September 12

Donald Sinden: “I thought my knighthood letter was a wind-up!”

Sad to hear today of the passing of Sir Donald Sinden, an actor of great range and depth. His career encompassed films like The Cruel Sea, extensive stage work, TV comedy like Never The Twain.

I interviewed him first as a young reporter when he appeared at the Chichester Festival Theatre. An imposing and seemingly rather grand figure, he was nevertheless, utterly charming and not remotely stuffy. I last spoke to him 12 years ago when he appeared in the BBC drama Judge John Deed. He was his usual jolly and ebullient self. Here’s the piece:

Veteran actor Sir Donald Sinden‘s interest in Britain’s legal system goes way beyond simply playing a judge in the BBC One drama series Judge John Deed.

In fact he likes nothing better than whiling away a few hours in a court room watching a gritty real-life case and reckons a seat in the public gallery at a good court case can be the best free ticket in town for entertainment value.

“I’m enormously interested in the law,” says Donald. “I go to watch cases quite frequently and find them absolutely fascinating. I’ve been dozens of times over the years.

“I was on a tour abroad recently and I went to see cases in Sydney and Melbourne because I like to see how different countries operate their legal systems.”

Donald recently took his 22-year-old grandson Hal to see a case. “I thought it was time he was introduced to the seamier side of London life,” he laughs. “So I took him off to The Old Bailey.

“A friend of mine is a judge there so I telephoned him and he said he had a very boring case on but he said he’d which court had a interesting one going on!

“So when we arrived we were told to go to court sixteen which had a rather juicy murder case being heard of a young man who had [allegedly] kicked his drug dealer to death.

“During the afternoon there was a break and the defence counsel saw me and came rushing over and said: ‘You gave me such a shock when you walked in earlier.’

“I said: ‘Why?’ and he said: ‘Well this morning the prosecution counsel opened the case with a real histrionic display as he described the murder scene and all the blood and brains splattered on the floor.

“‘So when I rose I accused him of behaving like Donald Sinden – and I thought you’d heard about this!’ He’d meant that the other barrister had presented his case in a very theatrical fashion. I thought it was very funny!”

Donald‘s character in Judge John Deed is an appeal court judge Sir Joseph  Channing, John Deed’s ex-father in law, and a man very different to Deed, who has a reputation as a progressive and an independent thinker.

“Sir Joseph is a rather right-wing, blustering and very much of the old school,” says Donald. “That makes him poles apart from John Deed both politically and in their attitude towards the law.

“And socially Sir Joseph is quite upper class whereas John Deed is a working class boy made good and every time they meet they try to get along but very quickly rub each other up the wrong way.”

Donald has a soft spot for Sir Joseph. “He’s not a nasty man,” he says. “He’s a product of his generation and all his life he has worked studiously for the good of the legal system.

“He’s honest and straightforward and none of his cases have ever been overturned. It’s just that whereas John Deed would put someone on probation, Sir Joseph would sentence them to hard labour if he could!”

Donald‘s 60-year career has encompassed a wide variety of work including films like wartime classic The Cruel Sea and The Day of the Jackal to comedies like Doctor In The House and TV sitcoms like Never The Twain.

He was knighted in 1997 – but didn’t believe it at first. “It was lovely,” he says. “It was a complete shock and when I received the letter from Downing Street I thought it was a wind-up!  “You have to reply saying whether you will accept the honour. I was worried it might get lost in the post so I delivered it by hand to Number 10. The policeman recognised me and let me in the gate.

“As I approached it that famous Number 10 door opened and an arm came out and took the letter. I never did find out if the arm was attached to the door or a person!”

Donald, who has been married to his wife Diana for more than fifty years, was 79 last month but has no plans to retire. “Actors don’t retire,” he laughs.  “I’m still enjoying it and doing work like Judge John Deed is a joy.”  

September 1

My interview about interviews with Sir David Frost

I was very sad to hear of the death of Sir David Frost. I was lucky enough to meet and interview him last year about a BBC Four series he was presenting on the art of the television interview.

As I have written today in this piece for the Daily Mirror, Sir David was charming, generous with his time – and fascinating to talk to. I consider myself very privileged to have met him.

While we mourn the passing of a extraordinarily talented man, my thoughts are with his family.

Here’s the piece I wrote at time to go with the BBC Four series, which will hopefully be repeated soon along with a season of his finest work, including, of course, his famous interviews with Richard Nixon.

 

Interview with Sir David Frost

(c) Steve Clark 2013. All Rights Reserved

From fawning fifties fireside chats with political leaders, through relaxed conversations with Hollywood stars to fiery Jeremy Paxman-style interrogations, the television interview has come a long way over the past six decades.

For more than 40 of those years Sir David Frost has been grilling
presidents, prime ministers and film stars, using his unique mix of charm and incisive questioning to get them to talk frankly.

Tonight the veteran broadcaster takes a look at the evolution of the television interview for new BBC Four programme, Frost on Interviews.

In addition to commentary from David – whose 1977 interviews with
shamed American president Richard Nixon were voted The Best Television
Interview of All Time in a poll last year and were the basis for a
film, Frost/Nixon – many other leading interviewers offer their take
on the genre.

They include Michael Parkinson, Joan Bakewell, Melyvn Bragg, Ruby Wax
and Clive Anderson plus there is archive footage of classic interview
moments with Francis Bacon, Margaret Thatcher, Muhammad Ali, Anthony
Eden, Cher, Dennis Potter and – of course – Frost’s own famous clash
with Richard Nixon.

“On the surface it the television interview is a very simple format:
two people sitting across from one another and having a conversation,”
says David. “But underneath it’s often a power struggle, a battle for
the psychological advantage with both sides trying to hold on to the
initiative.”

Back in the early fifties, when television was still in its infancy,
the interview was little more than an opportunity for the interviewee
– particularly politicians – to say whatever they wanted, with
deferential interviewers doing little in the way of asking searching
questions.

That began to change in the late fifties when presenters – many of
them on the newly created ITV’s Independent Television News including
a young Robin Day – began challenging political leaders in a way never
seen before.

Then in 1959 came Face to Face, a BBC interview programme presented by
former politician John Freeman, who quizzed famous faces, among them
comedian Tony Hancock and civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King,
in great detail.

“Face to Face was a pioneering format and Freeman’s incisive
interviewing style had a huge influence on many people including me,”
says David. “Stark lighting and extreme close-ups created the
atmosphere of a psychoanalysts couch. He set the standard for the
personal personality interview.”

In the mid-sixties David Frost landed his own talk show The Frost
Programme and his interviewees included British fascist leader Sir
Oswald Mosley and Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith. 1969 saw him
land his own US show The David Frost Show and his guests included
everyone from John Lennon to boxer Muhammad Ali.

Back in the UK Michael Parkinson’s eponymous talk show began in 1971
and attracted the biggest names in Hollywood including Peter Sellers
and Richard Burton. Michael, however, is always frank about why they
appeared. “They are on the show not because they love you but because
they’ve got something to flog,” he says.

Since then the celebrity television interview has become commonplace
making stars of hosts like Jonathan Ross, Clive Anderson and Graham
Norton, while the political interview has certainly lost any last hint
of deference with Jeremy Paxman’s type of grilling now being
commonplace.

By contrast, David Frost’s own style of interviewing combines
meticulous research with a disarming approach which has often led to
his subjects letting their guard down more readily and giving more
away than they ever planned.

“I think the style of my interviewing hopefully is flexible,” he tells me, in a one-to-one interview conducted at the offices of his production company.
“It’s capable of being serious or interrogatory if that is relevant or
sometimes you’ll get much more out of somebody by relaxing them. The
questions are still serious but it’s a relaxing conversation.”

David reckons for a television interview to work, two things are
essential: careful research and an ability to listen. “It’s obvious,
but research is absolutely vital before any kind of interview,” he
says. “Because it helps you to ask the question and it helps you to
understand the answer.

“Listening to the answers is key too. It is a source of bewilderment
to me when interviewers don’t do that. When I first went to America to
do a talk show some reviewers commented on the fact that I listened to
the answers to my questions – whereas it ought to be something all
interviewers do.”

But even research can’t help interviewers when they make a slip of the
tongue. “I remember when I was at TV-am,” he recalls. “We sent a young
reporter out to the Holy Land and he filed his report with the opening
line: ‘Welcome to Israel – a Mecca for tourists’ I’ve always
remembered that.”

What the subject says is obviously key to a good television interview,
but for the questioner, knowing when not to speak can also make a big
difference, says David. “Silences are a fascinating subject for an
interviewer,” he says.

“Three seconds of silence feels like an eternity on television. You
have to use your instinct and think: ‘Is this someone who, if I keep
mum, is going to feel they have to go on and give us something really
special or is it someone who has completely forgotten what they were
about to say.

“Richard Nixon was a perfect example of this. When he paused I
thought: ‘Should I shut up? Is he about to say something completely
new? Or is this a case where he has completely forgotten what he was
about to say and should I leap in?

“In a live show you only have a second to make that decision. Back in
1988 American presidential candidate Michael Dukakis paused for 27
second before answering a question – and it wasn’t even a particularly
difficult question.”

David Frost rates BBC One’s Daily Politics host Andrew Neil and
veteran talk show presenter Michael Parkinson as the best interviewers
around at the moment. “Andrew Neil has emerged as a formidable and
very intelligent interviewer,” he says.

“And Parky, not in the area of politics which he’s not so interested
in, is very good. He’s passionate about people and he’s very natural
with them. Unlike me, he’s not as interested in political power,
because he’s got so many other interests.”

It is political power and holding those who wield it to account that
has always fascinated and driven David Frost. “The reason why we have
to be more vigilant about politicians than other people is that they
have power over other people’s lives,” he says.  “And that’s why they
have to be accountable.”

•       Frost on Interviews:  BBC Four, 9pm

(c) Steve Clark 2013. All rights reserved.

July 11

An interview with EastEnders actress Anna Wing

Former EastEnders actress Anna Wing, who played Lou Bill, has died at the age of 98.

Back in 2000 I was commissioned to write a “Where Are They Now?” feature on the original cast of the BBC soap.

Here’s the piece on Anna:

Anna played battleaxe Lou Beale, mother of Pete and Pauline, who died in her sleep in 1988. Anna left the show because she thought it was getting too depressing. “I got worried about the content,” she says. “It was being shown all over the world and I thought: ‘Is this what the rest of the world thinks about the British – that they are all layabouts on social security, unfaithful and continually knocking each other about?’

“I also thought Arthur’s breakdown stuff went on to long when in real-life working class people are very good at handling difficult situations. When it started the show was more about the East End that I knew as a child and more about community amongst people. When I told them I wanted to leave they came back to me and offered me lots more money and asked me to stay for two more years but I said no.”

Divorcee Anna has no regrets though and is still an avid viewer of the show. “I won’t miss an episode. These days it is still very good,” she says. “I always thought EastEnders would do well but I never could have predicted just how well it has done. I think it’s popular because it reflects the times we live in and it has a great appeal for the young and old alike and its racy, although it’s more geared towards to young people.

“I think Tamzin Outhwaite who plays Melanie is superb and I like to see my old friends Adam Woodyatt and Wendy Richard, they’ve both weathered it well.” Since leaving, Anna, 85, a real-life Eastender, has been busy working in the theatre and is far from retired. She’ll soon be seen on Channel Four in a drama called The Killer Cleaning Lady.