Alan Whicker was the quintessence of the glory days of British television, the time between the late 1950s and the late 1970s when there were no more than two or three channels and any notable programme would be seen by more than half the population.
With his drawling, heavily emphasised delivery and trademark spectacles, which looked like twin TV screens, Whicker reported from around the world in a unique, hypnotically watchable style. It was a matter of enormous pride to him that he was lampooned in a famous Monty Python sketch, in which dozens of Whicker lookalikes did earnest pieces to camera about a tropical island in crisis. The cause of the emergency? There were “just too many Whickers on Whicker Island”.
Born in 1925 in Cairo, Alan Whicker was the son of a captain in the Denbighshire Hussars. When he was seven his father died, prompting a move to Britain with his mother and elder sister, who herself died soon afterwards. Whicker’s mother always explained her death euphemistically, saying she had been “lost”.
Whicker maintained that he was a very happy child. One of his earliest memories, an indicator, perhaps, of how his life would turn out, was of going on a junior school camp to Teignmouth. He would sit on the top deck of the local bus, as far towards the front as he could, in order to absorb as much as possible. He also used to send off for glossy travel brochures and then study them for hours. A cousin was a writer and a member of the Institute of Journalists, and inspired the young Alan. By the age of 14 he owned a nine-guinea typewriter and was regularly sending articles and short stories to newspapers – all of which, he said, were rejected.
He went to Haberdashers’ Aske’s school in north London, about which he was “unenthusiastic”. When he joined the Army – he volunteered early rather than wait to be conscripted – he was filling in a form which asked about siblings. He was about to write, “I had a sister but she got lost in the streets of Cairo” when he realised for the first time that his sister must have died.
His grief only hit him when his mother died in 1948, however. He was, he said, “absolutely destroyed”. Whicker later credited her with teaching him to be “easy around women... the major pleasure in my life”. During the Blitz the only items she would carry with her to the air raid shelter were the letters he had sent from various fronts he covered as a second lieutenant, directing army cameramen in battle, taking photos and writing articles.
After the war Whicker threw himself into a career which would take him from being an agency reporter to appearing on the first black-and-white television screens to being a travel ambassador for AOL Online. His first civilian job was as the “expendable” bachelor or single male reporter for the Exchange Telegraph News, often working in competition with Reuters’ Sandy Gall.
For 10 years he covered natural disasters, royal tours and insurrections in the developing world, and then moved to television, getting a job as one of the reporting team on the BBC’s Tonight programme. His brief was to create such a sensation that viewers would ask “Where the hell will Whicker be next?” He achieved this aim by filming “slice of life” fillers from Britain and Europe on subjects such as dog beauty parlours, the first parking meters and swingers’ parties.
In the 1960s he got his own show, Whicker’s World, which allowed him to travel continually around the globe from Alaska to the Outback and turned him into a household name. By the 1970s Whicker’s World was coming top in the ratings, beating Coronation Street. He worked seven days a week, meeting luminaries such as John Paul Getty, Papa Doc Duvalier, Peter Sellers, Luciano Pavarotti, Sean Connery, Salvador Dali and the Sultan of Brunei. It was a frenetic pace, belied by the smooth, dapper and unruffled persona on screen.
Although he was a seasoned reporter on war and political conflicts, it was as a connoisseur of the lives of the rich and famous in places like Monte Carlo and Palm Beach that Whicker became a living symbol of an age which was already, strictly speaking, a nostalgic memory, when travel was glamorous and monogrammed luggage not quite a thing of the past. He always wore a safari suit or a blazer, whatever the location or the decade. In 2000 he was asked to appear as himself in a feature film set in 1977, and had to reassure the wardrobe mistress, who was worrying about recreating his look from that time, that she was looking at it.
Whicker described his wanderlust as “not so much a case of wanting to escape from as wanting to get to”, arising out of his keenness to meet people from all walks of life, whom he considered to be the true stars of his shows. He was able to travel round the world, he said, because of his “wonderful health”, a “cast-iron stomach” and his ability to be able to “tolerate anything except boredom”.
As well as garnering many television awards – he once flew back to London from Singapore, 16 hours and 8,000 miles, to collect a Bafta from Princess Anne before flying straight back again – he also won the public’s heart. He had an appreciation society of Whicker’s Worshippers, and 22,000 customers of a travel agency once voted him “the person with whom they would most like to travel”.
After 25 years of his being on television, both BBC and ITV celebrated with Whicker retrospectives, and BBC Manchester gave him his own talk show. Such was his standing that in 1978 the IBA banned him from doing commercials for a decade on the basis that “Whicker is a central feature of serious journalism.” This prevented him from doing the “Clunk-Click” safety belt campaign, which had to be fronted instead by Jimmy Savile. When the ban was lifted, Whicker became the face of Barclaycard for six years.
Whicker’s love life always excited much interest. He maintained that this was much to his chagrin, although he did plenty to encourage the image of himself as almost a playboy. When asked by TV Times which six objects he would take to a desert island, he replied “Two blondes, two brunettes and two redheads.”
He had a well-documented three-year affair with the oil millionairess Olga Deterding, daughter of Sir Henri, founder of Royal Dutch Shell. Olga had joined the Whicker unit as a location photographer and travelled with him to Kuwait and the Philippines. Whicker and Deterding were engaged, but decided to go their separate ways “for both our sakes”, pushed apart by his work and her mood swings, which were caused in part by her compulsive eating. Deterding later choked to death on a piece of steak in a Mayfair club. Whicker said simply: “We shall meet no more Olgas.”
Whicker’s next major relationship was with Valerie Kleeman, who lived in the flat beneath his in Cumberland Terrace in London. She had been in the lacrosse team at Queensgate School with Camilla Shand, later Parker Bowles. Whicker and the woman who was to be his long-standing partner met in 1969 in the apartment block lobby as she was going to a ballet lesson. When Whicker bought a house on Jersey three years later, Kleeman moved in and stayed.
Whicker always preferred publicity to focus on his professional rather than his private life. Just as his suave public exterior concealed an often anxious and sharp-tempered man, Whicker’s attitude to women was always a little enigmatic. Although Valerie took many of the photos for both volumes of Whicker’s autobiography, she was dealt with summarily in the first volume, the best-selling Within Whicker’s World (1982), and virtually not at all in Whicker’s World Take 2 (2000) – although there is an entire chapter on his passion for Bentleys.
Socially too, he would talk – and ask questions – endlessly about cars, but would clam up in some embarrassment if the subject of women came up. A few weeks after spending a couple of days with him in the south of France road-testing a new open-topped Bentley – over which he almost purred – I was asked by a magazine to interview him on the subject of “falling in love”.
Clearly unwilling to disappoint, he hummed and hahed, talked about cars again, before finally declining. “I’m terribly sorry, old boy,” he said in those famous mellifluous tones, “I’d do anything to help, but this one’s really not quite my speed, you know.” It was far from the first time that a journalist had drawn a blank in trying to probe more deeply into the private Whicker. It was, perhaps, predictable that one of the finest reporters of all time, whose particular speciality was getting guarded people to open up about their private lives and emotions, strictly guarded his own.
Alan Donald Whicker, journalist and broadcaster: born Cairo 2 August 1925; CBE 2005; died 12 July 2013.