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

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The Independent Online

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.