||As the opening titles of 1971's The World of Whicker announced, Alan Whicker was the globe's most travelled television interviewer, and one of the most respected in his field, certainly he was probably the most recognisable for a good few decades. In the first episode he ventured to Guyana, off the coast, to visit the infamous Devil's Island which from the 1850s to the 1930s housed France's convicts, much as Australia was used by Britain to deport its criminals to. As the years went by, the scandal about such a harsh environment, where we are told thousands of men died in horrendous conditions, only grew, and when Alfred Dreyfus revealed he had been sent there not as a murderer or rapist but as a political prisoner, the condemnation only grew. Our host interviewed a couple of now-elderly inmates, long since set free, and a guard who was adamant most of the convicts deserved their ghastly fate. This was topical because the book Papillon had recently become a bestseller, and provided valuable background perhaps more credible than that account.
Colin Tennant was the subject of episode two, the soon to be Baron Glenconner in the nineteen-eighties, but in the early seventies best known as the wealthy socialite who had purchased the island of Mustique in the Caribbean in 1958. When Whicker caught up with him, he was well and truly ensconced on the isle with its relatively small population, no electricity or running water, and an attempt to build both plantations and a tourist industry. However, as we see when they are both caught in a torrential rainstorm mid-chat, this was not blessed with the most clement weather, and the robust gale that battered the environment, even on the beach, was not perhaps friendly towards visitors seeking to relax, and neither was the mosquito population which Tennant informs us is not an issue in winter. What we see looks impoverished, muddy and primitive, but somehow he lifts the place with his habit of sporting pyjama suits and a sunny demeanour, which makes it sadder his endeavours there eventually sent him into exile, his family fortune drained away. He died in 2010.
Staying in the Caribbean, Whicker turned his attention to another small island, Grenada, and one of his favourite subjects, trouble in Paradise. The dictator this time around was soon-to-be Sir Eric Gairy, who at this point was tightening his grip on his nation as Premier, having risen up the ranks of rabble rousing trades union leader to head the Opposition party and was, when we caught up with him, leading the place in a style that was gradually giving himself increasing degrees of control. What was notable was that while the worried residents Whicker interviewed were telling him of how unwise it was to speak out lest they be deported, and that they were being followed by criminals and secret policemen employed by Gairy, they would not admit they had been threatened with violence. How different things were in a short time as Grenada turned into yet another dictatorship, and after some turmoil the Premier was replaced in 1979 in a coup. That was in the future, and it was instructive to hear from citizens who were seeing their nation on a slippery slope to state terror; as one of his hour-long specials, an interview with the oddly spacey Gairy concluded.
Florida was our presenter's next port of call, the small town of Kissimmee to be precise, for in 1971 there was about to be a major upheaval visited upon it. Nearby, all those orange groves were to be uprooted and something bigger put in their place, yes, this episode was a chance to see what Orlando looked like before Disney World, one of the biggest theme parks of all time, then and now, was built. Whicker is amused to meet the employees who guide him around the still in construction location, and they do come across like cult members who have bought the whole wholesome philosophy of The House of Mouse hook, line and sinker, to the extent of wearing Mickey watches; he is also entertained to learn he would not be able to be an employee himself looking like he does (no moustaches, no glasses, etc). But the locals are more sceptical this will be to their benefit, and are more convinced the quiet atmosphere of countryside life will be replaced with traffic jams and non-stop tourism, all year around. Looks like they were correct, about the tourism anyway.
Hopping to a different continent, and next up was a trip to Kourou, which on this visit was attempting to throw off the almost literal shackles of its notoriety as a prison colony housing French convicts, including Devil's Island in that colony, and modernise as the heart of space exploration for the Europeans. As is explained, being so near to the equator there was a very attractive proposition for rocket launches, and the French were keen to make the most of their new space base, only when Whicker showed up it was struggling, especially as its British partners were pulling out their funding from the project, leaving the Blue Streak rocket, described as a white elephant by our host, unlaunched and gathering dust, as do the control panels and specialised equipment. He then investigated the wider community to find something akin to the British new towns was happening with Kourou, a modern exercise in the face of the pressing Amazon surrounding it. The town had the last laugh, as its space centre is still in use today, if not the most obvious departure.
There was a "last chance to see" aspect to the following instalment, as the Carib tribe from whom the Caribbean took its name were the focus for the first ten minutes, announced as an indigenous people who were on their way to extinction, both by dwindling numbers and interbreeding with other races. The good news is that they are still around, though not perhaps in great shape as far as population goes, but Whicker gave a decent account of their way of life in a short space of time, including what they were most famous for in days gone by: cannibalism. Meanwhile, in nearby Anguilla he interviewed some British visitors, the Metropolitan policemen who were recruited every year to patrol the tiny island territory, finding it a very different experience but also giving them a better idea of how to relate to London's immigrant population. Crime seemed to be pretty low level there, basically drunk and disorderly charges, and this tour of their duty was fairly enlightening, even if they were not quite as welcome as they liked to believe.
A jaunt around Caribbean islands such as Grenada or Dominica was next, as Whicker, well aware of how the British viewed the West Indians from personal experience, turned the tables and asked the West Indians what they thought of the British, specifically those who had spent time across the Atlantic and had returned to their homeland for whatever reason. For the most part, the reason they came back was not racism, as you might have expected in the era of Enoch Powell's well-publicised views on race (and inevitably he is brought up in conversation), but simply because they found the weather too difficult to get used to, the cold persuading them that Britain probably was not for them (although one lady mentions it got too hot in summer, to Whicker's amusement). An Indian-British family point out that with the wife being white, she cannot go out alone on their island, but most interesting was the discussion with the activist, teacher and writer (she eschews the term intellectual) who unlike the others, was very angry about British racism, perturbing the host.
He was perhaps on safer, less politically contentious grounding when he followed on from the West Indians who had been to Britain to the British who had left Blighty behind and settled in the Caribbean, in this case The Virgin Islands, where he tracked down a small cross section of Brits, and one American, who had come to rest there. It was not all soaking up the sun and swimming in the turquoise sea, although for some of them it appeared to be mostly that, such as Sir Rupert who at eighty-three has amused himself by puttering about in his boat for decades and presumably continued to do so up until he passed away. Others have a found a more useful function like the secretary who moved out with her toddler son to start afresh, or the surgeon and his young family who is the only person in that profession in the vicinity. They had their grumbles about unavailability of produce or the lackadaisical attitude of the locals, but in the main they had adjusted far better than many Brits do abroad, appreciating the clement weather above all.
Back to Florida, and Whicker mingled with the rich once again, in particular the establisher and owner of the famed Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach, Ben Novack, who was proud of his achievements in the face of a general lack of respect you intimated from many of the visitors, one British lady feeling it was ostentatious without being classy. Of course, what Novack did not say among his protests that it was not owned and patronised by the American Mafia, and boasts of the wealthy who stayed there (he was especially keen to name drop Prince Philip), was that he was losing money hand over fist, and just over five years later would be bankrupt. Something else he was not to know would be his family, after his death in 1985, were victim to a sensational murder case, his widow and son killed and his daughter-in-law eventually blamed, another reason why these episodes contained all sorts of interest far beyond the already engrossing qualities that were apparent at the time. The Fontainebleau endures to this day, of course.
Another of the hour-long specials concerned itself with the world's most successful writer, or at least he was in 1971: Harold Robbins. His mixture of high stakes soap opera, thinly disguised characters drawn from life, and those steamy sex scenes that made his readers feel they were getting away with something by losing themselves in one of his books, had proved enormously popular with everyone except the critics, and Robbins was now the equivalent of one of his jet-setting, rags to riches protagonists. For Whicker, he was an ideal subject, and his direct but polite line of questioning conjured an impression of the writer you concluded was somewhere close to a man who was rather guarded, but willing to open up to a straight enquiry. Robbins was taken back to the Hell's Kitchen origins he endeavoured to escape from (check out the local who tries to hijack the interview!), and then to his current existence on yachts with the finest wines and food, on his fifth wife, and having to put up with queries about his characters' sexual proclivities. You had the sense of a man who found a talent for populism to distance himself from the harsh childhood he survived.
A forty-minute special completed this run of documentaries with the lives of the crew of the pleasure cruises in the Caribbean, not as you might expect the ones on the ocean liners, but the smaller yachts which could be chartered for a not-inconsiderable fee by the rich for a jaunt around the islands. Pausing briefly to chat with George, whose favourite thing in the world is to sail off alone around the world - something he tells us he has done three times now, and is now setting off for the fourth - Whicker started urbanely grilling the skippers, including one English gent with a monocle, and brought up the issue of why so few of these boats would use West Indian crews, an interesting question for which he did not get a wholly satisfying answer. Otherwise, he conversed with the "stewardesses" on one yacht who when they are not being hostesses are scrubbing the deck and raising the sail, and finishing with a fairly in-depth conversation with their captain who clearly loves a life on the ocean wave, but might prefer it without the tourists to cater for.
Whicker's next television series was Whicker's Orient, focusing on the Far East when it was still called the Orient in popular parlance and the West was called the Occident. For his opening gambit, he interviewed a man who was planning to make inroads into British cinema after conquering audiences in Hong Kong and China, among other places, the multi-millionaire Run Run Shaw of Shaw Brothers fame, one of those filthy rich folks he could rarely get enough of for his programmes (though his subject claims to be so rich he doesn't know the exact amount of his wealth). What struck you was how taken aback Whicker was with the levels of violence in Hong Kong movies, and he wondered if they would translate to the British sensibility, everyone he asks telling him it's not a big deal in China. Among those others chatted to were superstar David Chiang, who proves affable, and the more reticent Betty Ting Pei, soon to be famous as the actress whose apartment Bruce Lee died in, adding even more interest to a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of the studio.
Thailand and its vast array of sports and gambling that would seem strange to Western eyes was Whicker's topic in episode two, and not coincidentally it gave our host the opportunity to go into pun overdrive in the way only he could. From the kickboxing match he attends with a very overexcited lady companion to the doves which are judged by their ability to coo, and therefore the best coo-ers make the most money, his reaction was very much the bemused Englishman abroad; though he said he was not interested in sport even back home, you got the impression he was more than happy to attend events alien in custom to what the viewers would be used to. It was not quite mondo movie territory, but was not far off with the fighting animals (fish, cockrels, bulls) depicted in ways that would get you into trouble with the broadcasting authority today. And don't get Alan started on the snacks, to which he proclaims "Yuck": not everyone's keen on fried baby sparrows. There was even a wicker (!) ball match, and an elephant tug of war for good measure.
Following that largely male preserve, a look at Thai women, who we are introduced to in tongue in cheek fashion as essentially docile and obedient, even decorative, then Whicker proceeded to highlight the ladies of Thai business who are beginning to dominate the field in their nation. He spoke to various leaders of industry who happened to be female, captivated by their strong financial acumen while at the same time concerned with their lack of legal standing. What that meant was though they could make many millions of baht, both for themselves or their employees, they remained in the service of their husbands: once married, all their property belonged to their other halves, something nobody appears to be speaking out against for fear of rocking the status quo, but is a pressing matter when the women are plainly more adept at the company world than they would be acknowledged as. One businesswoman pointed out these laws were put in place a long time ago to protect the powerless, but the not-so-subtle message here was it was time to change.
The Hong Kong boat people were the jumping off point for the instalment that looked at a life on the ocean wave in a particularly East Asian manner, though the term "boat people" would be used for a very different set of unfortunate refugees around the region in a few short years. This was not to confuse the two, as Whicker was investigating the citizens in the harbour, numbering thousands upon thousands, who up until recently were living their entire lives on their boats, eating, sleeping and all the rest as their small vessels bobbed up and down on the water. Literacy was at zero percent, they were treated as second class citizens, and their poverty was a national scandal, but now it seems something is being done at last. They were contrasted with the local shipping magnates who made a fortune out of the sea, especially one who had bought the seriously dilapidated Queen Elizabeth ocean liner and was spending money like, well, water to refurbish it. The Gods of the sea would have the last laugh there, alas.
Staying in Hong Kong, Whicker considered its relationship to neighbouring China, and the fact it was going to be handed back to the mainland in 1997, twenty-five years in this documentary's future, where presumably the steady stream of political refugees would have to dry up. The presenter visits the bridge where trade is passed over from one region to the other, Hong Kong relying on that route, and one of two beaches where the asylum seekers swam to, not always making the journey thanks to the choppy waters or sharks. He also met those who had made it, and found out what they had to expect: culture shock was one way of putting it, and an official he interviewed pointed out that often their health suffered in the city air, a city that was having to grow by thousands of homes year by year. Bravely, Whicker ventured inside the walled city of Kowloon, which was a no-go area of gangsters and addicts even for the police, though he did manage to find a little old lady who acted as a Christian missionary there. This was a vivid picture.
Finally in this series, a special forty-minute episode centring on Bali, which Whicker was very much enamoured with on this evidence as one of the last Paradises left on Earth, and one that was predictably under threat from the outside world. A Hindu island of Indonesia, which was mainly Muslim, it had been puttering along under its own steam and with its own traditions, worship and entertainment largely untouched for centuries, but that did not mean it was immune to peril - a striking shot sees Alan surveying a volcanic eruption - or the influences of other cultures, particularly as now the tourist industry looked to be creating a kind of gold rush to exploit the locals and their scenery, ancient temples and ceremonies as commodities to bring in a hefty amount of foreign money. Whicker discussed this with various locals and visitors, some of whom had "gone native" (though worrying that two of these men had married thirteen-year-olds), and came to the conclusion, as television's most travelled man, that something was about to be lost here, call it an innocence if you liked. It was a poignant note to conclude on.
[Network have released Whicker's World Volumes 5 and 6 on DVD. If you enjoyed the other volumes, or if you want to try the work of this most consummate of gentleman presenters, you are guaranteed satisfaction here.]