On this day in history : 16th November 1960 – The death of outspoken TV personality Gilbert Harding – who died as he was about to get into a taxi outside the BBC’s Broadcasting House….

Gilbert Harding in 1949 – Fair use

Harding was known for his short-temper and rudeness, not least on the panel game What’s My Line…. He was one of the most famous faces on British television during the 1950s and a regular contributor to BBC Radio’s Twenty Questions…. He also appeared in several films, usually as himself….

But there is one particular edition of the BBC series Face to Face in 1960 that will stick in many people’s minds…. When after being questioned by host John Freeman – Harding was reduced to tears…. Freeman asked if Harding had ever been in the presence of a dead person…. Harding’s eyes watered and his voice cracked – and he answered in the affirmative…. However, Freeman missed the point and was unaware that Harding was referring to his mother, whose death he had witnessed in 1954…. The interview continued and Freeman later made a reference to Harding’s mother, assuming she was still very much alive…. Harding immediately contradicted him and Freeman rapidly moved on – although afterwards publicly said that he regretted his method of questioning…. There are those who thought that by emphasising Harding’s closeness to his mother it was in fact a clumsy attempt to draw him out about his homosexuality – which was still illegal at that time…. In the eyes of the British public Harding was a confirmed bachelor resigned to never marrying….

Gilbert Charles Harding had been born in Hereford on the 5th of June 1907…. His parents had been the Master and Matron of the city’s workhouse…. His father was to die in 1911, at the age of just 30, following surgery for appendicitis…. Harding’s mother had little choice but to put her son into the care of the Royal Orphanage of Wolverhampton….

The Royal Wolverhampton School – Image credit Brianboru100 – CC BY-SA 4.0

The orphanage, funded by voluntary subscription, was granted Royal Patronage by Queen Victoria in 1891 – and was dedicated to providing education and care for children who had lost one or both parents…. It was to serve Harding well, as he was able to go on to Queen’s College, Cambridge…. After graduating he was to take teaching jobs in Canada and France, where he taught English…. On his return to England he became a police officer in Bradford before becoming a correspondent for The Times Newspaper in Cyprus…. It was after coming back to the UK in 1936 that he joined the BBC and started his broadcasting career….

Just a few weeks after that infamous Face to Face interview, words that he had said after the programme were to become prophecy…. Harding had admitted that during the interview his bad manners and temper were indefensible…. Excusing himself by saying “I’m profoundly lonely” – and then later adding “I would very much like to be dead”…. Harding was an asthma sufferer…. on the 16th of November, as he left the BBC and prepared to climb into a taxi he collapsed and died from an attack…. He was 53 years old….

One thought on “On this day in history….16th November 1960

  1. Another great story Hazel. This is another example of how much things have changed over the years. If he had admitted to being a homosexual in that interview in 1960 it would have almost certainly cost him his job. I suppose his loneliness is a symptom of isolation due to the way society perceived homosexuality at the time.

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