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Harding, Gilbert (1907-1960)

Presenter, Actor

Main image of Harding, Gilbert (1907-1960)

A middle-aged man weeps for his mother as he is interviewed by John Freeman in a darkened studio on BBC Television's Face to Face (1959-62). The interviewee in question was Gilbert Harding, scholar, former police officer, teacher, journalist, BBC editor and, latterly, irascible guest on the panel show What's My Line (BBC, 1951-63). It was the last role that earned Harding an effigy in Madam Tussaud's as 'The Most Famous Man in Britain' and the chance to endure Freeman's gently devastating questioning. The waxwork was melted down in 1963, but Harding himself still endures in the public memory.

Harding's television fame arrived when he was 44, after a varied radio career that involved the comedy panel game Twenty Questions plus a joint reputation for straight-talking and alcohol intake. Once established on What's My Line, he managed to undercut the enterprise's gentility by announcing that one contestant was clearly too elegant to hail from Leicester and once being somewhat plastered on air. Such shenanigans brought him a comfortable living, four ghosted autobiographies and a deep sense of loathing that his fame should derive from such a trivial source.

In an irony that he might have appreciated, most of the surviving material in which he appears derives not from television but from a succession of cinematic cameos designed to exploit his small screen fame. Very few tele-recordings of What's My Line still exist, but the Harding persona was exploited in no fewer than a dozen films between 1953 and 1959. Occasionally he was employed as an actor, as in The Gentle Gunman (d. Basil Dearden 1952), in which he apparently understudied for James Robertson-Justice, but mostly he was seen 'as himself' in a variety of settings. In An Alligator Named Daisy (d. J. Lee Thompson, 1955), he behaves in a curmudgeonly fashion at a combined village fete and alligator show. By contrast, As Long As They're Happy (d. Lee Thompson, 1955) has Harding being curmudgeonly at a concert of a spoof Johnny Ray, while in Simon and Laura (d. Muriel Box, 1955), Peter Finch's Simon naturally asks Harding's advice on appearing on the small screen - advice he delivers in faintly curmudgeonly fashion. Best of all is Harding confronting Laurence Harvey's gleefully rapacious pop impresario in Expresso Bongo (d. Val Guest, 1959).

Were this the extent of Harding's impact, he would probably remain but a footnote in British screen history - a crusty paterfamilias who served to balance the paternalism of Richard Dimbleby - but his abiding legacy is his appearance on Face to Face. Of all the interviews with statesmen, sporting heroes, world famous actors and pop singers between 1959 and 1962, it is Harding's that remains in the public memory. The stark expressionistic lighting, the courteously feline nature of Freeman's questions and Harding's dreadful sense of self-loathing all conspire to display 25 minutes of the anguish that lay behind the 'Gilbert Harding' television persona. The tweediness of a retired Colonel masked a surprisingly liberal thinker, who dared to refer to the British Empire as 'evil' on live television - and who was also a homosexual living under the very real fear of blackmail. Freeman's questioning of Harding's 'closeness' to his mother has to be re-evaluated in this light and, although Harding himself approved of the recording, it is still hard to watch nearly five decades on.

Harding died on the steps of Broadcasting House only a few weeks after Face to Face was recorded. He was only 53. Earlier in his career, Harding perceptively compared his television career to that of the central attraction in an Elizabethan bear pit; if this sensitive and tortured gentleman was Britain's first television celebrity, then he was also, perhaps, its first victim.

Andrew Roberts

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Thumbnail image of Alligator Named Daisy, An (1955)Alligator Named Daisy, An (1955)

All-star farce starring Donald Sinden, Diana Dors and an alligator

Thumbnail image of Expresso Bongo (1959)Expresso Bongo (1959)

Cliff Richard comedy about the discovery of a new musical star

Thumbnail image of Gentle Gunman, The (1952)Gentle Gunman, The (1952)

Muddled but intriguing Ealing IRA thriller

Thumbnail image of Simon and Laura (1955)Simon and Laura (1955)

Soap opera satire: a real-life couple plays a happier version of themselves

Thumbnail image of What's My Line? (1951-64, 1973-74, 1984-90)What's My Line? (1951-64, 1973-74, 1984-90)

TV game show that made stars of Eamonn Andrews and Gilbert Harding

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