BBC Radio 4 Extra, 11 January 2014
Gilbert Harding (1907-1960) was
one of the earliest British media superstars. Through regular appearances on Round Britain Quiz, Twenty
Questions, What's My Line, as well as countless other programmes, he was both recognizable and unpredictable,
his gruff manner earning him the soubriquet of "The Rudest Man in Britain."
Yet Harding never enjoyed his success. He was
full of self-loathing for what he perceived as a wasted life devoted to superficialities. When he appeared on the television
interview programme Face to Face, he revealed a hitherto undiscovered depth of character, as he told interviewer
John Freeman of the experience of watching someone die. At this point Harding's voice began to break and his eyes
Stephen Wyatt's play looked behind Harding's
public to discover the man underneath. In this production Harding (Roger Allam) frequently protested of his contempt
for television, radio, as well as the members of the public who frequently accosted him in the street. He would
much prefer to be left alone, it seemed. Yet the paradox of Harding's character was that he seldom escaped public
attention - on one notorious occasion he was invited to speak at a dinner in Bognor Regis, and ended up insulting most of
the assembled guests.
Wyatt's play explored
another paradox in Harding's character - although desiring to live alone, except for his long-suffering secretary
Roger (Keith Drinkel), he yearned for company, especially that of young men. In one sequence, he encountered Philip
(Carl Prekopp), who claimed he wanted to interview Harding, but eventually offered something more. Harding almost
instantly recoiled, almost as if the thought of physical contact was repugnant. As the action progressed, we realized
that the whole sequence involving Philip was a figment of Harding's imagination, summing up the contradictions within his
character - at once lonely yet frightened of physical and emotional engagement, celibate yet yearning for close human contact.
The only solace Harding could find was to willingly fall into the embrace of Dr. Brighton
- which in Wyatt's play was not a human being at all, but referred to the south coast town. His only source
of escape was to leave his house altogether and walk on the seafront, in the vain hope that the air would "do him good."
While Wyatt suggested that some of Harding's problems could be attributed to a domineering
mother, it seemed that what Harding was pathologically unable to connect with other people. Hence his self-loathing
and contempt for everyone around him. In Allam's performance, he emerged as a rather pitiable figure, whose celebrity
was nothing more than a deliberately constructed smokescreen, deflecting attention away from his psychological difficulties.
The director of this melancholy piece (first broadcast in 2005) was Martin Jenkins.