Born: 21 July, 1924, in in Sheffield. Died: 25 November, 2011, in London, aged 87.
In the 1950s Face to Face was a landmark television programme that broke the polite – rather restrained – television rules of the era. Hugh Burnett devised the programme and created the revolutionary format. It was certainly considered daring at the time, the cameras cutting to the forehead and chin as they went in ever closer to show the subject, warts and all. Burnett‘s dramatic and skilful direction ensured the programme concentrated on the person being interviewed.
John Freeman, conducting the interview, was never shown, and all you ever saw of him was the back of his chair and his head. It added a theatricality to the programme. Burnett’s concept set a new and challenging standard in the technique of interviewing: the days of the polite and reverential chat was gone forever.
Richard Hugh Burnett’s parents had moved to Sheffield, where his father was a journalist. During the war, Burnett was evacuated to Cambridge and served as an intelligence officer. He then joined the World Service of the BBC, where he pioneered an in-depth interview programme.
In 1955 Burnett moved to BBC TV Talks department and succeeded Huw Weldon as producer of a ground-breaking programme (Is This Your Problem?) which dealt with personal issues. This led to Burnett being asked to direct Lifeline, which concentrated on people with problems that were more to do with mental health issues.
Burnett came up with the idea for Face to Face in 1959 from his experience in those earlier shows. Face to Face was a radical change, not only in format but also in who Burnett asked to appear. On purpose he did not ask the distinguished and elderly. There were few politicians, but Burnett preferred to concentrate on high achievers. Invitations were sent to, and accepted by, Bertrand Russell, Augustus John, Henry Moore, Lord Reith, Edith Sitwell, Dr Martin Luther King, Cand ecil Beaton and a representative of the burgeoning youth culture, Adam Faith.
Two interviews, however, have become classics. They were both leading celebrities of the day: Gilbert Harding and Tony Hancock. Both seemed disturbed and ill-at-ease with the questions. Harding wept as he recalled his relationship with his mother while Hancock seemed nervous and unable to articulate his thoughts with any candour.
But Burnett kept his nerve and did not stop the filming so that they could collect themselves. It gave both programmes a sense of suspense that made for riveting television. Both programmes are still shown in historical reruns and preserve a sense of drama seldom seen today.
Burnett was not only canny with his guests. The programme opened with the overture to Berlioz’s Les Francs Judges that immediately caught the ear, and Burnett commissioned the artist Felix Topolski to do pencil drawings of the subject.
In the studio the spotlights remained on the subject and the unrelenting questions started immediately. Burnett never allowed Freeman to hector; if the answer was inadequate, Freeman either put in a poignant follow-up or carried on
Most of the interviews were done at the BBC, though Burnett travelled to Switzerland to interview Carl Jung and to Edinburgh for Sir Compton Mackenzie. The latter was in his bed in his flat in Drummond Place in the New Town when Burnett arrived with his cameras in 1962. Sir Compton, with a tartan rug round his shoulders, spoke of his love of Scotland and his hope for independence.
Burnett faced his other Scot with some trepidation. Lord Reith had a rather dour countenance and had been the first governor-general of the BBC.
He had never given an interview. But Reith was remarkably candid about the failure of governments to employ him after he left the BBC and confessed, in that still powerfully Scottish accent, to disliking television. But he did, after a life of frugality, admit with a joyous grin that life was for living.
Burnett did allow Freeman some personal questions, but they were always discreet and never probing. “Do you believe in God?” was often asked, and as the Berlioz music was in the background at the end Freeman asked if the interviewee had “any future ambitions or lost opportunities”.
It is also instructive who Burnett failed to lure on to Face to Face. Oswald Mosely, who turned him down flat, as did Marlene Dietrich (“You can’t afford me, Mr Burnett”), John Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. Aristotle Onassis wanted advance knowledge of the questions.
After 35 programmes the series ended in 1962 and Burnett went on to produce The Late Show, which was a follow-up to TW3.
Burnett, a man of much wit and charm, spent his retirement working as a journalist and drew cartoons for The Oldie and Private Eye. His wife Simone and their three sons all predeceased him.