Hugh Burnett: Television producer who created the legendary series 'Face to Face'
Saturday 24 December 2011
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.
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