We talk to the legend that is Alan Whicker on the making of Whickers World, Whickers War and accepting the German surrender on his own
He's been bringing the world into our living rooms for over 40 years now with Whicker’s World, Whicker’s War – in which he rediscovered his war photographer haunts – and as the face of Travelocity. Jim Blackburn said “Hello Mr Whicker, Hello World”
What prompted you to make Whicker’s War?
I wanted to retrace my footsteps from the last war, beginning in Sicily and going up through Italy to finish in the Alps. I’ve been back to Italy many times since the war, especially to Venice, which I love, but I’d never been back to places such as Naples or Sicily. It was lovely to be there, and to discover that everything was more or less the same. I’d assumed that Sicily would now be full of six-lane highways and supermarkets, but not a bit of it.
Is it true that you alone accepted the German surrender in Milan?
Yes. I got to Milan ahead of the rest of the army... God knows what they were doing! I arrived in a deserted Piazza del Duomo, and while I was taking a few pictures, some partisans rushed up to me and told me that the SS refused to surrender to them, and would only surrender to an Allied officer, and I was the only one in town. So, I went along, and the German general said to me, “My men are at your disposal. I couldn’t surrender to that rabble.” A sentiment with which I had some sympathy given the extent of the partisans’ anger. It was a tricky situation.
Is it fair to say that Whicker’s World was as much about people as places?
Oh yes. If I went to Haiti to interview Papa Doc, then it became a programme about Papa Doc. But if I go to Easter Island, then it’s about whoever I can get hold of. Then it’s the place, interspersed with people.
You once wrote, ‘His unspoiled is your nightmare is my forget it’. What did you mean by that?
Oh, when you go to a place that’s full of mosquitoes and dengue fever. That’s my ‘forget it’. Yet to some people, it’s perfect – paradise, even. It’s the same with Africa: some think it’s blissful, but not me.
Can we expect more Whicker’s World?
Oh yes; I never stop working. I’m off to film in Scotland for a while, and then I’m going to the Isle of Man, so I’m back on home turf, so to speak.
Is there anywhere you haven’t been that you’d still like to go?
Not really; I’ve been to most places. I’d like to take a boat round the southern tip of South America, from Valparaiso through the Chilean fjords to Buenos Aires. I’ve never done that.
What do you always pack?
My miniature long-wave radio – so I can get the BBC World Service – books, bug-repellent and a blazer: a useful piece of kit that you can wear either on the beach, or at the governor’s reception.
How has the concept of travel changed in your lifetime?
Oh, it’s changed by numbers. It’s now enormous. I remember once doing a programme about Gatwick airport, suggesting that it was a white elephant, and who needed it? It’s now vitally needed and should be about twice the size, with an extra runway.
Finally, in Whicker’s World, you always used to take a quote from the show and use it as a title. If a we did a Whicker’s World on you, what would that line be?
I was at a BAFTA awards dinner when someone turned to me and said, “You – you’re a fuckin’ icon”. It was a telling phrase, and at the time I thought, “What a great title for my next book”. But in the end, we funked it. I suppose it would have to be something to do with luck. I’ve been very lucky, doing this job that I love. I was lucky to survive the war, unlike so many of my friends, and when I went back to film Whicker’s War and looked around, I realised that this was where my luck began.
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