Whicker's World - Vol 1

****

Reviewed by: Gary Duncan

Whatever happened to Alan Whicker? These days, you only ever see the great man in those tiresome Travelocity ads. For almost 30 years, however, he was a permanent fixture on TV, the unflappable Englishman abroad who visited places we'd never even heard of and interviewed the rich, the famous and the infamous. Think a mixture of Louis Theroux and Michael Palin, and much more.

Whicker's World ran from 1959 to 1988 and this two-disc DVD collection contains eight quintessential episodes, chosen by Whicker himself, taking in everything from South American dictators to the Osmonds. He meets Lula Parker Betenson, the 94-year-old sister of Butch Cassidy, and a plastic surgeon who married a beautiful woman and then played God with her on the operating table. Along the way, he meets the inventor of the first hydrogen-fuelled car and a Scottish GP living in the style of the Raj in modern day Malaysia.

Whicker can be charming, or scathing, usually at the same time. Having cosied up to the Osmond clan in Salt Lake City, he gives them that knowing smile and says, in his syrupy smooth, sing-song way, "There are people, I suppose, who would say that anyone who believes wholly in the facts of the book of Mormon could believe anything." Ouch. Mother Osmond glares at him and after what seems like a 100-year pause responds with a glacial, "Well, if you want to put it that way."

Whicker generally puts it anyway he wants and to hell with reputations. Sparring with Harold Robbins, the self-styled "best writer in the world," he politely reminds him of a review that said he may be the richest writer on the planet, but he's also the worst.

The secret of Whicker's success is that he never allows his ego to get in the way. He asks the questions, then shuts up and listens. He'll argue with the best of them when his bullshit detector goes off, but he never forgets that his subjects should do most of the talking, not him.

Some react better than others. The Osmonds grit their impossibly white teeth and sulk, but Robbins, a tough New Yorker with an ego the size of Manhattan, gives as good as he gets. Whicker complains about the sex and violence in his books - "Do you really need a sex scene every 20/30 pages?" - but Robbins laps it up and warns him he ain't seen nothing yet, promising that his new book, The Betsy, is "full of gasoline, kerosene and semen."

Such banter is in short supply when Whicker meets Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, the self-elected "President for Life" of Haiti. And for good reason - Duvalier has a habit of making people disappear for a very long time. He is also wildly unpredictable. Whicker tells of a major in the presidential guard who went missing for 11 years, just after Duvalier seized power, only to reappear suddenly out of the blue. The previous day, the President had called an airline to book a flight. He'd been impressed with the young sales agent and asked him his name. Duvalier recognised it and asked about the young man's father. The young man hesitated before telling him of his father's disappearance. The next morning the major reappeared, as if by magic. You get the feeling Duvalier did it not for the son, or the father, but simply because he could.

Duvalier and his thuggish Tontons Macoutes enforcers are scary, but not half as scary as Kathy Wagner, wife of Californian plastic surgeon Kurt Wagner. The bubbly blonde tells Whicker that her husband fixed her eyes "and now I can put my eyelashes on and do a million things with my eyes that I couldn't do before." Even smooth-talking Whicker is stunned into momentary silence with that one. Maybe her husband was looking for a guinea pig, not a wife, he suggests, and then asks her how much her new breasts weigh. He guesses they must be at least a pound each, but she's not telling.

Despite the playful teasing, Whicker at heart is a hard-nosed journalist with an eye for a story and a beautiful turn of phrase. In Papa Doc's Haiti, he says, there is a "tropical outburst of bougainvillea, a steam-heated over ripeness and the sick sweet stench of a lush and rotting land".

Eat your heart out, Judith Chalmers.

Reviewed on: 03 Jan 2006
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Whicker's World - Vol 1 packshot
Selection of Alan Whicker interviews.
Amazon link

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