When talk wasn't cheap

The DVD release of the incisive Sixties interview series Face to Face shows up its modern equivalent, says Andrew Roberts

In the DVD box-set market this Christmas, in amongst the Twilight films, is a black-and-white BBC series of interviews where virtually all that was seen of the host was the back of his head. Each session lasted for 25 minutes, the guests ranged from Martin Luther King to Bertrand Russell and such interviewing will probably never be seen on British television again.

Face to Face originally ran for 35 editions between 1959 and 1962, each of them helmed by the former Labour MP and Panorama reporter John Freeman. The series was revived in 1989 with Jeremy Isaacs but the impact could never be the same. The latter show had more female guests – the original series had only Simone Signoret and Dame Edith Sitwell – and some of the attitudes evinced by Freeman towards his guests firmly belong in a monochrome world, such as his mild amazement that Adam Faith was a teenage pop singer who was well-read and articulate.

But the 1989-1998 series could never have the impact of the original series precisely because television was, in 1959, still treated with a blend of awe and suspicion by the likes of Evelyn Waugh, angrily admitting that The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold was derived from his own nervous breakdown. One fascination with Face to Face is in its combination of historical interest with theatrical flair, the original 35 shows capturing on VTR a young John Osborne guardedly answering Freeman's queries about the importance of money in tones less angry than camp-sinister and Dame Edith Sitwell recoiling at the memory of her father attempting to force her to have plastic surgery.

Even those younger guests treated an appearance on the programme as both an honour and a form of confessional. It is near impossible to imagine a major entertainer saying of an interview programme "It's Face to Face and I have to tell the truth" as Tony Hancock told his friends before his appearance in a 1960 edition of the show.

Only three cameras were used, and rarely was Freeman's face shown; the profile shots of the guest allowed the viewers to draw their own conclusions. As Lord Reith, the former director general of the BBC was asked about his experiences in the First World War, for example, the director, briefly, focused on the livid scar on the interviewee's face. No remark was necessary.

It is ironic that of all the luminaries who featured, the best remembered interview was with a figure of the most ephemeral fame. The clip of a middle-aged man weeping for his mother in a darkened studio is one that surfaces on clip show after clip show, long after Gilbert Harding – former BBC editor turned irascible guest on the panel show What's My Line – was forgotten. Freeman's questions uncovered Harding's dreadful sense of self-loathing to produce 25 minutes of sheer anguish.

Today, programmes with light entertainers apparently baring their innermost torments can be found almost anywhere. Fifty years ago, the sight of Britain's premiere television comedian twitching as Freeman's honeyed tones probed created headlines. Face to Face was ideally placed to question the strange world of post-war England, where nascent media celebrity co-existed with the twilight of Victorian deference. It would have no place in a world where politicians acquire Dick Van Dyke accents prior to appearing on a chat show – and where 15 minutes of fame is coming to be seen as a birthright.

'Face to Face' is available on DVD now

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