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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, interviewer and television presenter. He also appeared in several films, sometimes in character parts but usually as himself.

His father was killed at an early age and so his mother placed him into the care of The Royal Orphanage of Wolverhampton. He went on to attend Cambridge University before teaching English in Canada and France. Harding returned to Britain and worked as a policeman in Bradford. He then took 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 infamous for his irascibility and was at one time known 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.

Behind this 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, only became public after his death.

The tables were briefly turned in 1960 when he was reduced to tears on the live show Face to Face, 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 hadn't anticipated the effect this would have; Harding had recently 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,[1] 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 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 on the steps of Broadcasting House as he was about to climb into a taxi. The cause was an asthma attack. He was 53 years old.

The Face to Face interview was re-broadcast on BBC Four on 18 October 2005, following a repeated episode of What's My Line?.

References

  1. ^ {{ |url=http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/1216201 |periodical=BFI screenonline |title=Harding, Gilbert |first=Andrew |last=Roberts |accessdate=2008-11-18 }}

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