Last night saw the first of a new four part series celebrating Alan Whicker’s remarkable fifty years on television. The show sees the TV legend off round the world on a journey of remembrance as much as celebration during which he reflects on his incredibly varied life and career.
In this first episode, Whicker revisited Venice, a city of massive significance and one that’s apparently very close to his heart. He retraced his steps from war to peace, from soldier to Fleet Street journalist, and then his subsequent move into the fledgling world of television.
Included in this episode were Whicker’s earliest surviving TV appearance, an in-depth profile of both John Paul Getty, Baroness Fiona Thyssen, and Alan’s legendary encounter with millionaire Yorkshireman – and general ‘eccentric’ – Percy Shaw, the man who invented the cats’ eyes which illumine our roads…
And we heard the remarkable story of how Alan became the first man to enter a closed and silent order of nuns, and got them to talk to him, during the course of which, they were filmed giggling like schoolgirls as the charming Alan quizzed them about their lives.
As the show began, we saw the veteran presenter on a train where he told us he’d be revisiting some of the many places around the world he’s been to, however, the majority of the footage turned out to be archive stuff… nothing wrong with that per se, it was highly enjoyable nostalgia, but I suppose I was expecting more of the show to be given over to new footage.
So by putting together old footage with new commentary, we heard about how Alan’s career has progressed from relatively humble beginnings – as a journalist for Cliff Michelmore’s Tonight programme – to hosting dozens of his own jet-set shows.
Alan was and still is an archetypal genteel English gentleman with his neatly trimmed moustache, dashing ties, an eye for the ladies, a taste for vintage champagne and a very much now requited yearning for travel and last night, we saw how that longing to “see the world” commuted into his first filmed travels during the fifties and swinging sixties.
One of his revisits was, as I mentioned earlier, to Venice and ‘Harry’s Bar’ where he met with the now rather elderly son of the barman who’d served Alan first time round! Wearing a daring shade of pink sweatshirt over pink polo top, Alan reminisced how he’s always wanted a Venetian apartment and how much he wishes he’d bought one back then when the price of “a palace on the grand canal would’ve been the same as a few rooms” now.
While much has changed over the last fifty years, Alan hasn’t lost his wit and ability to produce irony filled one-liners… I was amused when, while musing over his missing the chance to buy Venetian real estate, he announced stoically, “Not even nostalgia’s as good as it used to be.”
That said, I felt there was a certain tinge of sadness in Alan’s commentary while in Venice… he talked about this now being the autumn, if not winter, of his life and that trademark jauntiness in his voice was conspicuous by its absence.
However, getting back to what’s changed in the last fifty years, part of what’s changed is society’s attitude to race – fortunately – and where all those years ago, nobody batted an eye when Alan asked a group of girls, “Would you go out with a coloured boy?” he’d be in deep doodoo if he asked the same question now.
But that aside, it was interesting to see how people from all walks of life seemed to happily tell Alan all sorts of secrets over the years; for instance, how many people other than Alan could get John Paul Getty to talk about his lack of success with women, his problems interacting socially in general and his meanness with money – which was summed up by the fact he had payphones installed in his house – and get footage of this most famous of super-rich men lifting weights while in a suit!
And despite what may have seemed a grumble about the archive footage, it wasn’t truly a grumble and it was really fascinating to see grainy, cinefilm images of people and places Alan’s encountered over the last half a century. These included interviews with some of the world’s most rich, glamorous and sexy women, all of whom seemed to flirt outrageously with him!
As an aside, the Monty Python team used to have great fun at Alan’s expense, but he took it all in the spirit it was intended and in various interviews has said he enjoyed the Python ‘send ups’. Here’s a clip from one of them…
And finally, here’s a brief clip from some of Alan’s travels…
It was lovely to see Alan again and equally lovely to see his old footage – what an amazing life he’s had!