How Alan Whicker opened up a wonderful world of long-haul travel to glamorous destinations

·5-min read
At the height of his popularity Alan Whicker’s programmes commanded audiences of 15 million people. - Getty
At the height of his popularity Alan Whicker’s programmes commanded audiences of 15 million people. - Getty

Remember when travel was not about your carbon footprint, collecting air miles or queuing for “speedy” boarding? Yes, it seems a long time ago now, and the more recent travel-related hassles – tests, vaccinations, masks – will be another snap no one wants in their holiday album. Sometimes, it seems government ministers, airline bosses, hotel chains, eco-warriors and grim-faced news reporters are working in cahoots, trying to turn travel into something so complicated and uncouth that we might as well all stay in and watch the telly.

In a hard to imagine prelapsarian era – from the mid-1960s to 1983 – travel had an entirely different image, and it was thanks to the small screen. This was the period when Alan Whicker, British television’s most debonair broadcaster, strode, posed, flirted, quaffed, dined and flew first-class across the airwaves. His landmark show, Whicker’s World, began as a segment of BBC’s excellent Tonight programme in 1958. It went standalone in 1965 and stayed on the BBC until 1968, when it hopped over to ITV for another fifteen years. Next month – a century after Alan Whicker’s birth, on August 2, 1921, in Cairo – the British Film Institute (BFI), on London’s Southbank, will screen a double bill of some of his most memorable work – a fitting tribute to a career that spanned six decades and six continents.

We will all have different memories of the shows, according to our age at the time and personal travel experiences. I recall his soothing adenoidal tones, his immaculate suits and blazers, and cravats, his poise with celebrities, politicians and tyrants, his innate curiosity and his penchant for luxury hotels, opulent dinners and al fresco cafés. I vividly remember that Alan Whicker’s world was almost always sun-blessed, tropically breezed, hyper-social and graciously hedonistic; when his shows came on, slotted between gritty Coronation Street, ridiculous It’s a Knockout and low-budget talent shows like Opportunity Knocks, you knew you were in for a warming visions of palm trees, well-groomed locals, opulent facades and lots of aeroplane interiors, airports, runways and hotel receptions – just in case you needed reminded Alan was a man on the go, on the up, on a mission.

TV Times cover featuring television presenter Alan Whicker piloting a boat, circa July 1971 - getty
TV Times cover featuring television presenter Alan Whicker piloting a boat, circa July 1971 - getty

In our Lancashire bungalow, my mum would prepare Mai Tais and Singapore Slings and serve crabmeat canapés and mezze. I wish. She might have a GnT or a cuppa, and I’d have a glass of pop. Cheese on toast if it was a post-watershed screening. But it was as if we were there with Whicker, gallivanting, gawping and gossiping in Brunei, Monaco, Tahiti or Hong Kong. He took us for a ride on the Venice-Simplon Orient Express as well as the Eastern and Oriental Express, whisked us over to a window seat on Concorde, and took us sailing on the South China Sea.

His series were not fly-by-night affairs. Each year’s series had a subtitle – Down Under, South Seas, A Taste of Spain – allowing our trusty correspondent to delve a little more deeply into the cultural milieu he was visiting. He had the nose of a an investigative journalist, and was as adept analysing the sheen and vacuity of the Miss World competition as he was interviewing Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, the notorious Haitian dictator, or talking shop with Hollywood royalty. A deceptively conversational style encouraged intimate revelations from all his subjects, and you always felt you were sat on his side of the linen-decked table.

Whicker’s remit and range were not limited to the merely topical or sensational. Between hotel suites and yachts, he filed reports on divorce, women’s rights, gay marriage and racial injustice, at a time when these were rarely broached on mainstream print, television and radio channels.

The British public lapped it up. At the height of his popularity Alan Whicker’s programmes commanded audiences of 15 million people.

The BFI event, on August 7, will feature programmes in which Alan Whicker meets Cat’s Eye inventor Percy Shaw, best-selling novelist Harold Robbins and – in a poignant encounter – Peter Sellers, plus a 1973 report on a gay wedding in San Diego that considers the rise of the gay liberation movement in the USA. A panel discussion will see Jane Ray, Whicker’s radio producer (who later set up The Whickers, the charitable foundation that uses Alan’s legacy to fund the next generation of documentary makers) joined by Michael Palin and other friends, colleagues and admirers of Alan Whicker to discuss his career and legacy with illustrative clips.

“Alan Whicker was the supreme professional,” says Michael Palin. “He made the world accessible to millions of those who those who would never see it for themselves.”

Jane Ray adds: “Beneath Alan’s gentlemanly exterior was an endlessly curious, maverick mind, the like of which I’ve never met before or since. I think he would have been bemused that the characters he brought to a screen the size of cornflake box are now being shown on the big screen at BFI Southbank, but I’m completely thrilled and delighted that the BFI are honouring him in this way.”

Non-Londoners can catch Whicker in Kentucky and San Francisco on BBC iPlayer. Youtube is awash with Whicker programmes.

Whicker’s Worlds is, like the past, another country. Never before or since have far-flung destinations seemed so close or so colourful. What would he have made of “staycations” and lockdowns? It’s anyone’s guess, but, as he quipped as he boarded the Orient Express at Victoria station at the commencement of a five-week flying, cruising, all-frills “package tour”, “Start the world, I want to get on!”

Tickets for the Alan Whicker centenary are £15. More info here.

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