Obituary: John Freeman, MBE, politician, diplomat and broadcaster

John Freeman MBE: Politician and broadcaster renowned for his skill at television interviewing
John Freeman MBE: Politician and broadcaster renowned for his skill at television interviewing
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Born: 19 February, 1915 in London. Died: 20 December, 2014 in London, aged 99

John Freeman was an outstanding figure in post-war politics and at the BBC, gaining renown for his skilled interviewing on BBCTV’s Face to Face.

Freeman was never seen on screen – occasionally his right shoulder was spotted – but the cameras and the spotlights concentrated on the subject. It was a forbidding ordeal and many consider the format revolutionised television interviewing.

Gone was the reverential, rather polite, form of bland questioning. Instead Freeman asked pertinent and hard-nosed questions and if he didn’t get an answer he persisted. Freeman never hectored or badgered but remained calm and resolute: always ultra-polite.

The television personality Gilbert Harding broke down in tears and Tony Hancock was visibly agonised. The founder of the BBC, Lord Reith, faced Freeman, who asked succinctly if he had made any mistakes in creating the Corporation. After a pause Lord Reith thundered in heavy Scottish accent, “No”. It all made for gripping television.

John Freeman was the son of a Chancery barrister, attended Westminster School and read English at Brasenose College, Oxford. He had a distinguished career in the army during the war, serving with the Coldstream Guards in the Middle East, North Africa, Italy and North West Europe. He was seconded to the Rifle Brigade and awarded the military MBE for his conduct at Medenine during the advance on Tunis. Field-Marshal Montgomery is reputed to have called Freeman “the best brigade major I have”.

He stood and won Watford for Labour in 1945 and seconded the King’s Speech in the Commons wearing his uniform. Freeman rose to the occasion in heroic terms. “Today we go into action,” he told the House. “Today may rightly be regarded as D-Day in the Battle of the New Britain.” Winston Churchill is said to have listened in tears and commented: “All the best young men are on the other side.”

Freeman was considered a future prime minister but in 1951 he resigned (with Harold Wilson) on charges being imposed on dentures and spectacles. In 1955 Freeman left Parliament to become editor of the Left-wing New Statesman where he remained until 1965.

In 1959 he had started Face to Face and from the outset it was ground-breaking. Felix Topolski’s sketches of the interviewee with Berlioz’s stirring overture to Les francs-juges in the background. Then the cameras zoomed in on the subject with a savage honesty. The nervous fingers holding a cigarette, sweat on the forehead and every nervous flicker of an eyelid captured in black and white close-up.

The stars – of entertainment, politics and literature – queued up to be on the show; including Bertrand Russell, Edith Sitwell, Adlai Stevenson, Henry Moore, Martin Luther King, Adam Faith, Cecil Beaton and Roy Thomson.

Only two were not interviewed in the London studio. Freeman travelled to Zurich to interview Carl Jung and to Edinburgh to interview Sir Compton Mackenzie.

The later was carried out in 1962 in Sir Compton’s flat in the New Town. In his bed, the author was covered in blankets and rugs talking of Scottish independence.

Certainly Freeman was criticised for his aggressive interviewing technique but it soon came to be accepted practice and others such as Robin Day followed Freeman’s example. In truth, Freeman was persistent and assiduous in his questioning. He never descended to scandalous innuendo but had the ability to politely belittle a subject and did so with an unrestrained relish.

Some did refuse: Aristotle Onassis wanted to see the questions first, the invitation to Oswald Mosley was withdrawn and Marlene Dietrich slammed down the telephone – “You can’t afford me.”

There is no greater compliment to Freeman’s charismatic ability than, when Face to Face was revived in the ‘90s, it lacked a certain panache.

Harold Wilson appointed Freeman to two diplomatic posts – British High Commissioner in India (1965-68) and British Ambassador in Washington (1969-71). The latter might have been difficult as Freeman had much criticised President Richard Nixon in the past. But the two worked well together and Freeman formed a close understanding with Henry Kissinger.

In 1971 he became chairman of London Weekend Television and reinvigorated the channel, which was in a sad financial plight. But in 1984 Freeman decided to move on again. He moved to the university at Davis, California as a visiting professor of international relations. In 1992 he finally retired to leafy Barnes where, aged 78, he became a bowls champion. In 2012 he retired to a military care home.

Freeman skillfully remained a private man – he turned down honours, interviews and preferred to remain unknown by the public. He remained aloof from such niceties and enjoyed maintaining a certain mystique about his life and career.

Freeman was married four times. He is survived by his last wife, Judith Mitchell, and his six children.