The Guardian’s Great Interviews of the 20th Century are full of these shocking, satisfying moments of revelation.
Richard Nixon, in conversation with David Frost, is finally made to apologise for Watergate. Princess Diana, talking to Martin Bashir, unveils the story of her “crowded marriage” in sometimes lurid detail. John Lennon exposes the acrimony at the heart of the Beatles. Dennis Potter, with months to live, explains how “the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous”.
When these encounters took place they were like small explosions, sending debris flying in all directions and leaving the cultural landscape changed. They have kept their power.
Interviews are now a daily commonplace of journalism and TV, and are sometimes written off as exercises in public relations – a celebrity has something to sell; a politician wants to announce a policy. But not all interviews are like this. The best give an impression of intimacy with a famous or powerful person that a prepared statement or speech can never have. Their magic comes from the putting and answering of questions, the dialogic form going back to Socrates, which is a means of getting closer to “truth”.
The relationship between interviewer and interviewee is often a pas de deux, a seduction, an episode of collaboration. Now and then it becomes a confrontation, a fight. Crucially, whatever form the encounter takes, the subject, however well prepared, can never be in total control.
Nixon couldn’t be aware of, let alone stop, his eyes darting when he was desperately thinking how best he could rescue his reputation. Even Diana, in what must have been an intricately prepared and stage-managed performance, let slip that her favourite causes were “battered this, battered that”.
In the fourth in our Great Interviews series, an initially reluctant Marlon Brando ends up telling Truman Capote about everything from his lack of friends to his relationship with his mother. “The secret to the art of interviewing, and it is an art,” Capote later said, “is to let the other person think he’s interviewing you. You tell him about yourself and slowly spin your web so that he tells you everything. That’s how I trapped Marlon.” And Brando realised that he had been trapped: “The little bastard spent half the night telling me all his problems. I figured the least I could do was tell him a few of mine.”
In Marilyn Monroe’s last interview, the seventh in our series, with Richard Meryman of Life magazine, she adroitly avoids the subject of her professional decline and is encouraged to speak with remarkable candor and sophistication about what it had meant to be Marilyn and all the adulation and jealousy she inspired. The exchange took place just months before she died, but she seems not only to comprehend her extraordinary circumstance but to be looking to the future.
We meet Adolf Hitler, not giving a bombastic speech, but in a parlor, drinking tea. On no other occasion did he comment on his ideology in the same way he did in his conversation with George Silvester Viereck.
Talking to his friend, the art critic David Sylvester, Francis Bacon reveals an astonishing amount, about his drinking and how it helps his painting, his family background in environments of violence, his sexual attraction to his father, and his first times he was picked up by men.
Some interviews make headlines. This was true of Herbert Matthews’s scoop encounter with Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra in 1957, of Malcolm X’s Playboy interview with Alex Haley and, in a different sense, of the Sex Pistols’ notorious collision with Bill Grundy in 1976. Their reverberations are still felt.
This is most obviously the case with the first in our series, the most watched political interview broadcast on American TV and now the subject of a hit West End and Broadway play. In Frost/Nixon, published by Macmillan on Monday, David Frost gives details of the financial wheeling and dealing involved in setting up this historic meeting and discloses, too, Nixon’s painful lack of small talk before and after the cameras were rolling. Wanting to engage in banter, he casually asked Frost on one Monday morning: “Did you do any fornicating this weekend?”
Our series does not attempt to single out the “best” or “most important” interviews that have ever. Since the form’s proper invention 150 years ago (the first interview is often said to have been Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune’s discussion in Salt Lake City with Brigham Young, leader of Mormon church in 1859), there have been countless convergences and contretemps that deserve to be called “great” interviews.
Some readers will perhaps express surprise at the absence of Oriana Fallaci’s annihilating flirt-fest with Henry Kissinger, at the end of which he compared himself to a lone cowboy in a heroic western. And Lillian Ross’s New Yorker portrait of Ernest Hemingway. And Muhammad Ali’s unforgettable loquacity on Parkinson. How could we leave out Lynn Barber’s taking down in 1990 of Richard Harris? He had a “surprising habit”, she wrote, “schoolboys call it playing pocket billiards. He puts his hand down inside his tracksuit and sort of rearranges things – King, Queen, Knave; King, Queen, Knave – or sometimes doesn’t rearrange them so much as just hangs on for dear life.” It was tempting, too, to include moments of political meltdowns, such as Jeremy Paxman asking Michael Howard the same question 12 times, or defense secretary John Nott walking out of a grilling by Robin Day.