The veteran reporter Alan Whicker reflects on 50 years of travel around the world’s hotspots...
Alan Whicker, coloured handkerchief in the breast pocket of a checked sports-jacket over a roll-necked sweater, sat upright on the sofa in a £1,300-a-night, 15th-floor suite of a Knightsbridge hotel and talked of unlucky deaths.
At 83, he is writing his fourth autobiography, to go with a series on his 50 years in television.
He had just got as far as his arrival in Japan on his way to cover the Korean war in 1950. In a Tokyo hotel bar he met Christopher Buckley, the brilliant Daily Telegraph war reporter. Newly married, Buckley was hankering for a period of peace.
Next morning both men flew to Korea. An hour later Buckley's Jeep hit a land mine and he was killed.
Whicker too was reported killed on that tour, so he cabled his office: "Unkilled. Uninjured. Onpressing."
He onpresses still, his itinerary as pressed as his slacks.
Forty years ago he interviewed Percy Shaw, the man who made millions by inventing catseyes. On film, Shaw sat in Spartan surroundings comforted by bottled beer and the memory of paid-for sex. Shaw asked as many questions as he answered, one being how Whicker would feel when he was 80. Whicker replied then that he did not think he would make it to 80. Now he laughs at the memory.
No, but really, how does Whicker feel about death now? "I don't think it's right for me."
Alan Whicker is so practised as the straight man whose interviewees reveal weird foibles for the camera that he is devilish hard to probe. Favourite drink? Not martini, wine. Any country he regrets not visiting? Kashmir – there was a war on. He is guarded.
Whole sentences echo passages in previous memoirs word for word.
His apotheosis was the Monty Python "Whicker Island" sketch ("Where the clichés sparkle on the water …"). That was 37 years ago. To anyone over 50 he is synonymous with fame. For the young, the memory of all those artfully alliterative travelogues is absent and that strange, nasal sing-song delivery does not immediately transport them to the world Whicker brought to millions of living rooms.
The real Whicker, aged 21, in sunglasses outside the Danieli in Venice, looked middle-aged; now he seems little changed, though his clipped moustache bristles white. Was his taste in dress always lamentable or is it merely that all 1970s clothes now pain the eye? Whatever the taste, neatness was the theme: suit and tie in the tropics or in Alaska. "I think it's what you feel comfortable with, really. If you're summoned to somebody's home, you've got to be reasonably respectful."
There is an ambiguity about his interviews, between respect and intrusion. He got under the skin of creepy dictators like Duvalier of Haiti even while he was mocked for specialising in the rich and famous. When asked what flavour Whicker's world has, he replies "Decency. Straight bat."
The irony is not detectable in his tone.
Interviewing is "doing what comes naturally. And you hope that what's natural is the right thing, and you're not going to go away and be ashamed."
In his new series, black and white footage shows the chilling moment when Paul Getty, in 1964 the world's richest man, suddenly states with unchanging hangdog demeanour that a close friend died that morning. Today, Whicker recalls that he felt like stopping the interview. "You want to run and hide. I felt I was a little bit unkind to him."
Yet it is classic television, comparable to John Freeman's Face to Face interview in 1959 when he made the celebrity Gilbert Harding weep by unwittingly touching on his mother's very recent death. "Freeman was admirable – not lovable, but admirable," Whicker remembers.
Whicker himself made Robin Douglas-Home cry on television, in an interview ostensibly about divorce. But Douglas-Home was depressive and killed himself shortly afterwards.
More snippets come from Whicker's first television career on the 1950s nightly BBC magazine programme Tonight. He puffed along beside an Olympic walker or questioned a postman on the eccentric numbering of a terrace in Hexham. The years and continents since have, in a way, been more Tonight interviews – with richer people in more exotic places.
Whicker hardly has roots. He was born in Cairo because his father stayed there after serving in the First World War. His father died when he was three, leaving no memories. "It's only now," he says, "that I realise what an admirable character my mother was. Strong, sensitive. She brought me up without any headaches."
After drifting through Haberdashers' Aske's School "without sentimentality", Whicker went to war, undergoing officer selection aged 16. He behaved courageously and, like many of the best of his generation, fell into journalism.
The turning point was Venice, where he ran a Forces newspaper for the Eighth Army. He still feels proprietorial about the city.
"You always do, if you're at all susceptible to anything Venetian. I was enormously happy because at the end of the war I spent almost a year living there. It was the most perfect place." Between the alternatives, he very definitely prefers people to places, but Venice meant more than escorting contessas in a motor-launch. He has never stayed away for long since. "Every time one goes back, one is as enchanted as ever."
His new series shows him in pink shirt and pink sweater making for Harry's Bar for a pink Bellini and a saccharine conversation with a happy manager. This is mere wallpaper. In conversation now he is more interesting, recalling a chance meeting there with Jan Morris, a travel writer he admires, and Jan's former wife.
Whicker himself never married. The company of women has always meant a lot to him, hasn't it? "Oh yes. That's all right. No headaches there." By not marrying, he has, paradoxically, remained constant for 40 years to Valerie Kleeman, who, stylish and active, sits on the coffee-table during our interview.
"We've been enormously happy and haven't felt the need to marry," he says. That arrangement was more unusual 40 years ago than now, wasn't it? "No doubt. Yes, yes," he says, and lapses into silence.
Valerie met Alan in 1969, after his three-year affair with the extraordinary Olga Deterding. Olga was an oil heiress once as famous as any Hello! celebrity now. She was bulimic, dependent on tranquillisers, and given to sudden travel and outrageous behaviour such as sitting in a brasserie window naked. Jennifer Paterson once told me that Olga experimented with witch-hazel cocktails.
She proposed to Whicker in 1966. She made him her heir; meanwhile, he paid. "She blended into my establishment," he recalls, "living in my apartment, driving in my Bentley, using my clubs, attended to by my housekeeper. She rarely had to open her handbag."
Life in his Regent's Park flat was not easy. One night she smashed his marble lamp-stands; another she slashed her wrists and the bath seemed full of blood. Then she left, taking the furniture and changing her will. She died a decade later after choking on a piece of steak.
Olga belonged to Whicker's fastest, busiest phase. He was making a Whicker's World every month for three years, and then pulled off a deal to set up Yorkshire Television.
Valerie was to accompany him to increasingly calm waters on his own Whicker island of Jersey. "I am a happy man," Whicker says.
In the new series we see him decades ago interviewing a convent full of Poor Clare nuns, who kick about a football during recreation with the bare feet that are part of their chosen way of life. "Aren't they lovely. Sweet. The terrible thing is they've all passed on."
Has religion meant much to him?
"Sadly not. Not enough. I wish it had. We've got a new rector at Jersey, who does nothing for me. So I'm further out than I was. The fatal date is approaching."
By Christopher Howse
Published: 2:59PM GMT 16 Mar 2009
C/O The Daily Telegraph