1 9 5 9 – 1 9 6 2 (UK)
35 x 30 minute episodes
First aired on 4 February 1959 – and conducted by John Freeman, a journalist on Panorama – this was the first programme on British television to attempt to peel away the mask of public figures and to show what lay beneath.
As he probed, Freeman never wavered from the courteous and polite, but his assault on the interviewee was relentless and seldom failed to open up the real person behind the famous front.
Only the back of Freeman’s head was ever seen as he sat just a few yards away from the subject.
The lighting was harsh and unflattering, there were no comforting pot-plants and the cameras intruded extraordinarily, putting the guest under the closest scrutiny.
Freeman says “The subject had the whole of the screen, the whole of the time. The camera was used almost as a secondary interrogator, capturing every flicker of an eyelid, every bead of sweat”.
Critics called it ‘torture by television’ and complained of guests being brainwashed and fried alive by the lights. The Times said, “the attraction of the programme was seeing how the next man stood up to the rack”. Other detractors described Freeman as cold and unfeeling and likened his manner of questioning to being interviewed by a computer.
There were thirty-five programmes in all (only two subjects were women) spread over a period of three years and each one opened with artist Feliks Topolski’s line drawing caricatures of that week’s guest to the lilting strains of a Berlioz overture.
The first guest on Face to Face was the renowned criminal lawyer Lord Michael Birkett. Birkett was a relaxed interviewee, having already appeared on Personal Call, the radio show devised by Face to Face producer Hugh Burnett.
Among those who agreed to face Freeman were; Bertrand Russell, Henry Moore, Evelyn Waugh, Edith Sitwell, Adam Faith, King Hussein of Jordan, John Osborne, Carl Gustav Jung, Tony Hancock, Albert Finney, Stirling Moss and Gilbert Harding.
The biggest coup was probably that of Swiss psychologist Jung (pictured below). Freeman admits to being surprised that Jung was so willing to do a television show at all, let alone in a foreign country.
The most dramatic event of 1960 on British television was when John Freeman grilled Gilbert Harding.
The usually irascible and abrasive Harding, remembering the recent passing of his mother, broke down and wept when asked whether he had ever been in the presence of death.
For once, Harding (who had become a national figure through his appearances on BBC radio quiz shows) attracted public sympathy. Freeman later expressed regret at his lack of sympathy on that occasion, claiming he was unaware of Harding’s recent bereavement.
When Face To Face ended in 1962, Freeman became editor of the New Statesman until 1965 and was then British High Commissioner in India for three years before accepting the post of British Ambassador to Washington from 1969 to 1971. He returned to Britain as chairman of LWT for thirteen years and during the late 70s, he was also chairman of ITN.
In 1985 he went to the University of California where he lectured part-time as a visiting Professor of International Relations.
In 1988, Freeman – who had gone on to be a diplomat and television executive – was interviewed by Anthony Clare in a Face to Face special. The programme was then revived with Jeremy Isaacs as the interviewer. It continued to attract important subjects such as Anthony Burgess, Arthur Miller, Germaine Greer, Martha Gellhorn, Merce Cunningham and Lauren Bacall, before ending in 1997.