As it happens, everything I knew about travel as a boy, I learnt from Alan Whicker – starting with the extraordinary black-and-white footage of an Englishman with the moustache and the manner of an Army officer lost in the wintry wastes of America's biggest state. "After stopping a train in Alaska, the rest of your life is an anti-climax," says Whicker, raising his right arm. The powerful locomotive hauling a train that seems to be the length of the Yukon River, harrumphs to a halt to allow him to climb aboard – and deliver another brilliant piece-to-camera, as precise and clipped as his trademark moustache.
For five decades, Alan Whicker – who is still handsome, urbane and charming at just 85 – travelled the globe so that we didn't have to. Or, more precisely, because we couldn't afford to. He revealed what was out there, since there seemed no imminent prospect of the rest of us venturing beyond the Channel, let alone the Continent. Instead, we watched transfixed as images of the world, its wonders and its heroes and villains, flickered across 405 monochrome lines of rented televisions in millions of homes. Whicker was so pivotal to our understanding of the planet that he had a world named after him – and Heathrow airport allowed the title of his programme to be painted on one of the runways.
"All proper journeys start at Victoria station," Whicker insists in his latest book, Journey of a Lifetime. Taking his advice, I travelled to see him on a train from the appropriate London terminus, followed by a plane from Gatwick – destination Jersey, where Alan and his partner, Valerie Kleeman, have lived for many years.
Before the unalloyed pleasure of lunch on a sunny late-summer afternoon, I enjoyed an extra and possibly juvenile thrill of striding up to a taxi driver and asking, "Please take me to Alan Whicker". To his credit, the driver asked one or two questions to satisfy himself that I was a bona fide guest rather than a celebrity chaser. Then, without needing to ask the address, he drove me straight to the door of Britain's favourite foreign correspondent.
The gardens of Whicker's home tumble down to a rocky shore. The coast of Normandy is visible on a good day – which, evidently, most of them are. Whicker's world in 2010 is a pretty corner of a Channel Island that measures eight miles by five, the ultimate destination for a man who has travelled more than most of us can conceive.
"What appeals about Jersey is tranquillity, peace, not having to see people you don't want to see. It's about as good as it gets, isn't it?"
To properly appreciate the journey that brought him here, I ask you to please set your watches back 53 years to when the most impressive career in TV history began.
"Just good luck," is how, in 2010, Whicker accounts for his success. "I suppose I was in the right place at the right time. I was working on the Exchange Telegraph [a news agency] and I took a leap from there."
He jumped into the unknown, in the form of the BBC's embryonic television current affairs operation. In 1957, the Tonight programme was an ideal nursery for TV talent. Whicker found himself working with a bunch of talented people who, like him, were largely making it up as they went along.
Initially, the world Whicker explored and portrayed was limited; his first assignment was to Ramsgate, to talk to a landlady. Soon, though, he embarked on extraordinary journeys where British television reporters, let alone holidaymakers, simply did not venture: Argentina ("brilliant"), Ecuador ("enchanting") and Peru ("druggy"). Then, in 1969, he stepped aboard a Pan Am flight to a destination that would make his name: Haiti, or, as he describes it, "the kidnap capital of the world".
Under the despotic regime of "Papa Doc" Duvalier, the value of human life in Haiti reached an all-time low. Whicker recounts how the self-styled President for Life exiled his own daughter and son-in-law in the belief that the latter was plotting a coup. Duvalier and his wife came to the airport to wave them off to Spain.
"As the door was closing upon the happy couple, there came a nod from Papa Doc. Their chauffeur and two bodyguards were shot in front of them." Three more victims for the dictator who is thought to have sent 30,000 of his countrymen to their deaths.
Into this "sharpshooters' convention" stepped a young journalist who had honed what would now be called his people skills during the Second World War. Whicker had served with the Army Film and Photo Unit on the advance through Italy. In 1943, as the conflict neared its messy conclusion, he "liberated" a Fiat Coupé and found himself in Milan as the only Allied officer in a position to take the surrender of an SS unit holed up in a hotel in the Via Manzoni. "Italy was my favourite country, and I enjoyed immensely the fact that I had a fleet of SS men eager to surrender to me, as a 20 year old. It was one of my bright days." The experience taught him that learning languages was less important than "a confident, cheerful attitude".
One of the tenets of Whicker's wisdom is that, "It is hard to shoot a man, or even strike him with your rifle butt, when he is smiling at you in a friendly way and talking about something foreign". He elaborates: "When they expect you to be humble and timid, a certain pleasant senior-office asperity throws them off-balance. This is even more effective when guards or police or hoodlums don't understand English." To attempt their language, Whicker insists, "instantly places you in the subordinate position of supplication, and invites questions. Since adopting this haughty approach, I am pleased to say I have hardly ever been shot". (His demise was reported prematurely while he was a war correspondent in Korea; he sent a terse telegram of correction that read, "Unkilled. Uninjured. Onpressing".)
In Haiti, Whicker survived an uncomfortably long spell under the watchful eye of the Tonton Macoutes, the Duvalier's murderous thugs, and made a prize-winning documentary on the doctor-turned-dictator, Papa Doc – The Black Sheep. He got his foot in the door by going to the presidential palace and telexing Duvalier (on, he recalls, 3490068) saying, "Mr President, I am outside your door". The tyrant was so taken with Whicker – "Papa Doc was never vile to me" – that he invited the journalist and camera crew along on a Christmas shopping expedition around Port-au-Prince. Unfortunately, the supplies of film despatched from Leeds by Yorkshire TV were apparently pilfered at the Pan Am cargo terminal in New York, and never made it to Haiti. "As I had discovered with General Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay, filming a dictator who does not want to be filmed can be quite dangerous. What is even more fatal, however, is not filming a dictator who wants to be filmed. He is not used to arguments or excuses or sweet reason. Dictators can only dictate."
Whicker survived to film another day, and to interview a breathtaking range of humanity. He adopted the same intuitive and inquisitive yet non-judgmental manner whether interviewing the world's richest men (John Paul Getty, the Sultan of Brunei), a shoplifter ("Primrose Hill Brenda") or a prostitute. "I've talked to them about themselves, and given them a chance to share this. My television programmes are actual, factual and real."
Yet Whicker's engagement with his subject is comple-mented by a clear focus on the business of journalism. "We aim to catch the essence of someone or something, then move on to the next person, next country, next story."
In the course of this journey he has collected all manner of gongs, including a CBE for services to broadcasting – though there was an equally strong case for an award for perfecting the art of safe travel to dangerous places.
Much more importantly, Whicker has attained the status of national treasure. Confirmation first arrived in the shape of a 1970 Monty Python sketch centred on "Whicker Island", inhabited entirely by moustachioed clones articulating their amazement at the world. Was he, I wondered, outraged, amused or flattered? "I was very flattered. I felt they were very kind about me. I've had the piss taken out of me by experts."
Remarkably, for someone in that most fragile of occu-pations – a serious journalist who is also a celebrity – over time the Whicker brand has only strengthened, never waned. For the past 41 years he has benefitted from the wise counsel of his partner, Valerie Kleeman. When Alan politely rebuffs a question rather than risk sounding immodest, she gently amplifies the conversation – not least about the early years. The concept of setting out to bring the world into people's homes has, arguably, gone too far now – but at the time it was revolutionary.
"It may sound pretentious to say this, but I think in 100 years time, if people look at Alan's archive, they will know exactly how we lived in the latter part of the 20th century,"
says Kleeman. "It's the first time you've got that in sound and vision. I think he is encapsulating a fascinating moment, and it hasn't really been done before. Alan was working on topics such as gay marriage decades before they became mainstream."
Along with its taboos, the world has shed much of its innocence in the last half-century. It is difficult to imagine a British reporter emulating Whicker's "vox-pops" on gun ownership that he conducted in Texas in 1961. "I went out with my cameras into the monstrous avenues of Houston, stopped passers-by and asked whether they owned a gun. I discovered it wasn't a question of yes or no, but how many."
Even gold-plated brands risk being corroded by ill-advised excursions into advertising. Alan Whicker has lent his name only to two significant campaigns: for Barclaycard, and for Travelocity. Yet Whicker has not escaped accusations of selling out. He recalls an encounter with one television executive at an awards dinner, who objected to his involvement in advertising. "She was livid, and said, 'You're a fucking icon' – which struck me as an excellent title for my next book."
Valerie Kleeman is amused by the cult of celebrity that has grown up around Whicker, in particular the Alan Whicker Appreciation Society – whose members sported the same spectacles and facial hair as their hero.
"They were very nice, very funny and very affectionate," she recalls. "They used to make Alan a picture every Christmas – we've got them downstairs."
Another woman who has cared for Whicker through the years was St Clare, the patron saint of television. "She's been looking after me splendidly." Presumably, St Clare has lent a helping hand with all the improvements in technology that have assisted programme-makers in the past five decades. Yet lighter, cheaper, more sophisticated kit has not necessarily led to better journalism.
When film was fearsomely expensive, and limited to eight minutes a roll, presenters had to get things right. The rewards were rich. Whicker's 1992 documentary on the Sultan of Brunei, The Absolute Monarch, was watched by 55 per cent of all possible viewers – including, it is believed, the Queen. Whicker describes his encounter as "like having a conversation with God". In the 21st century, given the exponential growth in TV channels, that sort of reach is inconceivable. So, too, is the likelihood of any network endowing documentary makers with such time, funding and freedom. So what is Whicker's view on ambitious young broadcasters seeking to follow his trajectory?
"I'm sure that they will all be better than I was."
'Journey of a Lifetime' by Alan Whicker is published by HarperCollins, priced £20
Alan's all-time favourite destinations...
Bali "No innocent paradise surrendering virtue at the wave of a seductive traveller's cheque. These people believe, quite simply, that their island is the centre of the universe."
Hong Kong "I've been returning, always with pleasure, for 60 years."
Vienna "The Viennese have perfected the art of civilised drinking. They gather in the sunlit gardens of the vintners to drink the crisp young white wine, eat cold cuts and listen to the tearful violins of wandering musicians."
Norfolk Island "A gentle corner of paradise, 12,000 miles from Britain and about 1,000 miles from anywhere else."Reuse content