The Whicker files: what Alan Whicker kept from a life of globe-trotting

Ahead of a centenary celebration of Alan Whicker at BFI Southbank, we dig into the personal files of the broadcaster whose old-school good manners and hugely popular TV programmes took viewers across the planet and into many remarkable encounters.

4 August 2021

Alan Whicker

Born in Cairo a century ago on 2 August 1921, household name Alan Whicker was famed for his daring and insightful interviews as an investigative television reporter. Innovative and adventurous, crossing continents and TV channels in a career that spanned six decades, Whicker had one of the most enduring and influential careers in British television history, helping to remap the frontiers of long-form TV documentary.

With a journalist’s nose for a story, his mission was to inform and to entertain, never preach. Whicker’s name became a by-word for brilliantly crafted and revealing studies of people and places, traversing a rapidly changing world, from South America to South East Asia, California to the Caribbean, and meeting people from all walks of life along the way. 

Whether exploring behind the scenes of the Miss World competition, interviewing François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, the notorious Haitian dictator, exposing the lifestyles of the hippies of San Francisco, or meeting Hollywood royalty, Whicker’s deceptively conversational style encouraged intimate revelations from the great, the good and the not so good, his penetrating questions masked in old-school good manners.

Often ahead of his time, Whicker covered a huge range of subjects reflecting all aspects of 20th-century culture, politics and history. His reports on divorce, women’s rights, gay marriage and racial inequality and much else changed attitudes, and, in some cases, changed the law. At the height of his popularity, Whicker’s programmes commanded audiences of 15 million people.

Whicker’s papers were donated to the BFI National Archive in 2016 by Valerie Kleeman, his partner in life and work, on behalf of the Whicker’s World Foundation. A unique and meticulous record of his career and lifelong obsession with watching the world, the Alan Whicker collection includes transcripts, notes, diaries, handwritten question cards, correspondence, research and photographs. Spanning the years 1938 to 2014, it gives an insider’s view of some of the key events, social trends and personalities of the 20th century, across Whicker’s career, while fully documenting the changing world of television reportage.

Here are some highlights to give us an insight into his life and work, with captions by Whicker’s radio producer, Jane Ray.

Whicker’s entry card to receive his CBE

Entry pass for Alan Whicker’s investiture at Buckingham Palace on 22 March 2005
BFI National Archive/Alan Whicker collection

Although his journalist friends and contemporaries David Frost and Michael Parkinson received knighthoods, Whicker was not unaware that choosing to live on an off-shore island – Jersey – meant it was unlikely that he would be so honoured by the British establishment. Being awarded the CBE was therefore a huge honour, and the after-party in a Kensington hotel was so good that no one can now remember which hotel it was.

Whicker’s passport

Open pages of Alan Whicker’s passport showing his portrait and signature
Alan Whicker’s passport
BFI National Archive/Alan Whicker collection

One of the very few of Whicker’s passports with his correct date of birth. It’s interesting that his occupation is shown as ‘writer’ rather than broadcaster. His earliest ambition was to be a writer, not a TV star, and words always remained paramount. 

His distinctive signature looks like it finishes in an exclamation mark. Very Alan! It’s exactly how he signed off numerous faxes to the BBC Documentary Unit. They kept hold of their fax machine long after other departments, just in case Whicker needed to get in touch.

Pile of Alan Whicker’s well-worn passports
BFI National Archive/Alan Whicker collection

From this well-worn clutch of passports we can see that his first name initial was ‘D’ for Donald. Alan was his middle name.

Whicker’s certificate for appearing with Morecambe and Wise

Alan Whicker’s certificate for appearing with Morecambe and Wise
BFI National Archive/Alan Whicker collection

Whicker first met Morecambe and Wise in the 1960s while interviewing Tony Hancock. He adored them. In 1982 the three of them created a programme together for Thames Television using the name of the duo’s TV series, Two of a Kind. This programme is now preserved in the BFI National Archive.

Transcription

Let every man, and woman, know that our trusty servant Alan Whicker, having been commanded by us to appear as a guest on our show for Thames Television in their fair studio at Teddingtonne Locke in the County of Middlesex, did so appear and did comport himself or herself so bravely that the vast congregation which witnessed the event upon their television screens were mightily amused.

Given under our hands this 19th day of December 1982.

Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise.

P.S. Your cheque is in the post.

Whicker’s cue cards for interviewing Sean Connery

Alan Whicker’s cue cards for interview with Sean Connery
BFI National Archive/Alan Whicker collection

In 1967 the plan was to interview Sean Connery, aka James Bond, on location in Tokyo for You Only Live Twice. Whicker prepared meticulously for every interview, using colour-coded cue cards, but when it came to it he never took them out of his pocket, preferring to follow his instinct. With Connery he found not the suave and arrogant Bond but a shy former milkman with a nice line in humour.

Whicker writing “Don’t mind being a bit ridiculous – Ideas?” shows that he was quite prepared to send himself up to entertain his audience. The Aston Martin suggestion is also very typical – Whicker loved beautiful cars and had a collection of Bentleys at his home in Jersey. 

Transcription

In the Bond formula you have each time to out-do your old tricks. What are the basic ingredients you are offering the public? (guns and girls, danger, sex, sadism.)

What do you say when people suggest that the Bond films are not only immoral but corrupting?

That even for a good citizen to kill under orders without question is a Nazi philosophy.

What sort of films would you like to make?

Whicker’s press ID card as war correspondent

Alan Whicker’s press ID card as war correspondent with ‘general build’ given as ‘Splendid!’ and ‘distinctive marks’ given as ‘The beard’
Alan Whicker’s war correspondent press ID card
BFI National Archive/Alan Whicker collection

Here’s the evidence that Whicker tampered with his own birth date, changing the 21 to a 25 and becoming four years younger. The comedy around his ‘build’ and his ‘beard’, as well as the trademark exclamation mark, are all classic Alan. Even in the horror of reporting the Korean war, he retained a sense of fun.  

Whicker’s cue cards for interviewing François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, the Haitian dictator

Alan Whicker’s cue card for interview with Papa Doc, the president of Haiti 1957-71
BFI National Archive/Alan Whicker collection

Again Whicker prepared his questions meticulously even though, when he arrived in Haiti in 1969, there were rumours that the notorious dictator François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier was probably dead, and if not, Whicker soon would be. Whicker got his man, but the very last question, “Mr President, they say you murder people”, never made it to air because the film ran out. 

Transcription

How do you see your own character, Mr President? Would you say you were a ruthless man?

Do you believe that any of your enemies, your political opponents remain within the country?

It’s estimated that 100,00 Haitians have fled abroad into exile…

In addition to thrown-out the British and United States ambassadors – you also threw-out the Catholic archbishop?

You were telling me that the United States and British ambassadors didn’t understand your country… I believe the British version is that foreign embassies were objecting to your tontons macoutes trying to extort money from them by threats… (as doyen of the diplomatic corps here, the British ambassador objected…)

These tontons macoutes seem to have caused a lot of terror, a lot of fear – if they don’t get paid, how do they live?

It’s alleged, of course, that they get money by armed extortion…?

You must be aware that they have created an atmosphere of terror – and that a lot of people remain terrorised?

Your only explanation of the unique chorus of disapproval from the international press is that all the writers have been bribed…?

With respect, Mr President, I have never in my life even heard it alleged that a British journalist has been bribed – and I’m sure the same applies to United States journalism… It’s hard to believe that an honourable profession has turned venal in your case alone…

Whicker’s World circular jigsaw puzzle

Whicker’s World circular puzzle
BFI National Archive/Alan Whicker collection

Throughout his career Whicker’s popularity led to a host of merchandise from jigsaws and board games to plush Whicker dolls and Cockney rhyming slang ‘Whickers Knickers’ knick knacks. This jigsaw looks like vintage early 70s Alan. He would have appreciated the shape. He liked to see things in the round. He took no sides.


You can also explore a new collection of 100 programmes spanning Alan Whicker’s career free in the BFI Southbank Mediatheque.

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