Nixon at the BBC (Face to Face)


Found among the papers of Hugh Burnett,producer of the Face to Face series of television interviews with John Freeman shown between 1959 and 1962, this amusing slightly tongue-in-cheek memo to BBC friends sent out well after the event in 1973. The show was and is (6 set DVD available) memorable for the probing style of its charismatic interviewer John Freeman (more than once causing interviewees to break down..) and also for the importance and variety of its guests. They included Lord Birkett, Bertrand Russell,Dame Edith Sitwell, Lord Boothby, Nubar Gulbenkian, Adlai Stevenson, John Huston, Carl Jung, King Hussein of Jordan, Tony Hancock, Henry Moore, Dr Hastings Banda, Augustus John, Sir Ray Welensky, Stirling Moss, Evelyn Waugh, Gilbert Harding, General von Senger und Etterlin, Lord Reith, Simone Signoret, Victor Gollancz, Adam Faith,Otto Klemperer, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Jomo Kenyatta, Sir Compton Mackenzie, John Osborne, Cecil Beaton, Danny Blanchflower and, of course, Richard Nixon, then (1959) the Vice-President…


The secret service agent who came to Lime Grove before the Vice President's visit was short, wore a snap-brimmed hat and coat with the collar turned up.  His main preoccupation appeared to be assassins in the Art School overlooking the hospitality room. His immortal lines were: "Did you say a drink Mr Burnett?  I don't think that's a very good idea. A drink might impair his workability." When he asked: "Do you have any radicals round here?" Asa Briggs, who was hiding behind a vase of flowers, will bear me out that I gave him  a copy of the staff list with Grace Wyndham Goldie's name lightly crossed out.

Alcohol preoccupied America's second lady on the evening of transmission. At the sight of a photographer, with the grace of a ballet dancer, her drinks hand disappeared behind the back of her nearest neighbour. The Daughters of the Revolution were with us that night, as well as the uniformed, beribboned, frustrated Vice-Presidential make-up U.S Air Force officer.

--But the slick young aides were less inhibited. "If they take you on Cyprus" I heard one of them saying in the make-up room "the line is…" It was at this stage that another unwritten BBC rule was formulated. During rehearsal somebody enquired what the form was if the Vice-President was shot by a bullet instead of camera one during the live programme. "Pan down", was the instruction.

 From the Vice President that evening I learned the three question technique when chatting with strangers. The first question said he was polite. The second question showed he was interested. But the third question, oh the third question, showed he cared.

The Vice President, unlike Evelyn Waugh, was not concerned about the hospitality room being bugged. When Mr. Waugh turned up for Face to Face he glanced anxiously around - "Where is the hidden microphone" he enquired, then his bulging eyes alighted on the cord attached to the electric clock. "Ah,yes - I see", he said and proceeded to accuse John Freeman of addressing him as Mr Wuff. 

That room could tell a few stories, if walls could talk.

2 thoughts on “Nixon at the BBC (Face to Face)

    1. Edwin Moore

      Ours were (are?) not much better though. A friend of mine was vetted for the secret service in the 80s – the 'vetting' consisted of a rough bloke barging into the offices of headmasters, priests and others saying 'This guy – is he a poof? Is he a bender?'

      Fab memo.


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