Having interviewed successfully men and women from all walks of life for over two decades, and having included some of these interviews in six published books, I have few regrets for not being able to interview many of the people I targeted – except Margaret Thatcher, John Freeman and Jimmy Goldsmith.
Margaret Thatcher was a case in point. Quartet’s Mrs Thatcher’s Bag was the cause of it all. She took exception to being lampooned and, as it turned out, she had no sense of humour whatsoever, unlike her husband who was a delight to be with. She was cantankerous and ruthless once she had a bee in her bonnet about someone, and in this case it was me as the Chairman of Quartet Books.
I would have loved to have been given the opportunity to interview her in depth, but despite many requests she always responded in the negative. Had I got to know her better I would have probably warmed up to her, who knows? One thing was certain: our encounter would have unravelled a side of her complex character that was perhaps fiercely guarded from the public.
The next person I pursued was the remarkable John Freeman, whose biography, A Very Private Celebrity by Hugh Purcell, had just been published.
With four marriages, mistresses galore, a glittering TV career at a time when, unlike today, celebrities were truly talented, he could easily have become prime minister.
But my interest in him was largely as the formidable cool inquisitor of his TV series, Face to Face, with his polite but penetrating questions. Guests included many of the towering figures of the late 50s and early 60s, including Martin Luther King, Bertrand Russell and Evelyn Waugh. But the interviews that probably had the most impact at the time were ones that probed the insecurities of the comedian, Tony Hancock, and the interview that nearly made TV personality Gilbert Harding cry, when Freeman asked him about the death of his mother.
The viewer never saw Freeman’s well-cut features. He sat with his back to the camera in the shadows, smoke from a cigarette curling from the fingers of his right hand. ‘John is the only man who has made himself celebrated by turning his arse on the public,’ commented Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman.
The fact that the public seldom saw more than the back of Freeman’s head helped cultivate an aura of mystery that suited him admirably. Almost pathologically private, he not only loathed public attention but rarely talked about his private life, even with close friends.
In other words, my request to interview him was always rebuffed. I stood no chance fulfilling my ambition. I wanted to know what made him tick and obviously, as a great fan of his, was keen to learn as much as I could about his interviewing techniques. To my utter disappointment, my quarry escaped the net.
The third person I wish I had interviewed was the colourful and bombastic Jimmy Goldsmith. I met him though Jim Slater, when Slater Walker was going through a financial crisis. I kept meeting him over the years at various functions and was invited to his home for dinner on several occasions. I developed what I would call a reasonable rapport with him and suggested I interview him, to which he agreed, but it never materialised.
Goldsmith was certainly a gigantic debater, a bully by nature and a fearless television interlocutor. His lifestyle was complicated, to say the least, and his compulsive womanising was legendary. He could be a charmer par excellence but a real bruiser when challenged.
Interviewing him would have been an ambitious as well as a risky task. I was willing to take that chance but, alas, his promises to submit to an interview were worthless, destined to have gone with the wind.