A radio and TV celebrity loved and hated in equal measure and dubbed “the rudest man in Britain” died suddenly on November 16th, 1960, at the age of just 53.
Gilbert Harding achieved his fame – or notoriety – through his outspoken, brusque and occasionally rude behaviour on BBC shows such as “What’s My Line?” and “Twenty Questions”. Judged by today’s standards, his ‘rudeness’ was extremely mild. It was more that he was unable or unwilling to suffer fools gladly and chose to speak his mind, but it jarred with the genteel politeness of 1950s Britain, especially that seen on television.
While some objected to his taciturn or cantankerous remarks, they undoubtedly boosted ratings for the shows he was on, with many tuning in just to witness Mr Harding’s latest on-screen outburst. His sudden death from a heart attack shocked many, and it was only after his death that details emerged of the kind and generous man beneath the gruff exterior.
Born in June 1907, Harding had a sometimes difficult childhood and was placed in a Wolverhampton orphanage by his struggling mother after his father died at the age of 30, following an appendicitis operation. Nevertheless, he excelled in education and graduated from Queen’s College, Cambridge, going on to teach English in Canada and France.
Finding teaching not really to his liking, he returned to England and undertook various jobs, including working as a policeman in Bradford, before taking on the role of The Times correspondent in Cyprus. His association with the BBC began after he returned to Britain in 1936 gradually appearing in various radio shows.
It was the programme “We Beg to Differ” (1950-51) which first established him as a man with strong opinions who was not afraid to express them. It made him a household name and probably encouraged him to build on his reputation for being outspoken in future appearances, though friends insisted he could be even ruder in real life!
Popular radio show “Twenty Questions” increased both his fame and notoriety, making him the subject of frequent letters to the Radio Times. In 1950 he was briefly suspended from the chairmanship of the “Twenty Questions” panel after grumbling angrily on air about the long introductions at the start of the programme, but he was soon back and his trademark rudeness continued unabated.
He also appeared in several films, usually as himself but also acting in character roles, with a sizeable role alongside John Mills in the 1952 feature film “The Gentle Gunman”. On television his best-known role was as an irascible panellist on the 1950s gameshow “What’s My Line?”, hosted by a young Eamonn Andrews.
The format of the show required members of the public to perform a short mime demonstrating their occupation, or ‘line of work’. The panellists then had to guess what it was by asking questions of the guest. Every time the guest answered ‘no’, questioning moved on to the next panellist and if the ‘no’ answers hit a limit of 10, the panel was defeated.
Harding would often lose patience with the guests and on one notable occasion told a particularly self-satisfied contestant that he was “getting bored with him”. On another he appeared slightly inebriated and later admitted: “If I appeared a bit tiddly, then viewers were not wrong in thinking I was a bit tiddly.”
The broadcast had been on a particularly foggy day, which exacerbated Harding’s chronic asthma, and he admitted he may have “overfortified” himself for the journey to the studio, which became evident in his behaviour once there.
Fifty-seven years ago today he was leaving BBC Broadcasting House after filming the latest episode of “What’s My Line” when he suddenly collapsed in the street outside. His chauffer, waiting to collect him, attempted to revive him using oxygen kept in the car for his asthma, but to no avail.
More than 2,000 people, including many well-known public figures and celebrities, attended a memorial service held at Westminster Cathedral. It later emerged that, in sharp contrast to his grumpy and gruff public image, Harding privately donated constantly to charity, visited the sick and helped many in need.