Hugh Burnett: Television producer who created the legendary series 'Face to Face'


As the creator of the legendary interview series Face to Face for the BBC in 1959, in which public figures were subjected to a stark interview by the relentless John Freeman, Hugh Burnett's place in television history is secured.

But it was just one of a steady sequence of innovations in factual broadcasting which spanned a 30-year career. Burnett's work was highly influential, and many of his formats still exist, albeit in watered-down versions.

Born in Sheffield in 1924, he inherited from his father an interest in the spiritual and in journalism. But while his parents were passionate Methodists, Burnett was questioning and sceptical. In his supplementary career as a cartoonist, monks were his favourite figures of fun. And while his father was editor of a Methodist newspaper, later in his career Burnett made documentary studies of the paranormal.

At the age of 14, he knocked on George Bernard Shaw's door and discovered the playwright examining drawings of himself by the Polish artist Feliks Topolski. (Burnett would go on to use Topolski's drawings for the opening credits of Face to Face, and for his own cartoons coined the pseudonym Phelix.) He presented the bemused Shaw with a list of questions for the school magazine, "salient ones, like 'was there a God' and 'what do you think about having a World Government'."A brusque reply arrived some weeks later, the questions unanswered, but much of that incident was to fashion his later career. As did his National Service, serving in the Intelligence Corps in India, which led to him joining the BBC's Far Eastern Service at Bush House in 1949.

His first creation was Personal Call, in which he visited distinguished Britons in their homes and engaged them in long, leisurely discussions. From the opening episode, in which John Betjeman agreed to begin by singing one of his poems with his wife accompanying him on the guitar, the new informal style was a success. Never again did he suffer the rebuff he'd got from Shaw.

Moving into television in 1955, he decided to rework the interview show in a more dangerous way. Rather than allowing the visual element to distract from the interviews he trapped his subjects in suffocatingly tight close-ups, and the results were frequently alarming and controversial television. The truthful responses of Tony Hancock, then at the height of his fame, were devoid of any leavening humour, and watching with hindsight it seems that the ghost of Hancock's suicide eight years later is hovering behind his eyes.

The stony Gilbert Harding, then one of the most famous broadcasters in Britain, appeared to weep when Freeman, unaware that Harding's mother had only recently died, asked him if he had ever been present at someone's death. Although Burnett later insisted that they weren't in fact tears butperspiration owing to the intense heat of the studio lights, the public was shocked by the programme, coming only two years after the press had seen the tears of Anna Neagle on This Is Your Life as being undignified behaviour for a public figure.

There was a mischievous side to Burnett too, and he expressed this as the producer of the satirical The Late Show (1966), and as a cartoonist. He was published in Private Eye, The Oldie and the New Statesman, and his monastic merriments were later gathered into a series of books. "Any normal event transferred into a monastery becomes very funny," he explained. Despite his frequently depicting monks having homosexual affairs his work was endorsed by the Abbot of Downside Abbey, who said "being a monk or a friar is funny enough seen from within. What a pleasure it is to learn it can also look funny from without."

In the 1970s he made a well remembered trio of documentaries on theunexplained. His experience producing Face to Face had made him a probing and suitably level-headed interviewer. The Ghost Hunters (1975), which featured a hair-raising investigation into the Borley Rectory hauntings,became a television classic, while The Mystery of Loch Ness the following year was, if nothing else, an excellent gathering of aural history.

A film about UFOs in 1977, Out of This World, was fiercely criticised by devotees of the subject who felt the programme had ridiculed them. In truth Burnett had merely given his more eccentric subjects enough rope to hang themselves, interested more perhaps in why people believe than in what truth there may be in those beliefs.

Television today has, for the most part, bastardised Face to Face's intensity into mere victimisation, leaving Burnett as not only the creator of a certain breed of television, but also one of the best practitioners of it.

Richard Hugh Burnett, television producer and cartoonist: born Sheffield 21 July 1924; married Simone (deceased; three sons, deceased); died Richmond, Surrey 25 November 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower