Interviewing the stars


John Parsons explains how he gets his interviews in the can for ABC’s Film Fanfare in 1956

I’M an interviewer. My job is interviewing film stars for ABC’s Film Fanfare programme. I suppose I’m reasonably efficient at it, or else they wouldn’t keep me on!

From the TVTimes for 5-11 August 1956

However, that’s beside the point. Kind people have said to me “How do you always manage to appear to have control over everything? It looks as though everything has been laid on specially for you.”

Of course that’s not all quite true. A lot goes on behind the scenes long before the interview takes place. To illustrate what I mean let’s take a typical example.

A film star is due at London Airport at, say, two o’clock in the afternoon. Let’s assume she’s coming from Paris (on the plane with a chicken and champagne lunch thrown in with the price of the ticket !)

With a team of five

JOHN PARSONS tells the backstage story of interviews with film stars as they arrive in Britain

First I have to go to the production manager and request a sound camera and my usual team to leave Wardour Street by noon. We shall lunch at the airport, and I use the shooting brake, the Mitchell sound camera, and a silent camera to cover “cut-ins” and lens changes. All those technicalities are taken care of, the men (five of them) are briefed, and we’re ready to go.

Well, sometimes it’s about a quarter-past twelve before we’re on our way — there’s often a little hitch for which one makes allowances when fixing a starting time anyway! Twelve-fifteen is quite good enough time, but we say “twelve” so that people will start trundling in by that time. Everything aboard? Off we go; out through the traffic to the Great West Road, and on to London Airport.

Arriving there I decide, with the cameramen, the best place to do the interview, bearing in mind the direction of the sun, the background we want, and the noise. The background noise mustn’t be too great for the sound people.

Fencing with the opposition

I leave them to it, and they set up, and “stand by” as they say. Because quite often, although we go down to meet someone at, say, two o’clock, frequently we’ve found that at, say, half past one, or a quarter to two, another celebrity is coming in unexpectedly, and we can often get “two for the price of one,” which is exciting, being able to go back with two stories when we set out only to get one.

Then I go to the Press Room where we exchange news and find out the latest information on the expected arrival, whether the plane is on time, if it will be coming in to such-and-such a bay on the tarmac, and where the passengers will be coming through — say “Channel 9” from the customs hall.

Then I have to think in terms of possible opposition. Opposition is always friendly but firm, for we ourselves are always opposition to others also covering the story!

So when we meet we “fence,” and by that I mean we pass on to each other just enough information to keep each other friendly, then we privately jockey round looking for possibilities of getting a slight “beat” on the other chap. It’s just the way it works.

We know we can’t get “exclusives” all the time, but we can often develop perhaps just that slight edge on the situation which enables us to take the initiative.

When the plane comes in, one cameraman with the silent camera goes on to the tarmac, and stands by waiting for the star to get off the plane. We can’t all go out there — we used to be able to, but now, the Ministry of Civil Aviation has forbidden it, so we can no longer interview on the tarmac.

I think they’re probably right because there’s so much traffic at London Airport there is the danger that someone may walk backwards into a prop and be killed.

So we “go along” with the Ministry,

Reflecting for a moment, when I say we “go along” with people, it means just that. Diplomacy is a very important part of this job, because if we tried to bulldoze a situation in our enthusiasm, tried to “ride roughshod” over people in authority, we would really be asking for trouble and they’d do nothing for us at all.

We have to gain people’s confidence, let them see that we are sincere in our consideration of their requirements as well as our own and that we are prepared to give as well as take. Those in authority and the “friendly” opposition get to know that we can be relied on, and that is the vital part of the set-up of the interviewer and his team. He himself must be known as a reliable person of integrity.

If we started any “funny business” or tried to get “beats” where it’s a general call, that is to say where everyone is entitled to a fair crack of the whip, we would really be asking for trouble.

I am ready and waiting

Well, that’s that! Now here comes our celebrity! The star gets off the plane and is photographed by the Press and filmed by our silent cameraman. Then he or she goes into the customs hall, and we wait to pounce on our victim.

Generally I park myself at the customs door, and make quite certain that I am there ready and waiting. I try to look as though I belong to everything one should belong to in authority! As the star sweeps in full glory through the customs I go forward, shake her by the hand, smile and beam all over! I become the absolute paragon of charm and well-being.

She walks along with me while our camera is busily filming what goes on. The silent camera can thus build-up that introductory story on the arrival, and then we walk out to the sound camera and I conduct the interview. Of course our good friends the “still-boys” have their session first, as their motor cycle couriers are waiting to rush the pictures to Fleet-street.

Questions to fall back on

Now the important thing about the interview is that always I go prepared with a thorough knowledge of the star’s background, why she’s come, what she’s doing here, and so on. I memorise three or four key questions which I can fall back on. If the star flags or “dries up” (a rare thing) I can rapidly bring in one of the reserve “key” questions and so the interview goes along quite smoothly.

After finishing the interview, I thank the celebrity very prettily, and away we go.

I said a lot went on behind the scenes before the interview took place. A lot goes on after it, too… processing the film, looking at it, cutting and editing it, and fitting in a commentary, to get the finished product you see on the screen.

About the author

John Parsons interviewed film stars for ABC Film Fanfare as well as presenting his "Star Diary" direct to camera

1 thought on “Interviewing the stars

  1. There was an article in the TV times in the late fifties with the star of the Cheyenne series, Clint Walker. I remember it began, “Theres gold in them thar hills”. How can I find this please.

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