Alan Whicker


Alan Whicker doesn’t know how many countries he’s visited but his collection of passports gives you a fair idea. He reckons he has about 20, at the last count.
“They used to staple extra ones on,” he marvels in his famously suave, distinctive tones. “There’s one with four passports all stapled together. It was a sort of gesture to have this massive thing, but it was a bloody nuisance, I must say ! It was like carrying an encyclopaedia around with you.”
Now approaching his eighties, Whicker has appeared on our screens less and less since the days when ‘Whicker’s World’ seemed to be a reference less to his TV series than to the way that, for 60 years, he toured the globe at will, as if it were his private playground.
But when I raise the possibility that in recent years, when he hasn’t been travelling for television, he had finally had enough of forever being on the move and had been putting his feet up, in classic style, Alan Whicker raises one eyebrow and observes me with quizzical amazement.
“Oh no, that doesn’t happen !” he scoffs suavely. Sure enough, Alan Whicker’s conversation is still littered with casual references to recent trips “when I was in Bangkok”, “coming back from Dubai”, or “being in Bali.”
“I was in Hong Kong, an old love of mine, for the hand-over – or the hang-over as I call it,” he purrs, with that distinctive twinkle in his eye, relishing a line that could have come out of one of his scripts.
“Everybody was having champagne and getting very excited and I was out on a launch in the harbour, ready to burst into tears !”

He admits that he doesn’t miss the filming as much.
“I dropped a line to David Attenborough the other day,” he says. “I’d just come back from Bali. I had such a wonderful time there. Then I suddenly realised why I was having so much fun. It was because I didn’t have a film crew with me everywhere ! I was saying to David this was what he should do – for a change !”

From Borneo and Bombay to Blackpool and Belfast, from Tonga and Tahiti to Texas, Alan Whicker has spent most of his life travelling – all without ever being on holiday. He began as a roving reporter for the Exchange Telegraph News Agency, moving on to the BBC’s Tonight Show and then ever since the early 60s presenting Whicker’s World.

There were the periods in his life when he was visiting up to ten or twelve countries a month. He once “popped back from Singapore”, as he puts it, to collect a BAFTA Award from Princess Anne, flying for 16 hours and 8000 miles, and then flew right back again.

The merest glance at even a selection of some of the chapter headings in his autobiography is enough to make you tired: India, Cairo, Wales, Budapest, Tunisia, Sicily, Korea, Seoul, Ireland, Pyongyang, Egypt, Australia, Texas, Alaska, Alabama, St. Moritz, the USSR, Disneyworld, Monte Carlo, Paraguay…

The air miles he could have had must have reached world-record proportions. In one series, The Ultimate Package, he and 83 travellers jet-setted around the world, ticking off the Wonders of the World.

“After that !” he enthuses, “You never had to travel anywhere ever again.”

As if.

Re-reading Whicker’s best-selling 1982 autobiography, ‘Within Whicker’s World’, it occurred to me that the first time I read it – as a teenager – was one of the things that made me want to be a journalist. I probably wanted to BE Alan Whicker. It always seemed he had the perfect lifestyle: unpredictable, exciting, exotic, glamorous but always intellectually stimulating.

Although he was ultimately associated with an affinity for luxury, going on jaunts on the QE2 or the Oriental Express, and examining the lifestyles of the rich and famous in resorts such as Monte Carlo, Palm Beach, Sun City, for most of his life he was just reporting on all kinds of life from wherever he was sent.

Having covered everything as a Foreign Correspondent from royal tours to Gibraltar (with a four-year-old Prince Charles) to natural disasters and uprisings in the Third World, he became famous on Tonight, roving Europe and the British Isles, filing 5-minute items on cross-channel swimmers, finishing schools, and beauty parlours for dogs. He fondly remembers doing a vox-pop about the first parking meters in London.

While reporting for Tonight and eventually his own series, his instructions were to create a reputation for himself so that “the audience would be asking ‘where the hell will Whicker be next ?'”

He was making programmes about swingers parties in Beverley Hills or spending four weeks in the back of a police car in San Francisco that his successors such as Clive James, Michael Palin, Louis Theroux or Ruby Wax still make, but rarely better today.

At his peak, he became so hard to pin down, that when he heard the news that he had been voted Television Personality of the Year by BAFTA, he was 1200 feet down a saltmine in Poland.
“I didn’t even know I was on the short-list,” he said.

Besides mastering the art of making entertaining and always instructive Travel programmes, Whicker also became the interviewers’ interviewer, producing a string of celebrity profiles that were charming but challenging, thoroughly meticulous but always seemingly conducted at his leisure.

He also seemed to get only the most interesting subjects – not just icons from the Arts like Sellers, Hancock, and Dali, but international enigmas such as John Paul Getty, the Sultan of Brunei and, most memorably, Papa Doc.

“Papa Doc seemed like this friendly little country doctor. But one drove past dead bodies all the time. It was pretty nerve-wracking because this was a time when there was no-one to turn to if things went wrong because he’d thrown everyone out – the bishops, the Americans, all the ambassadors. Everybody except us had gone.”

His secret, he thinks, was that he was always more interested in what people have to say than saying something himself.
“I’m a listener. I’m not all that interesting and the places I visit and the people I talk to are interesting.”

It turns out I was not the only one with notions of being Alan Whicker. It’s not everyone who has their own Appreciation Society, formed by group of English eccentrics and Whicker lookalikes, with a club tie marked with the crest of the famous glasses and smudge of moustache crest on the club tie. But as if to confirm the view that he had the ideal lifestyle, a poll for J. Walter Thompson pronounced him the Most Envied Man In Britain.

“People had this idea that one was always on motorboats in Portofino and things like that,” he says suavely, with that much-practised perfect delivery. “Which, at that point, of course, was partially true.”

It’s a nice idea to think that, amongst all the envious imitators, one of the people who had always dreamt of having an Alan Whicker-esque existence was Whicker himself. As a child, he would send off for glossy travel brochures, poring over the pictures and descriptions for hours, thinking about the journeys.

Although he is regarded as quintessentially English – so much so that the Mail once called him “the voice of the nation” – Alan Whicker was – perhaps inevitably – even born abroad, in Cairo, in 1921. The only son of a Captain in the Hussars, he came to Britain as a child after his father had died.

“My mother and I adored each other. In the war, when she went to the shelters during the Blitz, the only thing she took with her were my letters.”

He was happy as a boy, he says, insisting that the urge to roam “wasn’t so much a case of wanting to escape FROM as wanting to get TO. At summer camp, at the age of 10 or 11, in Tinmouth or somewhere, I would always set off as far as I could, on the bus, down the coast, to look at Torquay or somewhere – go as far as the bus would go.”

Ask him why he was so captivated by the idea of travelling and he muses: “it’s like asking ‘why do you like writing ?’ You don’t know. I always wanted to sit on the top deck and see what was happening.”

He has said he was “absolutely devastated” when his mother died, and perhaps, one could explain the way he always travelled as a means of getting away from his parents’ absence.

Meeting him now, his relentless enthusiasm for travelling or meeting people (“I haven’t got a bad experience to offer I’m afraid. Holiday-makers come up to you in airports or on the beach in Barbados, and tell you where they’ve been. It’s like having a mate !”) is only one aspect of how – disconcertingly – he doesn’t seem to have changed a bit.

His eyebrows are a little more unruly and his moustache is a little whiter – as he always notices when he meets members of the Appreciation Society, which is still going strong, and which, rather charmingly, he sanctioned by becoming a sort of honorary President.

But the face, the voice and the style with which he carries himself remains as distinctive and distinguished as ever. When he recently shot his cameo in Whatever Happened To Harry Smith, a new British film set in the 1970s, and the costume department asked him to describe exactly what he was wearing in those days, he had to tell them: “you’re looking at it !”

Sitting in a suitably swanky hotel suite in Park Lane, up from his home in Jersey, Alan Whicker couldn’t be more like the way you would want him to be – right down the early-morning glass of champagne. He is terrifically suave, charming, company – the perfect gentleman to any ladies present, but with the suggestion of a dangerously debonair confidence – not to mention his rather caddish Terry Thomas moustache.

When the TV Times asked him what he would most like to have with him on a desert island, he brilliantly replied “two blondes, two brunettes, and two redheads.”

It’s certainly hard to think of anyone from today’s generation of television presenters who could match the sheer (albeit slightly 70s) style that he has. Orson Welles, for example, he came into contact with only once: “at a bullfight with two girls, which seems like a good memory to have.”

He dismisses James Caan as “one of the people I used to see at Hugh Hefner’s parties.”

Ordinarily hearing about a life that has been so full of great experiences could easily end up as becoming thoroughly annoying, but part of Whicker’s genius on television was to make his genuine pleasure at being in the places he was visiting infectious.

Whereas most stars nowadays take great pains to correct the perception that their lives are fabulous, Whicker has always been slightly uncomfortable about what an amazing life he has lead, agreeing, “I have been horribly fortunate.”

Nonetheless, it’s still surprising to find that, after all this time, his appetite for travelling, remains unstinting.

When, against the odds, I manage to come with up with somewhere I’ve been that he hasn’t visited (Timbuktu), he is delighted and instantly curious, as if he might set out there.
“Marvellous !” he cries. “Like going to Tipperary or somewhere, just for the name.”

After all, to some people, Alan Whicker’s life must seem like an absolute nightmare: the tedium of forever having to pack, or queuing to check-in, enduring all those long-haul flights, not to mention the soul-destroying prospect of those departure delays, airplane meals, lost luggage, and customs checks.

“You can nullify all of that,” he shrugs untroubled. “I go into a deep calm because there’s nothing to be done about it. Airline meals are sometimes very good, and I like champagne. As long as I’ve got something to read, I don’t mind. I ran out once !” he marvels, even sounding enthusiastic about this. “The only time. In Argentina, doing some filming in Cordoba or somewhere. I ended up buying the Selezione de Readers Digest, in Spanish !”

It is, I think, Whicker’s enthusiasm and sheer appetite for the travelling life-style that sets him apart from his sneering successors – “smart arses”, as he calls them, who, he points out, are all smiles during their interviews and then “go home and write snide things to put on the commentary.”

Even with programmes like the one about the millionaires’ divorcees in Palm Beach obsessed with plastic surgery, out dancing every night, he points out eagerly, “I enjoyed the people. People wrote in saying they should act their age. What were they supposed to do ? Put a shawl on, in a rocking-chair, and get a cat ? I thought they were great.”

Unlike today’s travel presenters whose names always appear in the title (Palin, Clive James, Ruby Wax), and who are making programmes that are merely ego-trips, Whicker’s World was never about Alan Whicker at all. He was actually quite an enigma.

“Clive James writes very well,” he considers, politely.
“But he can’t interview to save his arse can he ? He’s absolutely hopeless !”

As for Michael Palin’s recent series on Hemingway, he scoffs, “The idea of sending a chap who doesn’t like bull-fighting, doesn’t like guns, and doesn’t drink et cetera to do Hemingway ! He should have done Barbara Cartland !”

He was offered Around The World in 80 Days (the series that made Palin’s career) but turned it down on the grounds that the constant presence of the presenter talking to camera “would make it too much of an ego trip. In Whicker’s World, viewers generally saw the back of my head – which was my best feature.”

A few years later, during The Ultimate Package, fearing that his fellow travellers couldn’t carry it enough, he decided to explain what was happening by doing a diary.
“Halfway through, I suddenly realised ‘Holy Cow ! I could have just done Around The World In 80 Days anyway and got rich !”

It seems a bit ridiculous to ask someone who was on our screens for the best part of forty years, and will be 79 next year, if he has spent the last few years wanting to do more TV work. But, sure enough, he confesses: “if a good idea presented itself, I would have done it. It just doesn’t seem to have worked out that way.”

Instead, he has been recording two series of Around Whicker’s World for Radio 2, and writing a second auto-biography (titled Whicker’s World: Take Two !) admitting this has left him “feeling a bit restless.”

A new role writing and offering advice for the Internet provider, AOL’s travel channel ( will see him re-visiting a few favourites, “to keep up to speed. The internet is the future, especially for booking flights and so forth. It’s the new television.”

The love of his life is Valerie Kleeman, his partner of more than 30 years now. Their first meeting, in 1969, was like something from an improbably corny commercial, in the hall of the apartment block in Regents Park they were both living in, when his phone was cut off and she invited him in to use the phone in the flat she was living in with her parents. He immediately cancelled his engagement to oil heiress Olga Detterling and they have been together ever since.
“It was the start of the best part of my life,” he says.

Seeing them, gazing at each other adoringly, reaching out instinctively to hold hands, they make such a lovely, rather glamorous couple, it seems a bit churlish to ask them about getting married.

“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it !” he purrs smoothly. This is a new variation on his old answer in interviews: “just too busy.”
“Valerie and I just never had strong feelings about getting married. But I always knew I didn’t want children. I don’t know why. Perhaps because my father died when I was very small, so I have no experience of family life.”

When they first met, Whicker remembers Valerie as “tiny, sexy, shy and gentle.”

20 years younger than him, she is still petite and glamorous. Everywhere Whicker goes nowadays, he insists Valerie, a keen photographer, accompanies him.
“We’ve shared everything together which makes it fun. We make a wonderful team. I can’t remember us having a fight.”

After the interview, he insists I join him for more champagne and mentions a few more stories. A few journeys. I find myself making a token attempt to cast at least a small shadow on his life, asking what the worst experiences he’d ever had travelling were.

“Ah !” he ponders, racking his brains. “There must be some. The problem is, with my temperament, you cancel them out.”

Finally, with some relief and no small degree of relish, he remembers one trip in the Virgin Islands.
“I was stuck in this rather seedy, run-down, boarding house,” he remembers, eagerly. “With the filthiest food imaginable, mosquitoes and beds that were sort of concrete in a funny sort of way ! Mind you,” he pauses, “the Virgin Islands were beautiful…”

As for the question of where such a traveller will be come the night of the millennium, he was recently flown up by helicopter to see inside the Dome – “so I’ve done that, ticked that off, which is good.”

Actually, he confesses, he had been hoping to just stay at home with Valerie, but now one or two people have been offering him special cruises.

“Cunard are old friends,” he smiles, pouring himself another glass of champagne, “and I’m a sucker for these things, so now I’m thinking I might have to go.”

It’s a dirty job, I mention.
“But somebody’s got to do it !” he finishes triumphantly.

That person has been Alan Whicker.
“I’m the luckiest, happiest person I know.”