The interviewer, John Freeman, thought Evelyn Waugh was being unnecessarily tetchy when he questioned him on Face to Face. Yet, by today’s standards, Waugh seems positively chummy—which only confirms how brash the art of interviewing has become. Waugh’s biographer, Selina Hastings, thought Waugh adopted a “pose of world-weary boredom,” which (at times) is apparent. However, I thought Freeman seemed far too preoccupied with asking the questions he had prepped beforehand, often moving onto the next subject without actually listening to what Waugh said.
Interestingly, Waugh knew he was in for a grilling from former politician Freeman, and he wrote to a mutual friend, Labour MP, Tom Driberg to get some inside skinny on his interlocutor—it wasn’t needed, as Waugh (with the look of “an exhausted rogue jollied up by drink’) easily batted the majority of Freeman’s questions.
Waugh was one of the greatest authors of the twentieth century (Brideshead Revisited, Scoop, Vile Bodies, and A Handful of Dust) and his brilliant career covered his move from being an atheist, radical, and one of the bright, young people, to a (strangely) devout Catholic, olde school Tory and country squire. Though Freeman never fully gets Waugh to explain how and why this happened, there are many memorable moments in this interview (the discussion on his nervous breakdown and the writing of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold), several of which (unintentionally) reveal more about Freeman than perhaps he intended. One gem, is Waugh’s disarming response to Freeman’s prodding over criticism.
John Freeman: “Have you ever brooded on unfair or unjust criticism?”
Evelyn Waugh: “No, I’m afraid if someone praises me, I think what an arse, and if they abuse me I think they’re an arse.”
John Freeman: “And if they say nothing about you at all, and take no notice of you…?”
Evelyn Waugh: “That’s the best I can hope for.”
Waugh described the experience of appearing on Face to Face in a letter to Nancy Mitford:
Last week I was driven by poverty to the humiliating experience of appearing on television. The man who asked the questions simply couldn’t believe I had had a happy childhood. ‘Surely you suffered from the lack of a sister?’
It may have been “humiliating” for Waugh, but his interview gives a fascinating insight into one of 20th century literature’s greatest authors.