Auctions | October 22, 2014

Archive From Groundbreaking BBC Program to be Sold at Bonhams

An archive of material which belonged to TV producer Hugh Burnett about the famous series of Face to Face interviews which he created and produced in the early 1960s is to be sold at Bonhams Fine Books, Atlases, Manuscripts and Photographs Sale on 12 November in London.

Face to Face ran on BBC2 between 1959 and 1962. The interviewer was the journalist John Freeman and his guests included many leading figures of the day.  Freeman’s quiet, polite style belied a forensic, penetrating technique which persuaded interviewees to reveal more about themselves than they had perhaps intended.  The television personality Gilbert Harding, for example, broke down in tears when recalling his relationship with his mother.

The programme marked a revolution in interviewing style on British television and set the standard for the cut and thrust exchanges which are now such a familiar feature of television.  As John Freeman put it in a letter included in the sale, “To Hugh Burnett- whose idea it all was - way ahead of his time “  

Burnett’s guest book reads like a Who’s Who of the 1960s. Martin Luther King; the then Vice President, later President, of the United States, Richard Nixon; the philosopher Carl Jung; conductor Otto Klemperer; comedian and actor Tony Hancock; Prime Minister and later president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta and UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson.

Face to Face was popular with the viewing public.  After her appearance on the programme, the poet Edith Sitwell wrote to Burnett complaining about the deluge of unsolicited poems she was receiving, "...Oh the poets! The Poets!! I now get, on an average, two manuscripts, the size of the week's laundry at a Station Hotel in the metropolis, every day, and every page of them preposterous bosh. I am nearer committing murder than I have ever been.”

Evelyn Waugh’s interview is remembered for the curtness of his replies although modern audiences might find more to enjoy from the dryness of the novelist wit than the Bradford Telegraph and Argus which wrote at the time, ‘Waugh interview not worth fee’.

Bonhams Head of Books Matthew Haley said, “Face to Face was the first major television programme to take a less deferential approach to public figures.  We are so used to this now that it is perhaps hard to appreciate how much of a break with the past this represented.”