Frankly Speaking, review: Radio 4 Extra unearths landmark interview series

The series, launched in 1952, had not one but three interviewers, and climbed into the minds of some of the greatest figures of the 20th century

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The Independent Culture

"The star interview is dead," wrote Martin Amis 22 years ago in Visiting Mrs Nabokov. He was wrong of course – he had the hump when he wrote it, as he'd just been stood up by Madonna – though, as a form, it's not what it was.

Gone are the days when Lester Bangs spent weeks on the road with the Rolling Stones, or when Truman Capote could pitch up to Marlon Brando's place in Kyoto for a chat.

Now on the radio you might hear the odd interview that yields something unexpected, though for the most part the appearances of the rich and famous are more about promotion than insight. It's an encounter that invariably involves media-trained megastars spouting platitudes while producers and presenters listen, quietly wishing they were dead.

It wasn't always thus. This week Radio 4 Extra unearthed Frankly Speaking, the landmark Fifties and Sixties interview series that climbed into the minds of some of the greatest figures of the 20th century.

The series, launched in 1952 on the BBC Home Service, had not one but three interviewers, making it closer to an interrogation than a cosy chat.

Frankly Speaking was famously unrehearsed and unscripted, and the interviewers were often new to broadcasting and so unpracticed in the art of greasing up to celebs (John Freeman and Katherine Whitehorn were early recruits). Around 40 of the 100 original programmes have survived, intriguing time capsules of an era before press junkets and pre-approved questions.

This week's episode was an interview with French entertainer Maurice Chevalier, recorded in 1963. Despite the unbelievable stiffness of his interlocutors – the writers Penelope Mortimer, Colin Macinnes and Carl Wildman – Chevalier spilled the beans with grace and honesty.

He talked about his mother, his working class background and, most unexpectedly, of his problems with depression.

Chevalier was 75 when the interviews took place and had been famous for over 50 years. Back then men didn't do feelings and they certainly didn't do mental illness. Yet Chevalier talked as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

"You cannot be [full of sunshine] on the stage and be exactly like that all day long, morning until night," he said. "You cannot help having your own miseries, your own sickness, your own deceptions." I'm pretty sure I heard him shrug.

Next week's episode features a famous interview with Evelyn Waugh – famous because Waugh later complained it triggered a nervous breakdown and inspired the novel The Ordeal Of Gilbert Pinfold. Reviewers at the time described it as "the goading of a bull by matadors." It's a fascinating listen.

Noel Gallagher popped up this week on 6Music in Matt Everitt's interview series The First Time With... Gallagher is always good value, and this was a special hour-long edition, presumably so Everitt could burrow beneath Grumpy Nana Noel and uncover the Kind Sensitive Noel beneath.

Alas, he didn't have the opportunity because whenever things got interesting, Gallagher was cut off to make room for a 6Music trail or an excerpt of the last record he mentioned. Infuriating.

Twitter: @FionaSturges