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Whicker, (Donald) Alanfree

(1921–2013)
  • Jeff Evans

(Donald) Alan Whicker (1921–2013)

by Terry O'Neill, c.1985

Whicker, (Donald) Alan (1921–2013), journalist and broadcaster, was born on 2 August 1921 in Cairo, the only son of Henry Charles Whicker (1880–1923), an officer in the Denbighshire hussars during the First World War, and his wife, Annie Jane (Nancie), née Cross (1883–1948). The family returned to Britain after his father suffered a heart problem that took his life when Whicker was just two years old. With his mother and elder sister, Mary, he moved to London, but tragedy struck again when his sister also died, leaving a single parent and an only child who became increasingly devoted to each other.

Whicker's education was at Haberdashers' Aske's School, where his wanderlust began to emerge. He would send off for travel brochures and pore over their contents. Gifted a typewriter and inspired by a journalist cousin, he began turning out short stories and features but failed, at this stage, to convince publishers with his literary skills. After school he joined the Devonshire regiment, advancing to the rank of captain and later becoming a director in the army film and photographic unit, for which he filmed the progress of the Eighth Army in north Africa and Italy during the Second World War. He arrived in Milan ahead of the allied advance and, entering the local SS headquarters, personally accepted the Germans' surrender, being the only allied officer in town. He also took charge of the traitor John Amery, the son of a cabinet minister, who had been broadcasting Fascist propaganda, and photographed the bodies of Mussolini and his mistress, which had been strung upside down from lampposts. After the conflict Whicker moved to Venice, to edit the army newspaper Union Jack, before heading to Fleet Street to join the Exchange Telegraph news agency. He was sent as a war correspondent to Korea where, on one occasion, to quell concerns for his safety, he composed a simple telegram reading: 'Unkilled. Uninjured. Onpressing' (Daily Telegraph, 16 March 2009).

In 1957 Whicker joined BBC Television, working on the newly created evening magazine programme, Tonight, introducing filmed reports as well as handling studio interviews and outside broadcasts. His first assignment took him to Ramsgate, to meet seaside landladies, but his eyes were fixed on more distant horizons. His first television series, Whicker's World, began on BBC Television in 1959, initially a compilation of reports first seen in Tonight from places such as Hong Kong, Hawaii, and Japan. Other Tonight reports were then extended into documentaries that included Whicker Down Mexico Way (1963). He also reported the election results for the programme in 1959 and 1964. When Tonight ended in 1965, Whicker's World returned as a series of new travelogues.

In 1966 Whicker became engaged to the oil heiress Olga Deterding (1926–1978), although the relationship lasted only a few years. He left the BBC in 1968 to work for the newly formed Yorkshire Television, of which he was a major shareholder, taking his hugely popular programmes to ITV, but he returned to the BBC in 1982 with a retrospective series entitled Whicker's World: the First Million Miles! Despite its exclamation mark, this was not a hyperbolic title: it was claimed that Whicker regularly travelled more than 100,000 miles a year. Later series included Whicker's World: Living with Uncle Sam (1985), focusing on expatriate Britons in the USA, and Whicker's World: Living with Waltzing Matilda (1988), featuring ‘Poms’ in Australia. When the BBC needed someone to retrace the steps of Jules Verne's Phileas Fogg and go 'Around the World in 80 Days', he declined, preferring a more luxurious means of circumnavigating the globe in Around Whicker's World: the Ultimate Package! (1992) for ITV, thus opening the door to a career in television travel for Michael Palin (who featured in Around the World in 80 Days instead).

Whicker was at all times an engaging purveyor of traveller's tales, introducing the nation to corners of the world that were implausibly exotic and glamorous to viewers. A fascination with the rich and powerful characterized his programmes—John Paul Getty, Haiti's dictator ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, the sultan of Brunei, and President Marcos of the Philippines were just some of the people who opened up to his patient, unthreatening style of questioning in which a simple smile could lower barriers and a lengthy silence elicit a telling confession. But wealth and status were not the only qualifications: anyone with an interesting story to tell attracted his attention, be they nuns, witch doctors, or swingers, and he listened to all with courtesy and respect. The programme was about them, not him.

Horn-rimmed glasses, a smart blazer, and a military moustache were Whicker's visual trademarks. These, together with a nasal voice, drawn-out vowels, and witty, alliterative commentaries, made him easy prey for mimics and comedians. Monty Python's Flying Circus devoted a whole sketch to him. A professed love of Bentley cars, champagne, and women cultivated a debonair playboy image. When asked which six items he would take to a desert island, he quipped: 'Two blondes, two brunettes and two redheads' (Desert Island Discs, 20 March 1967). Yet he remained reticent, even deliberately vague, about his personal life, taking four years off his age when asked his date of birth (which would have made him born two years after his father's death).

Whicker's later broadcasting work was largely on radio, notably as host of Start the Week, although he was enticed back to television for wartime reflections in Whicker's War in 2004 and a return visit to locations covered earlier in his career in Alan Whicker's Journey of a Lifetime in 2009. Honours, of which there were many, included BAFTA's Richard Dimbleby award in 1978. He became a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1970 and was one of the first four people to be inducted into the Royal Television Society's hall of fame in 1993. He was appointed CBE for services to broadcasting in 2005. The recreations he cited in Who's Who—'People, photography, writing, travel, and reading (usually airline timetables)'—go some way towards summing up his life.

From the early 1970s Whicker's home was Jersey, at Le Chemin d'Olivet, Trinity, where he died of pneumonia on 12 July 2013. He was survived by Valerie Kleeman, his partner of more than forty years, who worked as a researcher on his projects. He was buried on the island.

Sources

  • A. Whicker, Within Whicker's world (1982)
  • Radio Times (18 July 1992)

Archives

  • priv. coll.

Film

  • BBC
  • BFI NFTVA, current affairs, documentary, interview, and light entertainment footage
  • ‘Alan Whicker: journey's end’, ITV, 28 July 2013

Sound

  • BL NSA, interview, documentary, and current affairs recordings

Likenesses

  • R. Rosser, photograph, 1969, REX / Shutterstock
  • G. Argent, bromide print, 1970, NPG
  • T. O'Neill, photograph, 1985, Getty Images, London [see illus.]
  • S. Finn, photograph, 2004, Getty Images
  • photograph, 2004, REX / Shutterstock
  • R. Hellestad, photograph, 2009, Corbis Entertainment
  • M. Mumby, photograph, 2009, Indigo / Getty Images
  • obituary photographs
(1849–)