry's Bar in Venice, haunt of the great and good after building up its reputation as initially Ernest Hemingway's preferred tavern, though as we see it was more accurately a small restaurant that sold alcohol, including a selection of speciality drinks and dishes. Cipriani, who became nicknamed Harry though he was not who the bar was named after, was an ideal Whicker subject for he had seen so many pass through the doors of not only the celebrated establishment but also the other places he set up with the profits, all dotted around Italy, and he has a lot to say for himself in his curiously Germanic Italian accent (he was brought up in Germany before arriving in Venice). Naturally, there is a canal ride, though in a motorboat rather than a gondola, as Cipriani points out the sights (Whicker tells him he lived there for a year and loved it) and discuss the issue that the entire city is sinking into the water, which the bar owner denies though became a major problem as the seventies wore on. Though modern viewers may balk at "Harry" mentioning he had to "work like a Negro" to make a success of himself, they may be more placated to hear he welcomes homosexuals to his properties in an open-minded move.

To Paris for the sixth episode, and what's this? Topless women?! It’s OK, Alan was mixing with the Bluebell Girls who are marshalled by Margaret Kelly, who tells us of how she got her Bluebell nickname that gave her dance troupe their moniker. She was born in Dublin, then when abandoned by her parents was adopted in Liverpool whereupon she migrated south to eventually end up in the French capital, capitalising on both the locals and the tourists' love of showgirls. Whicker was obviously enjoying himself conversing with the dancers, who are all from Britain, handpicked thanks to their height and ability, rather than their good looks, though that appears to be a factor as well; they have plenty of anecdotes for the camera. That said, there is perhaps little very surprising about what they say - their initial embarrassment at the nudity, who the better audiences are, what their background was, and so on - but it was intriguing to hear them speak anyway, all of them making a small fortune in what for many were their late teens to set them up for the next few years after they retired from the stage. Kelly was a formidable, tough but protective figure when it came to her girls, you wouldn't want to cross her on this evidence. She died in 2004, aged 94.

To Ireland for part seven, and the Honourable Desmond Guinness, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat and son of one of the famed Mitford sisters; as his name suggests, he was also part of the brewing family of the popular pint, though when Whicker caught up with him he had put all that behind him to dedicate himself to good works. In that case, it was the promotion and preservation of Ireland's Georgian architecture which he considered very beautiful, though it had been in sad decline thanks to a lack of funds and a lack of interest from the Irish in what they regarded as a remnant of British rule, or at least that is the impression the programme finds. As Guinness and his first wife, a German Princess, discover, for perceived outsiders they are met with suspicion when the poverty of the nation would seem to be more of a pressing issue than the upkeep of some crumbling stately piles, and an uphill struggle is on the cards, but the good news is his endeavours caught on in the following years and the value of sustaining Irish history and its evidence, no matter how problematic it was regarded, was recognised, with Guinness receiving many awards and titles for his charity work. He strikes the viewer as a sincere and fixated campaigner.

Whicker did not spend all his time in Europe in 1969, as one of his interests was visiting countries which were not best known for their tourist industries, and South America beckoned once again as he travelled to Paraguay, the landlocked nation in the heart of the southern reaches of the continent, for an hour long special. At the time it was ruled over with the traditional iron fist of the lands by General Stroessner, a military man of German heritage who was around fifteen years into his thirty years plus domination of the country; naturally, our presenter sought an interview, but was merely given a sheet of answers to read out by the dictator, which was not exactly what was hoped for. Whicker had better luck when talking with others, mostly immigrants - one cattle farmer had moved there from Croydon some years before, but also with one journalist brave enough to speak up against the regime who observed anyone who complained about the savage human rights abuses would be labelled a Communist, imprisoned, tortured and even executed, and that included the priests. We are given the tour of what looks like a Godforsaken land where smuggling is the main business interest, but Whicker likes the people, if not the typical of the day South American politics.

The following year in 1970, Yorkshire Television allowed the intrepid reporter to go even further afield, as he went on Whicker's Walkabout to Australasia, starting the series with a trip to Norfolk Island in the South Pacific, now the legal territory of Australia but back them largely independent. He explains that the ancestors of the islanders were the mutineers on the Bounty, led by Fletcher Christian, who set up a community on Pitcairn Island that spilled over a number of miles to the south to Norfolk. We get to see the locals at play, having celebratory ceremonies of Bounty Day, their anniversary, in church and so forth, though the majority of the episode was taken up with Girly Christian, direct descendent of Fletcher, who Whicker had interviewed before and was obviously enchanted by her. She had since lost a leg in a riding accident which she describes at horrific length, but what the host could not have known was even more horrifying: in the coming years, news emerged that both islands had been concealing a culture of child sexual abuse reaching back decades, centuries even, which puts an inescapably grim cast on this instalment.

Not a great way to kick things off, in retrospect, but Whicker was not to know. The following episode detailed what happened as a result of his previous visit and report in 1960, which encouraged forty or fifty outsiders to settle there, believing it to be Paradise. We are given the history of the island as a British penal colony, and how when that was wound down the Pitcairn folks arrived, but really this was more a pot pourri of interviews with the inhabitants of a place where there were no taxes for the residents, but there were no sewers, rubbish was thrown in the sea, cars were few as were roads, two policemen took care of everything to do with legal matters, more so than with crime (an attraction is that back then crime was believed to be non-existent - how times changed), and so on. The head of the tax avoidance schemes that saw many companies register there was interviewed and came across as a slippery customer, but the most revealing was at the end where the gravedigger, a Bounty descendant judging by his unique accent, observed that Norfolk Island may be a Paradise, but it was also "Hell on Earth": what did he mean?

On to the mainland for the third part, where Whicker interviewed those who were perhaps not typical of the Australian population, but were considered entertaining enough for our host to chat with for a few minutes, starting with a cleaning lady who dressed her six-foot frame in skimpy bikinis as she went about her business. The point was that as far as Brits were concerned, this was an unlikely appearance for such a job, but she convinced us there was more to her than that, as did the wealthy 61-year-old miner who had lived quite a life thanks to her love of rocks, as she put it, rolling out the yarns that were bread and butter to Whicker about carrying a gun for protection or her 24 years junior husband. An expatriate publisher from Wales delineated the censorships problems he faced (which sounded more offensive than the material), a gambler who has been banned from every racetrack in the world related what it was like to be shot in the stomach and have the bullet emerge from your behind, and a radio preacher with a phone-in agony uncle show debated whether he was exploitative and prurient or not.

Fourth up were the American immigrants regarding the Australian bush of the north as the last great frontier to be tamed, much as their forebears had in the Wild West of yore. Here we see the benefits of Whicker's softly softly, urbane approach to his subjects, as it quickly became clear many of these men, now ranchers on cheap, reclaimed from nature land, had extremely offensive views and the presenter, who made it a badge of honour he was willing to listen to anyone of any creed or colour or opinions as long as they gave him a decent interview, was able to draw out of them these prejudices and expose them as the bigots they were. These men did not like what the United States government was doing to bring in Civil Rights legislation which they saw as the thin end of the wedge for Communism to break through, something that has never happened in American politics and nor is it likely to, and though they were careful not to alienate their guest, it was clear they couldn't bottle up their racism for too long and Whicker highlighted it by the close of their discussions. The fact Australia had its own issues with the Aborigines didn't seem to bother them.

Australian women were the fifth topic, or rather how poorly treated they were by Australian men, mostly in the social realm, but with references to the deep inequalities between them as far as the law went as well. Whicker lined up a selection of commentators on this, from the ex-Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty who has a number of waspish observations that obviously delighted the reporter, to the biggest female television star in the country who is equally unvarnished, both of whom fit the more forthright idea of what the Aussie women would be like. However, they demurred, informing us that the men there were far more interested in "mateship", hanging out with other men and solely mixing with the opposite sex when they really had to, aware they were taking time away from drinking beer with their friends who they could actually talk to. Whicker cast an amused eye over these battles of the sexes, but he was not unaware of the more serious implications, that you had an entire half of the population who were being neglected and even ignored when they could be making valid and vital contributions. You like to assume life has progressed there since.

On a different tack, more serious, was an hour-long special on Broken Hill, isolated mining town in the deserts of Southern Australia which had, as Whicker's team arrived, been the focus of national news when three visiting journalists were beaten up there. The reason? Same as why the presenter was there, they wanted to investigate the location's powerful labour movement and found the locals were not amenable to outsiders poking their noses in to their business. Whicker, with his polite manner, managed to get further to file this report where he described a place which was run as a dictatorship not unlike one of the Eastern European Communist nations, all in the face of Australian laws they refused to bow to. There was little unemployment, which was a plus, but there was nothing an employer could do if the employee was not pulling their weight - sackings were an ostracising offence, even for the worst behaviour. Then there was the suicide rates among young wives, who found themselves trapped and useless for they were not allowed to work and their husbands spent all their time in the mines or the all-day pubs. The restrictions were suffocating, and the interview with the patriarch Joe Keenan that ended the programme intimidating.

Back to the half hour format and Whicker's Walkabout part six considered the prospect of Australian culture, and whether there was more to it than what had been imported from that halfway point between Britain and America. From somewhat caustic interviews, the impression appears to be that the culture is of mediocrity, where sport and gambling are the chief matters to be discussed, preferably over a beer, and the author and activist Frank Hardy, who wrote one of the first Australian novels to be taken seriously on the world stage, Power Without Glory, has some particularly withering words for his homeland, accusing the white population of, among other things, being secretly racist about the indigenous population, and maybe not all that secretly. We see a fox hunt where nobody catches a fox, and more bizarrely a meeting of the Limp Fallers Association, started by cartoonist Paul Rigby, involving toppling over in a public place for a laugh: Alan is caught up in a mass collapse and showered with beer in the process (!). You do wonder if the commentators are not being a shade harsh, but there are none so critical about a place than those who come from there, one supposes.

Finally on his excursion Down Under, Whicker related the stories of the mining operations of Western Australia, starting with a brief bit on those lone, hardy souls who persevered with the abandoned gold mines in the territory, and then on to the new variation on the gold rush, the nickel rush, where vast tracts of land were snapped up by large corporations from the Aborigines for around fifty dollars per transaction, which was a lot for the locals, but a pittance compared to how many millions of dollars those companies made on their mines, underlining the way the indigenous people were screwed over yet again. Whicker offered diversions into the social life of one town at the heart of the industry, where if you were not gambling or drinking you were visiting the brothel; this was permitted because it apparently kept the numbers of rapes down to almost nothing. But the programme chose to end on one of the Aborigines whose tale was a tragic one: cuckolded by his wife with a younger man, he had murdered her and now, once his prison sentence was over, he was set to return home and an almost certain revenge killing.

These two series have been released by Network in two volumes of double DVD packs, following on from the first pair of volumes. They represent some of the finest reportage of their era.
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006