Peter Hunt takes a lighter look at ‘This Week’.
On Thursday, January 6, [1966,] ‘This Week’ celebrates its 10th anniversary. The serious side of producing a weekly current affairs programme is dealt with in a special publication marking the anniversary. Here Fusion [41, published Christmas 1965] takes a lighter look at the past through the eyes of PETER HUNT, who worked on the programme in various executive capacities in its early days, and GILLIAN MORPHEW, who has worked on the programme in various secretarial capacities for the last three years.
The last time I saw President Diem in Saigon he took me aside and said – ‘What programme is this one?’ And when I said ‘This Week’ he considered the words rather carefully and came back: ‘You are lucky to be thinking of this week.’
A few weeks later he was dead. I talked with the priest in Cholon, who saw him go through the process of ‘accidental suicide’; Diem and his brother-in-law, Nhu. The two had worked their way from their palace to the Chinese quarter and the little Roman Catholic church there. I had the impression, from what I was told, that Diem knew that he had come to the end of his particular road.
Diem was dead. The street was empty. People took care not to be around. They were watching but they were not going to get involved. A Vietnamese friend of mine said: ‘You may not have thought much of him. Now wait and see what happens.’ And we have waited, and we have seen. That was my last assignment with ‘This Week’. The producer who asked me to go back to Saigon is now with the BBC; so is the reporter. There may be a moral in this somewhere, but I doubt it. There is a wonderful line from Don Ameche in Silk Stockings.
‘What is your theory?’ asks the Russian girl.
‘My theory is that there is no theory!’
This renders the approach to the world we live in empirical and I suppose that this is a fair assessment of the way we used to and indeed had to organise ourselves when ‘This Week’ started, in 1955.
There were no rules; only ‘Panorama’.
The assignment given us by the then controller, Roland Gillette, was to produce a lively half-hour (minus commercials) for January ’56. There were to be many items, some political, some social, some lighthearted. It was agreed that we would try to end with a short ‘sting’, a one minute semi-sardonic commentary on our ways of life.
Just after the kick-off we had a major accident. Our man in Paris phoned me (in what is now the canteen) to say that he had found a night-club in Paris, already made famous by Time magazine, in which French waiters were dressed as cowboys.
Later, Caryl Doncaster, then producer of all features and I viewed the ‘rushes’ in ITN. These consisted of some 40 minutes of synchronised and beautifully lit extracts from the club’s cabaret. There were girls undoing zips everywhere. It was riveting stuff and I was later to be amazed by the number of people who felt that the film had to be seen. That item was a hard night’s day.
A jolly time was had by some when we took the programme to Paris for our first Eurovision link. Stephen MacCormack, now in Mauritius, was location producer. The programme was sent out from the Palais de Chaillots, into which Stephen cheerfully imported some Bluebell girls. That caused a tableaux with the diplomats. We also learned, on the day of transmission, that the French had views about the use of commercials. This, in turn, had repercussions in our own network. As a result I as editor, was instructed to provide two separate programmes for simultaneous transmission. This turned out to be a record, if not necessarily an achievement.
There can be a lot of fun in a programme if you have to learn as you go along. When we started the staff couldn’t be assembled according to experience in television because there were limits. Some of us came from the BBC, some from films, some from Fleet Street. We had to shake down as best we could.
One transmission day Mrs Alfred Hinds sent us (through Geoffrey Hughes) a taperecording of her husband’s voice. He was currently on the run from gaol. There were no rules. We didn’t know whether we should use it or not. There were risks. Scotland Yard was interested. I consulted the one man who could give us a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It was ‘yes’ and we were plastered all over the front-pages next morning. That was the first time I met John McMillan. The rules evolved. One particularly exasperating one was the 14-day rule governing comment on things to be dealt with in the Commons. We ran into a blow-torch over this during the Suez affair. Two particularly prominent politicians had to be told that they could not discuss what they had come to discuss. One left. The other one stopped and temporised. He is, at the time of writing, Chancellor of the Exchequer. There have been embarrassing moments with politicians. One such, who has since been a prime minister (and demanded cash as soon as the programme was over) was invited to cross our red carpet into the studio, via, as was intended, one of the five star offices in Television House. I posted ‘sentries’ at both entrances. At one I eventually met the august gentleman. At another my sentry welcomed a coloured gentleman, took him upstairs to the five star area, handed him over. This was, in fact, an Egyptian journalist, destined for another item in the programme. That took some sorting.
The Prime Minister of Australia came in to see the interview we had filmed between President Nasser and Frank Owen. It was a good interview. When it was over we had the impression that the Prime Minister was about to say something fundamental – like ‘thank you’. At that point a voice in the dark said – ‘You can’t trust these politicians can you?’ When the lights went up I noticed that Mr Menzies looked amused.
I went to Athens with Elkan Allan, to interview Archbishop Makarios. Staying in the same hotel were Elizabeth Taylor and the late Mike Todd. It seemed a good idea to try something with him. We were invited to the Todd suite and bedroom in particular, where we found Miss Taylor less than dressed. Her husband was pacing the room using the dialogue from Lady C. ‘Liz,’ he said, ‘here are two English Lady C’s.’
‘How do you do, Mrs Todd.’
Says Todd – ‘Sit down on that Lady C bed over there.’
Later that day I was on the roof of the hotel with his beautitude.
Todd comes out on the roof and says, in his not less than megaphonic voice – ‘Who is the Lady C with the hat!’
Such situations are delicate.
All this might suggest that we acted more frivolously than now seems evident. That is not so. Our brief was different. ‘This Week’ has not grown up to be 10 years old: it has grown to be different from what it was. All my ex-companions on the programme can probably top the trivial stories I have told, and they would all have to stop short of some of the truths we could all tell. I refer to Michael Ingrams, Dan Farson, Ludovic Kennedy, Richard Gould Adams, Michael Westmore, Tom Hopkinson, William Hardcastle, Jeremy Thorpe, Rollo Gamble, Cyril Bennett, Elkan Allan, Kenneth Harris, Al Capp, and so on and on. In more than 500 issues there is a lot of heat, some dust, occasionally a lot of fun.
A lot of people cut their wisdom teeth on ‘This Week’, and some got them knocked out. The programme has come a long way from the days when Spike Milligan sang ‘I’m Walking Backwards For Christmas’ and Peter Sellers did time as Professor Smith Grant Hetherington, having seen, heard and secured hairs from the Abominable Snowman. We even once tied ‘This Week’ to ‘Late Extra’, which has its own story. I wrote and spoke the commentary for the yearly report on Noisivelet and a few people spotted how we had found the country.
Serious things happened. We have, after all, been living in the latitude of great events. I think that most were faithfully recorded. So long as you don’t take yourself too seriously you stand a good chance of staying short of a rest-cure.
I remember in the studio, Dr Verwoerd and Sir Roy Welensky, Khrishna Menon and Yehudi Menuhin, Harold Macmillan and Dr Banda, Father Huddleston and so many others.
One event I remember with personal pleasure, since this is only my version of ‘things wot used t’be’ as editor and producer and executive producer and head of features, and all that. I was sent, to my utter delight, to Monte Carlo, to interview the glittery Tina Onassis. The now Duchess will excuse me if I refer to her as a ‘dish’. However, we talked of Grace Kelly and life as lived by those who want for nothing. In my pocket I had a letter from my mother saying that my father was very ill in Canada and needed comfort. I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t afford the air fare to go out and was floundering for an answer when I saw someone at Nice airport whom I thought could help. This particular VIP was first on our plane and, incidentally, occupied the little room to the discomfiture of the other passengers for a very long time.
During the flight home I wrote him a note and asked if he would consider sending my father a word of encouragement, since they knew one another well. A day later I received this letter to send on –
‘My dear Commander Hunt,
I am indeed sorry to hear from your son of your illness. I hope you will accept my earnest good wishes for your recovery. I remember well the good work that you did in the War Room.
I am grateful to ‘This Week’ for that opportunity. And it helped.