John Walsh: Have we lost the art of the good interview?

Related Topics

The CNN commercial for Piers Morgan Tonight shows the great man standing, arms folded, face a-smirk, as a number of adjectives unfurl beside him: "Piers Morgan is Provocative," it promises. "Challenging. Fun. Pushing the Boundaries of the Interview ..." I've seen some of the daily shows and I'm not sure the final claim is justified. On Tuesday, he interviewed Tony Blair about Egypt. "If you were still prime minister," Morgan began, promisingly, "would you be calling on your friend Mubarak to resign and leave?" There followed a cloud of diplomatic persiflage from a furrow-browed Blair ("We're talking about a period of transition until the elections ... whatever happens, there's going to be a change") through which a Paxman or Humphrys would have sliced like a scimitar through jelly. Piers did nothing.

Speaking to a screen link of George Clooney the other night, he harried and intimidated the actor with such belligerent queries as: "Why wouldn't you think of running for the presidency?" Turning to Clooney's dad, who was in the discussion to bring added emollience, Piers asked: "This is a really double-edged question, but what's the proudest you've ever been of George? And what was the least proud?" Eliciting the controversial news that George's dad has always been "proud of George every day", Morgan went for the kill. "What's the naughtiest he's ever been?" Oh, he was very naughty when young, said his fond, snow-haired pop, "but he always made me laugh".

Some people may find this approach endearing rather than cringe-making, but it didn't do a lot to push the boundaries of the interview. Nor did his encounter with Ricky Gervais, fresh from his triumph at the Golden Globe awards, where he'd abused the leading lights of Hollywood. "You can wipe that smile off your face," he told Gervais as the latter took his seat. "You know what happens to naughty boys, don't you? They get a good spanking." Having convinced the watching (if rapidly dwindling) audience that British men were a bunch of overgrown schoolboys obsessed with bottoms and le vice Anglais, Morgan and Gervais embarked on a lengthy mutual smirkathon.

Ricky said he'd done nothing wrong. Piers asked him whether, having invited a hammerhead shark to dinner, the organisers should have been surprised when everyone got eaten. It wasn't exactly Torquemada. The more pretentious and silly Gervais became ("I think the art of comedy isn't to make people laugh, it's to make people think") the less disposed was Piers to confront him or to say: "What in the name of arse are you on about?"

I wouldn't be so critical, had I not recently been given the box set of the Face To Face BBC TV interviews with distinguished people, that ran from 1959 to 1962. They were all conducted by John Freeman, and are utterly brilliant. Freeman's face is never seen (though there are cutaway shots of the back of his head); his curious, reedy voice – alternating friendly and indulgent tones with rapid-fire bombardment – comes out of the dark and his questions, politely relentless, extract extraordinary responses from his lamp-lit guests.

Bertrand Russell, a leading light of CND when he was interviewed in 1959, blithely remarks that he would happily have dropped an atom bomb on the USSR in 1948, to avoid a larger nuclear confrontation. Dame Edith Evans, looking like an El Greco saint in a fur coat and a shaving-brush chignon, tries to stave off Freeman's probing about her unworldliness ("What do you like about the country?" "The quiet – and not being bothered by silly questions") but soon succumbs, revealing how excited she was to meet Marilyn Monroe, and assuring viewers that the lecherous drunkard Dylan Thomas was "very well behaved" in her company. Fancy that. By the end she's eating out of her tormentor's hand, even when he is so impertinent as to ask about her money and her unmarried state.

Under Freeman's sleek, provocative questioning, the comedian Tony Hancock quaked and floundered so much there was a public outcry. Asked what he was reading, the jack-the-lad pop star Adam Faith assured Freeman he was "just about to start" on Aldous Huxley, no, really I am...

Fifty years after these encounters were first broadcast, one can say: "Now that, Piers, is pushing the boundaries of an interview."

If you want to get ahead, get your father's hat

Power-watchers in North Korea have had an exciting time lately speculating about a certain hand-made, peaked, otter-pelt hat. It has, until recently, been worn by only one person, namely the nation's Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il. Nobody else in North Korea is allowed to wear this posh designer headgear (did I mention it has bespoke ear-flaps, very handy in the North's bitterly cold winters?) except Kim. But now, blow me down if his heir-presumptive, Kim Jong-un, 27, hasn't appeared in an identical bespoke otter-fur number complete with peak and flaps. Talk about exciting. This means that, as the West has long suspected, the tubby computer-science student is being fast-tracked to take over from his dad (despite being the third son down) as dictator of the world's most eccentric country. Both Kims can be seen, looking like Dr Evil and Mini-Me in their matching hats, in an official picture of the North Korean high command, below a headline suggesting that the transfer of power is "imminent".

But what if it isn't? When the warm weather comes, will the Dear Leader affect a straw boater that Jong-un will have to wear too? Is there a list of garments and accessories that are to be worn only by the head of state and his immediate heir? Dolce e Gabbana rhinestone jacket? Tattersall check waistcoat? Lycra cycling shorts? I can't wait to see which encoded fashion statement will next puzzle observers of this Ruritarian regime.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Graphic Designer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical and Electrical Engineer

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrig...

Recruitment Genius: Concierge and Porter

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a customer focused, pro...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer / Front-End Designer - City of London

£27000 - £33000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End Devel...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: The five reasons why I vote

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff

Daily catch-up: the gap between rich and poor has narrowed (a little) since the banking crisis

John Rentoul
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot