1. Best for tortured self-revelation
Does John Freeman interview Gilbert Harding, Face to Face, BBC, 1960 Harding was one of television’s first “personalities”, a blimpish, sozzled panellist on a parlour game called What’s My Line? where a celebrity panel had to guess civilians’ jobs. Harding, who told a contestant, “I am tired of looking at you,” played the rude panellist. Freeman was a chillingly urbane former Labour MP who went on to be our man in Washington. In a career hiatus, he interviewed guests to death on TV — almost literally so in the case of Harding who died two months after their encounter of an asthma attack outside Broadcasting House. Under third-degree lighting and ruthless close-up, Harding wept for his dead mother after Freeman wondered whether he had ever seen a corpse. This was widely taken as the affirmative answer to Freeman’s urgently hinted but carefully unlocalised inquiry “Are you homosexual?”
2. Best for trial by television
David Frost interviews Emil Savundra, The Frost Programme, ITV, 1967 By this time the That Was The Week That Was compere had moved from, as it were, the satirical pages of Private Eye to its gotcha investigative sections. His Frost Programme is rightly remembered for its demolition of Savundra, a serial swindler from Sri Lanka vaguely mixed up in the Profumo business. Frost began with a graphic explaining his latest fraud, a low-premium/low-pay-out car insurance racket. Egged on by an audience of angry, and in one case widowed, creditors — “peasants”, Savundra called them — Frost took his defence apart with forensic wit. Savundra remained calm, arrogant and amused, helped by a pre-show shot of pethidine, but his life of crime was over within weeks. As the credits rolled, the studio echoed to “Well done, Frostier!”
Michael Parkinson interviewing Muhammad Ali
3. Best for machismo
Michael Parkinson interviews Muhammad Ali, Parkinson, BBC One, 1971 A headline writer previewed it as “Perky Parky v the Louisville Lip”. The first of their four bouts, took place six months after Ali lost his “fight of the century” with Joe Frazier. Parkinson was still on the way up, in year one of his Saturday night chat show’s 11-year run. The presenter was in awe but had done his pre-fight prep. At one point he quipped that he was not going to argue with Ali. “Then you’re not as dumb as you look,” the boxer replied — but it was an old-line and Parky knew he merely had to set it up. In the end, Ali achieved poetry: “I love your show, and I like your style/ But your pay is so cheap I won’t be back for a while!” He was.
David Frost and President Richard Nixon talk before filming
4. Best for a reluctant apology
David Frost interviews Richard Nixon, The Nixon Interviews, syndicated, 1977 The most disgraced of all disgraced US presidents inspired a John Adams opera, but it was Frost who inspired a Peter (The Crown) Morgan play and movie. Frost/Nixon took a few liberties with the Brit’s interviews with Pennsylvania Avenue’s ousted crook — for example, the dream-like late-night phone call between the ex-president and his inquisitor — but it caught the encounter’s heft. Frost’s career was in the doldrums. Nixon’s was sunk. Both had more to gain than lose. Off-air, Nixon tried to throw Frost by asking if he had done “any fornicating this weekend”. Frost kept his cool. After hours of self-justification, Nixon blurted: “I let down my friends. I let down the country. I let down our system of government.”
An inebriated Oliver Reed kisses author Kate Millett on After Dark
5. Best for booze
Helena Kennedy interviews Oliver Reed, After Dark, Channel 4, 1991 After Dark was unusual in having no regular or dominant presenter, an open-ended format and free access to alcohol for its guests. In this Saturday night discussion on male violence, the latter was Reed’s downfall, albeit one heavily foreshadowed by the actor’s secondary career in drunken chat show misbehaviour. The American feminist Kate Millett objected when he kissed her. She called him a bully. Kennedy, a barrister, asked Reed to leave and he did. After a hoax call of complaint, the programme was taken off air for 20 minutes and the regular series was cancelled at the end of the season. Reed died eight years later after a still more spectacular drinking bout. Alcoholism is never funny, but it would take a heart of stone not to enjoy this late-night escapade.
6. Best for weirdness
Oprah Winfrey interviews Michael Jackson, Oprah, ABC, 1993 Winfrey asked Jackson what it felt like to hear so many people scream his name at concerts. “Love,” he replied — and it may have been the nearest the Moonwalker ever got to an innocent sense of it in his adult life. This was the icon’s first interview in 14 years and is still the most-watched TV interview yet — seen by 100 million. In it, he owned up to his repeated plastic surgeries, his problems with his father and his ever whiter skin (a medical condition was to blame). She asked him if he was a virgin. “I’m a gentleman,” he replied. “That’s private.” After his death, Winfrey said she had “really, really liked him” for his “honesty”. Today she says she has “never wavered” in her support for those who accuse him of paedophilia.
Princess Diana being interviewed by Martin Bashir
7. Best for lèse-majesté
Martin Bashir interviews Princess Diana, Panorama, BBC One, 1995 On November 20, 1995, 23 million people watched an edition of Panorama. This was not usual. ITV’s News at Ten had no response but to air clips as it went out. The estranged wife of the heir to the throne let the Palace have it. Some phrases — surely written by unknown hands — instantly entered the quotation books: “I’d like to be a queen of people’s hearts”; “There were three of us in this marriage.” The next day the nation felt the monarchy wobble. Twenty-five years on the interview raises other issues. How did the unknown Bashir get the scoop? If by foul means, is that why the BBC so rarely broadcasts even excerpts? A big interview now would be with the interviewer, but he is too poorly.
Barbara Walters and Monica Lewinsky
AP PHOTO/VIRGINIA SHERWOOD/ABC NEWS
8. Best for the prurient
Barbara Walters interviews Monica Lewinsky, 20/20, ABC, 1999 For a while, a low-ranking White House official named Monica Lewinsky was the most famous woman in the world. Four months after arriving as an intern the 22- year-old was having an affair with its most powerful man. The relationship got President Clinton impeached. Two years after the technically unconsummated relationship ended, American television’s confessor in chief, Barbara Walters, had her wicked way with Lewinsky and attracted 70 million American viewers. Few were minded to offer her redemption despite apologies to Hillary, Chelsea and the nation. Walters asked what she would tell her children. “Mommy made a big mistake,” she replied. Lewinsky, now 47, has not had children. At least we think not: wisely she no longer talks about her private life.
9. Best service to democracy
Katie Couric interviews Sarah Palin, CBS Evening News, 2008Two years after being poached from NBC’s Today show, Katie Couric still struggled as the anchor of the CBS Evening News. The world’s highest-paid journalist was presiding over America’s third-placed nightly newscast. In 2008, however, bigger question marks hovered over the even more miscast 44-year-old governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, who had become 72-year-old John McCain’s choice of presidential running mate. Some said she suffered from inexperience. From Couric’s questions, it certainly found no hiding place. Alaska, the potential commander in chief said, kept its eye on Russia as it was its “next-door neighbour”. What papers did she read? “Um, all of ’em, any of ’em.” Couric kept her job for another three years. Palin left frontline politics and went on to star as Bear on The Masked Singer.
10. Best for republicans
Emily Maitlis interviews Prince Andrew, Newsnight, BBC Two, 2019 As has frequently been remarked, the oddest thing is that after it was all over Prince Andrew thought he had done rather well. Maitlis’s over-arching allegation was that the prince had got too close to Jeffrey Epstein and his sex-trafficked women. His defence was detailed but absurd: he was no longer able to perspire; there had been a children’s party on one of the days in question at Woking Pizza Express (Trip Advisor reviews now suspended); he was a victim of his enhanced sense of “honour”. Had Maitlis led the grand old Duke of York up the garden path or had he blindly wandered there all by himself? She certainly was not about to escort him back to safety. Poor Oprah will be pushed to get a better interview out of the Sussexes.