BOOK REVIEW / The armchair confessions of an agony uncle: 'In the Psychiatrist's Chair' - Anthony Clare: Heinemann, 16.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
THE BEST bits on Radio 4 are the pauses - the changes in intonation, fluctuations in speed of delivery, coughs, chuckles, sniffs and other extraneous noises. These can be just as informative and revealing as the words themselves; which is why transcripts of even the most vibrant radio interviews can seem flat.

In the Psychiatrist's Chair, comprising Anthony Clare's pseudo-psychoanalytic celebrity interviews from his radio series, generally falls victim to this process. 'Of all the interviews I have conducted . . .' says the author in his introduction to one transcript, 'I have never laughed so much as I did during the one with Tom Sharpe.' He goes on to say of his interviewee: 'He is also equipped with the most mobile and humorous face - a slight droop of the lips or rumble of the voice and it is impossible to remain serious.' Yet apart from the occasional bracketed word '(laugh)' in the transcript that follows, the reader could miss the humour entirely.

Equally, in the interview with Claire Rayner (not to mention the confusion caused by referring to the participants as 'Clare' and 'Rayner') there is nothing in the transcript to suggest that the subject broke down in tears. Skilful editing of the radio broadcast managed to avoid the embarrassment of the subject's losing control; but with the groans removed, the words miss the agony. The interview seems rambling and incoherent with the subtext of deep grief missing.

Even without the emasculating translation from radio to page, there must be doubts about what these interviews really tell and whether they are worth preserving between book covers. In taking a position precisely midway between Terry Wogan and Sigmund Freud, Dr Clare has evolved a unique style of interviewing which produces riveting radio, particularly when compared with the slickly packaged, bland complacency of the here-to-plug-his-latest-book production-line school of chat-show interview. Indeed, the subjects in this book frequently give the impression of wanting to tell the world that there is more to them that the standard publicist's blurb. But it is not psychoanalysis. The relationship between interviewer and subject is too heavily polluted by the presence of an audience for that.

When trying to form a picture of someone's personality, whether professionally or socially, one is always liable to be confronted by a blurred superimposition of three impressions: what they really are, what they think they are, and what they want you to think they are. Perhaps the principal task of the psychotherapist is to reconcile the first two of these: reality and self-delusion. The chat-show interviewer settles, in a comfortable collusion with the interviewee, for the third.

Dr Clare's delicate probing into a subject's past displays collusion on a different level. The object is to reach agreement on what makes the subject tick, like a detective knowing who committed the crime and hunting for clues that might explain why he did it. When Dame Janet Baker says 'I didn't have time really' in reply to a question about whether she had boyfriends as a student, Dr Clare does not pursue the matter. When Ken Dodd says 'We were always too busy' to explain why he never married, Dr Clare follows it up remorselessly to clarify what 'too busy' really means. In such cases the interview seems to be heading hurriedly towards a preconceived, mutually acceptable end point. But in a half-hour life summary, short cuts have to be taken.

The most amusing interviews are those with Sir James Savile, who refuses to play Dr Clare's game at all; P D James, who is such a delightfully rational person that she gives a convincing display of someone who is totally unaffected by her past; and R D Laing, who turned up drunk and talked about depression. But by far the most literate, illuminating and honest performance is by Anthony Hopkins. This most successful old boy of Alcoholics Anonymous is capable of an introspection that races ahead even of Dr Clare's perceptive questioning (even if he seemed at times to wish he was interviewing Hannibal Lecter instead). For Hopkins alone the book is worth reading, though on the whole it would have been preferable to listen to the tapes.