Biography of Gilbert Harding
Gilbert Charles Harding (5 June 1907, Hereford, England – 16 November 1960, London, England) was a British journalist and radio and television personality. His many careers included schoolmaster, journalist, policeman, disc-jockey, actor, interviewer and television presenter. He also appeared in several films, sometimes in character parts but usually as himself. Harding had a sizeable role alongside John Mills in the 1952 film The Gentle Gunman. He also made a couple of comedy records in the 1950s.
His father died aged 30 following an appendicitis operation and so his mother placed him into the care of The Royal Orphanage of Wolverhampton. Harding's education continued at Queens' College, Cambridge, after which he took jobs teaching English in Canada and France. He returned to Britain and worked as a policeman in Bradford, before taking a position as The Times correspondent in Cyprus. In 1936 he again returned to England and began a long-term career with the BBC. He regularly appeared on the BBC television panel game What's My Line? as a panellist, having been the presenter of the very first episode in 1951.
Harding was notorious for his irascibility and was at one time characterized in the tabloid press as "the rudest man in Britain". His fame sprang from an inability to suffer fools gladly, and many 1950s TV viewers watched What's My Line? less for the quiz elements than for the chance of a live Harding outburst. An incident on an early broadcast started this trend when Harding became annoyed with a rather self-satisfied contestant. He broke the genteel civility of 1950s BBC Television by telling the contestant that he was getting bored with him. The tabloids lapped this up and the show became compulsive viewing.
The insults on TV were nothing to those in private, such as a wedding reception at which a guest remarked that the bride and groom would make an ideal couple. Harding replied "You should know, you've slept with both of them". He became increasingly unable to move anywhere in public without being accosted by adoring viewers. On one occasion he asked a mother with two children if "your children are crippled", because they had stayed seated on a railway bench.
In 1960 he was reduced to tears on an edition of the Face to Face series, after being questioned by the host John Freeman. As the focus of the interview moved on to the subject of death, Freeman asked Harding if he had ever been in the presence of a dead person. At this point, in replying in the affirmative, Harding's voice began to break and his eyes watered. Freeman later admitted he had not anticipated the effect this would have; Harding had witnessed his mother's death. Freeman appeared to be unaware that Harding was referring to his mother, since later in the interview he asserted that Harding's mother was still alive. Harding contradicted him and Freeman moved quickly on.
Freeman publicly expressed regret about this line of questioning, which was seen by some commentators in retrospect as a tactless attempt to expose Harding's homosexuality, though the viewing public did not become aware of it, and he was seen as merely a lonely bachelor. Like all homosexuals in public life at the time, he kept it secret because male homosexual behaviour was a criminal offence in the United Kingdom|UK. Harding also admitted in the programme that his bad manners and temper were "indefensible". "[I'm] profoundly lonely", he stated; later adding "I would very much like to be dead". He did die a few weeks after the programme was broadcast, directly after recording a radio programme, collapsing outside Broadcasting House as he was about to climb into a taxi. The cause was an asthma attack. He was 53-years-old.
Harding was buried in St Mary's Roman Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green, Greater London.
Behind Harding's gruff exterior there was a lonely and complex man who constantly donated to charity, visited the sick and helped many in need. But such details, in conflict with the public image, became public only after his death. In 1979 radio presenter Owen Spencer-Thomas on BBC Radio London's Gilbert Harding described him as "enigmatic ... bad-tempered and rude, yet his friends counted him as one of the kindest, and most generous."
The Face to Face interview was re-broadcast on BBC Four on 18 October 2005, following a repeated episode of What's My Line?. It was also broadcast in part on the BBC Four series 'Talk at the BBC.'