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Thursday, 21 May 2009

An interview with Jim Murdoch

face to face Me: What makes a great interview?

Me: That's a good question and I'm not sure that the interview you're going to get to read later is a good an example of a great interview but we'll worry about that in due course. The Guardian recently produced a list of the all-time great interviews. I'll give you their Top Ten:

  1. Richard Nixon interviewed by David Frost
  2. Diana, Princess of Wales interviewed by Martin Bashir
  3. John Lennon interviewed by Jann S Wenner
  4. Marlon Brando interviewed by Truman Capote
  5. Dennis Potter interviewed by Melvyn Bragg
  6. Francis Bacon interviewed by David Sylvester
  7. Marilyn Monroe interviewed by Richard Meryman
  8. Sex Pistols interviewed by Bill Grundy
  9. Malcolm X interviewed by Alex Haley
  10. Adolf Hitler interviewed by George Sylvester Viereck

The article is worth checking out because there are transcripts and video clips available plus their list doesn't stop at ten.

Me: Yes, some of the interviews I know well. The one I've been forced to endure most often is poor old Bill Grundy trying to fend off The Sex Pistols.

Me: Yes, but of course it makes the list because of its shock value. It's really a dire interview.

Me: Very true. Which one of those you listed would you say was your favourite?

Me: That's really a no-brainer. It has to be Melvyn Bragg talking to the terminally ill Dennis Potter. Rather than being morbid – for goodness sake the man's taking sips of liquid morphine throughout the interview – it's actually life affirming. The man has only a few weeks to live – I think he survived a couple of months – and yet what is he doing? Trying desperately to finish not one but his last two plays, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus. Have you seen them?

Me: I have, yes.

Me: Excellent stuff.

Me: And what about the Frost/Nixon interview, should it be there at the top?

Me: Absolutely. I mean how many others interviews get made into feature films for starters? That aside, it featured not only a great interviewer and a great interviewee but also a great topic. It could have failed. It could have fallen flat on its face. Nixon could have taken the money and, metaphorically at least, done a runner.

Me: Can you think of an example of a bad interview?

Me: Oh, without a doubt. Take the infamous interview between Michael Parkinson and Meg Ryan, for example. Parky is a seasoned and well-respected interviewer who has chatted to most of the greats of screen, stage, sports and politics and yet he's on record as saying that interview was the worst of his career. He still can't work out what went wrong. I remember reading an interview with him in the Daily Mail where he In The Cut explained that the reason she was there was that she was promoting a film called In the Cut.

Me: I haven't seen it I'm afraid.

Me: Me neither. Anyway he didn't like the film very much. It was an "erotic thriller" and probably a bit risqué for him. Still he thought it raised some interesting questions, such as what had attracted 'America's sweetheart' to such a film. But she wouldn't play ball. She 'glided from slight frostiness to naked hostility via snooty disdain'. There comes a point in an interview where it serves no purpose to continue. The only question left is: why did she bother turning up and then not trying?

Me: I have read that she wasn't entirely to blame.

Me: Yes, that's right. Parkinson, normally known for his saccharine sweet interviewing style, has been accused of being 'accusatory', 'unfriendly' and 'cold' towards her. I'm sure there was more going on than we've been led to believe.

Me: Maybe he made a play for her and she knocked him back.

Me: Unlikely.

Me: Anyway, for those who've never seen the interview they can catch it here and here and make their own judgement call.

Me: Of course Meg Ryan wasn't the only interview where Parky struggled. There have also been those where the interviewees have taken over the interview.

Me: Like Rod Hull and Emu or Tommy Cooper?

Me: Precisely. Let's go with Cooper. Care to tell us what you remember about that one?

Me: Not a great deal to be honest other than the fact that after the first question where Parky asks him, I think, where he was born Cooper proceeded to do his act for the rest of the allotted time, body swerving any further attempts to be questioned. He hated being interviewed. I don't know what possessed him to agree to do it. We really should mention some of the good interviews that he did.

Me: Like introducing the world to Billy Connolly?

Me: That's a good place to start. And Muhammad Ali. And what about Peter Ustinov and Kenneth Williams, both darlings of the interview circuit, they only needed to be introduced and given an excuse to talk and they were off.

Me: But sadly Parkinson the show is no more. A great loss.

Me: Absolutely. And some would say that no one who has come since has managed to fill his shoes. All people want to do these days is plug their latest book or film or record and get back to the green room for refreshments. At least the political interview is still alive and well.

Me: Of course, but that's a very different animal, a very squirmy one. I don't think I'd like to have to interview a politician.

Me: Me neither. Anyway, all joking aside you're actually here to do a bit of promoting yourself.

Me: Very true. It's actually an interview I did recently with Ryan Manning.

Me: So, who's Ryan Manning?

Me: He runs a website called thunk subtitled where interviews go to die.

Me: Seriously? It doesn't sound very encouraging.

Me: Don't prejudge.

Me: So, what's it about?

Me: Have you ever watched Inside the Actor's Studio?

Me: The interview show with James Lipton. Yes, yes I have.

Me: Well, you know the bit at the end where he asks the actors the same set of questions?

Me: The Pivot questionnaire.

Me: Exactly. Well this site skips the interview and just dives right into the same set of questions. There are dozens of 'interviews' and every single one is in the same format.

Me: So, how did you get to be interviewed?

Me: I was asked. I mentioned his interview with Ani Smith in my interview with Ani Smith and I guess since I wasn't crazy about her answers he'd let me see if I could do better?

Me: And did you?

Me: I did differently. I'm sure I'm more long-winded than most of his subjects.

Me: So, are we going to have a look at the interview now?

Me: That's fine by me.

Me: And the link?


Me: Thank you very much for you time.

Me: You're very welcome.


Paul said...

Your interview went well, both of them, here and there. I liked the way you gently chided him over the questions. I've never even heard Brando/Capote interview, that would be sensational. I'll go look it up now.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Paul. I agree that is certainly one worth finding out more about.

Dave King said...

Good idea that, Jim. Wish I'd thought of it! At least we agree about the all time greatest. This one might have made it, of course, but I rather suspect that you had notice of the questions.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks, Dave. It was fun to do even if I did lose track a few times as to which 'me' I was when I was writing it. I didn't really intend to stick to Parkinson when I began it but he's clearly the interviewer that comes to my mind. There have been plenty of chat shows over the years - Russell Harty for example but other than Grace Jones clobberng him I can't remember anyone else he talked to.

One interview I do remember was Robin Day being interviewed by Bernard Levin and it was such a change to see him on the other side. And it was a very revealing interview too. It showed him as a man who didn't feel he had lived up to his true potential, a man disappointed in his achievements. Not a side to him I would have expected. As an interviewer himself I thought he might have been more guarded. But there you go.

I've also enjoyed some of Pamela Stephenson's interviews on her show Shrink Rap; the one with Robin Williams was especially good.

Ken Armstrong said...

Excellent post mate, thoroughly enjoyed it! I too loved the Denis Potter interview. Plus I saw 'Into the Cut' which was a load of old hooey. :)

Let me point you to a rather extraordinary interview where the late author Nuala O'Faolain last year discussed matters of death and illness with her great friend and veteran broadcaster Marian Finucane.

Approach with caution...

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Ken, the Nuala O'Faolain interview was very striking and some great sound bytes in there. The two that struck me the most were the fact that she called life, a life that ends in death as they all do, as "a waste of creation" and the fact that she said of her general health: "There's nothing much wrong with me apart from dying," which is exactly the kind of thing my own mother would have said. She was due to die a long drawn-out death from cancer but pneumonia got a grip of her and she didn't last out the week, a fact that we were all grateful for, for her sake.

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