Gilbert Harding

Radio Review. The Rudest Man in Britain. BBC Radio 4 Extra : It’s easy to forget how deferential Britain was in the immediate post war era. During the Second World War the public were spoon fed propaganda and news via a national press and BBC Radio – both being censored for security reasons.
Once those restrictions were lifted the country eased its way back into speaking its mind. And one chap who became a celebrity because he spoke his mind was TV star Gilbert Harding.
Simon Fanshaw explored the life and work of Gilbert Harding in a three part series on ‘The Rudest Man in Britain’ – a name given to him by the popular press due to his gruff responses to contestants in the BBC television panel game What’s My LIne?
The programme was a fascinating glimpse into the life of Gilbert Harding who was perhaps best described as a man of his times. Born in a workhouse in Herefordshire, brought up in an orphanage and devastated by the death of his mother – his father having died when he was very young, Gilbert hid his homosexuality as it was illegal in those unenlightened days with a brusque front and heavy drinking.
He was described as a failed policeman, a failed journalist and even a failed teacher. Bad tempered and rude, but also incredibly kind and generous donating cash to charities that supported the poor – probably due to his own childhood.
The drinking and the rudeness were the two aspects of Gilbert that came across the most – with on his own admission appearing drunk on the radio and television.
Candour was his trade-mark as he didn’t suffer fools and was unforgivably rude to members of the public or fellow broadcasters – something that made him a legion of fans.
So who are the equivalents of Gilbert Harding today? Journalists who interrupt politicians and ask them difficult questions are usually branded rude by their victims – Jeremy Paxman for instance – but the panellists on Blankety Blank are cheeky at worst and polite at best. The put downs to contestants by Simon Cowell on Britain’s Got Talent are rude but also cruel rather than witty.
The programme cited James Robertson Justice as the archetypal rude character when he played Dr Lancelot Spratt in the Doctor in the House series beginning in 1957 when Harding was at the height of his TV career. Despite their collective gruffness the two were very different characters when away from the lime light.
Gilbert Harding was essentially ahead of his time according to the programme. He spoke his mind and didn’t care for deference. He died in 1960 from an asthma attack aged only 53 – a tragedy as the decade was to upend the age of deference with programmes like That Was The Week That Was lampooning the Establishment and Till Death Us Do Part sending up society’s prejudices – plus of course homosexuality was legalised in 1967.
Harry Mottram

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