A man who personified the BBC’s high-minded principles

Ambassador John Freeman (PA)

I have been reading the Telegraph obituary of John Freeman, who died on 20 December, aged 99. The obituary described him as a “politician, diplomat, soldier and broadcaster”: indeed, a very rich and diverse life. It omitted to say he had also been a journalist – as deputy editor, then editor, of the New Statesman after he chose to leave Parliament in 1955.

When I heard he had died an image rose before me: the back view of a tall, broad-shouldered, imposing figure in an impeccable tropical suit. In 1967 I joined a group of fellow undergraduates on an overland trip to India. When we got to Delhi we were treated to a reception at the British High Commission. Freeman, then in his diplomatic guise, was the High Commissioner. I found myself standing right behind him; hence my view of his back. I didn’t dare move round him to survey his front and this turned out to be a sensible decision. While making small talk to a very condescending 3rd or 4th secretary I had nervously popped what turned out to be an exceptionally hot chilli into my mouth. Naturally I spat it out instantly before I exploded, much to the mirth of the 3rd or 4th secretary. But, I reflected, it could have been much worse; I could have spat it out right in the face of John Freeman himself.

Commentators on his death remarked that he will probably be remembered for his landmark Face to Face interviews on the BBC in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I think this is probably correct. For a brief period the BBC actually lived up to the high-minded principles of Lord Reith: the interviews were invariably courteous, without being at all subservient, patient, sensitive to the interviewee and self-effacing. There was no personality cult on the part of the interviewer. Freeman, though a man of great confidence and natural authority, understood that as the kindly inquisitor in the series he had to be invisible. Hearing only his clipped but quiet voice, with the camera concentrating on the features of his interviewees, brought its own dramatic intensity to the programmes. They are rightly remembered because they have never been bettered.

Having recently read Richard Greene’s biography of the late Dame Edith Sitwell and then blogged about her, I watched Freeman’s interview with her, broadcast on 6th May 1959. Clearly, she wasn’t an easy guest. Sometimes she imperiously refused to expand an answer; at other times she appeared to be unwittingly parodying the public perception of her. Freeman remained respectful and interested, when it would have been so easy to turn her into a figure of fun. When Sitwell made it clear that certain memories were too painful to discuss – such as her father’s behaviour towards her as a girl – Freeman did not try to probe. Again, when he asked her if she had ever contemplated marriage and she replied with some asperity, “That I can’t answer”, he simply replied, “There is no reason why you should.” What interviewer today would do that?

At the end of the interview, quoting a phrase in her own poetry, he asked her how she would define the “great fire” within her. Sitwell simply replied that it was “a humble but unworthy love of God”, adding that “to be an artist is a terribly painful thing.” In the space of 35 minutes Freeman conveyed all her eccentricity and her vulnerability, yet leaving her dignity intact. His interviews are a worthy memorial to him.