In August 1996, BBC Radio 4 broadcast an interview with Uri Geller, the Israeli magician, psychic and spoon-bending illusionist. Geller had done thousands of interviews prior to this one and would go on to do thousands more.
But this interview was different. This time, Geller was interviewed by Irish psychiatrist Anthony Clare (1942-2007), a generous, perceptive interlocutor with an extraordinary gift for communication, exceptionally well versed in human psychology and the wiles of human behaviour. This was no ordinary encounter.
The interview was lively and fantastical as Geller recounted tales of his extraordinary childhood and dramatic life as a spy, along with his abilities to stop clocks, bend spoons and read other people’s minds.
When the interview was later published, Clare reflected that he did not know what to believe, as the encounter was filled with so many colourful stories and fantastic descriptions of dramatic events that they made Geller’s ability to bend spoons fade to the relative insignificance of a party trick.
On the air, Geller used his apparently psychic powers to bend the car key of the programme’s producer, Michael Ember, who had to take the train home. Clare was curious and perplexed in equal measure. Geller was just as mystified as Clare.
Clare: And what is your explanation? Do you know how it's done? If it's not magic, how is it done?
Geller: I have no explanation.
This was gripping radio: elegant, erudite, entertaining. It helped that Clare was clearly impressed by Geller and that Geller could bend keys with his mind. But the real magic came from Clare’s openness to Geller’s performance and persona, Clare’s willingness to express his bafflement at what he saw, and Clare’s endless curiosity about people – not only about people who could bend spoons with their minds, but about everyone whom Clare encountered in his media and medical careers.
In 2018, more than two decades after the Geller interview, and a decade after Clare’s untimely death, it is Geller who is lost in admiration, still deeply moved by his “subliminal connection” with Clare.
“Clare was a great guy, a very elegant interviewer . . . It was one of the best interviews I’ve ever had, no doubt. Clare’s questions penetrated my life, my psyche, and my psychological make-up. He was bang-on.”
Clare's connections with his radio guests were rooted in humanity and genuine engagement rather than magic, mysticism or psychic communication. Between 1982 and 2001, Clare interviewed hundreds of well-known figures for In the Psychiatrist's Chair, ranging from Stephen Fry to Spike Milligan, Maya Angelou to Anthony Hopkins, Barbara Cartland to Arthur Ashe. Clare's gentle, robust, probing style changed the nature of broadcast interviews forever.
In the Psychiatrist's Chair was both critically acclaimed and popular with the radio-listening public, which helped attract more guests. The British Conservative politician Nigel Lawson agreed to an interview with Clare in 1988 solely "because I had enjoyed his previous programmes", even though Lawson considers himself "a very private person".
Somehow, Clare created a space where even the introverted were willing to speak about their personal lives to an audience of millions on national radio.
Always the psychiatrist, Clare left indelible impressions on those he met. He interviewed businesswoman Nicola Horlick for the programme in 1998 when her daughter, Georgie, was critically ill with leukaemia. Horlick found the experience "incredibly beneficial".
The key task, Clare argued, was not revealing the repressed and the forgotten, but processing and understanding what was already known
“It wasn’t just a radio programme, it became an actual therapy session. The interview was meant to take around an hour, but we actually spoke for over two hours . . . Anthony could feel the pain that I was suffering and was extremely kind to me. After Georgie died, he wrote me a lovely letter saying that he felt he knew her, even though he had never met her, and how tragic her death at the age of 12 was.
“I thought he was a wonderful man. The two hours that I spent with him helped me to cope with the immense difficulties that I was facing at that time in my life and I was very grateful. It wasn’t just that he was a psychiatrist, he was also a father and he felt a deep empathy for me as I watched my darling daughter battling for life.”
Clare's psychological astuteness and deft verbal skills allowed him to ask questions that few others dared to ask. Interviewing Conservative politician Ann Widdecombe in 1997, Clare established a rapport so effective that it seemed entirely natural for him to ask if Widdecombe believed she was ugly (Widdecombe: "Whether I believe it or not I'd say, so what, so what?"), if Widdecombe felt she would have made a "good mother" ("What a very good question, I don't know the answer to it"), and what, precisely, was the balance of logic and faith that underpinned her well-known religious beliefs?
Widdecombe responded with characteristic assurance and even sought to turn the tables on Clare: “Is your life sort of completely anchorless?,” she asked him. “No, no. Don’t do that to me!,” Clare responded, with impeccable faux alarm. It was wonderful radio.
In addition to interviewing and commenting in the media, Clare was a qualified doctor, the best-known psychiatrist of his generation, an accomplished researcher in psychological medicine, a son, a brother, a husband, a father and a public intellectual who combined knowledge and experience in a way that was humble and assertive, expert and inquisitive, and – above all else – imbued with deep compassion, a genuine interest in others and, when needed, a dispassionate sense of enquiry.
Process and understanding
The format of In the Psychiatrist’s Chair was that Clare would interview guests in considerable depth and without haste, in an effort to explore their childhoods, self-image and current motivations.
The programme started in 1982, when Clare felt that the time had come for a new series, on the basis that the public was now more knowledgeable about psychology, relationships, emotions and human behaviour. Greater openness about people’s inner lives meant that – in effect – the unconscious had shrunk since the time of Freud.
The key task now, Clare argued, was not revealing the repressed and the forgotten, but processing and understanding what was already known. The purpose of the new series, he said, was to cast light on the sources of each guest’s life and values. What motivates them? What sustains them through difficulties and crises? What fuels the notions of excellence that so many high- achievers appear to demonstrate? Above all, why do they do what they do? And how?
Clare was skilled at putting his guests quickly at their ease
In pursuing these themes over the following years, Clare was unfailingly courteous and supportive with his guests, listening for the most part, rather than interrogating.
He was also endlessly curious, often robust and, at times, remarkably and controversially persistent. Guests, chosen by Clare and Ember together, could expect a warm but penetrating conversation with the versatile, tenacious psychiatrist in the chair.
In a Radio Times interview on the eve of the first episode of In the Psychiatrist’s Chair in 1982, Clare spoke about the curious position occupied by the profession of psychiatry in the United Kingdom compared with the United States, and he hoped that his series would make the science behind psychiatry more accessible.
The first interview in the series, with actor Glenda Jackson, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 6.55pm on Saturday, July 31st, 1982. It started with a classic Clare theme: Why are you here, and how do you feel about doing this interview?
Clare’s dialogue with Jackson was fascinating and intense. Jackson admitted that having Clare’s full attention was seductive. Themes of seduction were to be a feature of the series: Clare later confessed to feeling seduced by Ann Widdecombe during his tempestuous 1997 interview with the outspoken politician.
The intimacy of the discussions undoubtedly heightened the emotional temperature in the small BBC studios where they were recorded.
By 1992, a decade after it started, more than 60 people had sat In the Psychiatrist's Chair, ranging from American tennis player Arthur Ashe to politician Edwina Currie, from film-maker Derek Jarman to pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy.
Potential guests received a letter of invitation from Ember and a choice of three dates. There was little socialising before or after the interviews, which took place in a very ordinary, drab little office in the BBC.
Clare was skilled at putting his guests quickly at their ease. Ashkenazy, who, in 1986, spoke especially openly about his mother’s contempt for his circus entertainer father and her ambitions for her son, later recalled “a very professional interview, detailed and very warm”.
Political activist Bruce Kent was interviewed in 1985 and remembers Clare as "a decent man who had done his homework . . . with a direct but non-hostile and honest approach. I was well used by then to journalists who had their own knives to grind. He got me to talk openly and frankly . . . I remember leaving the BBC that day and thinking that I had got quite a lot off my chest."
The Savile interview
In 1991, Clare interviewed Jimmy Savile, then noted as a disc jockey, compere for the first performance of Top of the Pops in 1964, former wrestler, successful charity worker and long-time presenter of Jim'll Fix It, which began on BBC 1 in 1975 and was still running at the time of Savile's appearance on In the Psychiatrist's Chair.
The Savile interview was not one of Clare’s easiest, he later recalled, as Savile reminded him of a boxer, constantly on his toes, extremely edgy, and ready to fend off any attacks.
Reflecting later on this sometimes frustrating interview, Clare was struck by Savile’s emphasis on two recurring themes: money and denying his feelings. In light of Savile’s apparently non-existent love life, Clare noted that other interviewers had speculated about possible skeletons in Savile’s closet.
Lynn Barber, in a newspaper interview published just before Clare's programme, confronted Savile with a rumour that he liked young girls. With Barber, Savile dismissed the rumour in short order and, with Clare, he claimed that he did not like children very much at all.
In some unusually judgmental comments, Clare concluded that Savile was both calculating and materialistic, and Clare expressed a sense of foreboding, suggesting that there was some profound psychological disturbance in Savile, rooted in a deprived and emotionally indifferent childhood.
While Clare was clearly intrigued by Savile, he was also disturbed by him and, in the end, found Savile chilling.
Clare was right: there was something a lot more than chilling about Savile. Following Savile’s death in 2011, hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse were made against him, leading to multiple enquiries. While it was noted that Savile was no longer alive to present a defence, a 2013 report by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and the Metropolitan Police, entitled Giving Victims a Voice, was emphatic.
“From the information provided by the hundreds of people who have come forward to Operation Yewtree, police and the NSPCC have concluded that Jimmy Savile was one of the UK’s most prolific known sexual predators. Indeed the formal recording of allegations of crime on this scale is, to the best of our knowledge, unprecedented in the UK.”
Was Clare right to refrain from confronting Savile directly with the rumours about young girls? Clare later regretted not exposing Savile. But addressing specific allegations or staging confrontations were not usual features of In the Psychiatrist’s Chair, and Clare stuck with his trademark interview techniques with Savile: inquisitive rather than confrontational, incremental rather than dramatic, confessional rather than declamatory.
This is an extract from Psychiatrist in the Chair: The Official Biography of Anthony Clare, by Brendan Kelly and Muiris Houston, published by Merrion Press