top of page
  • Guy

This Cultural Life

Becoming a good solution-focused practitioner includes developing our interviewing ability and style. There is a lot to learn from other fields than our own in this respect, a thought that occurred to me when listening to some interviews on the BBC recently. In each case, the content of the interviews was fascinating, which can lead us to miss the skill of the interviewer. In this post, I focus more on the latter.

Having heard him on a BBC Radio 4 programme, a friend recently posted a rave review of Paul McCartney on Facebook, saying -

“What a great bloke and obviously a fantastic artist! …he came across not like a boring celeb… humble but strong, intelligent… really moving!”

My interest was piqued, partly because although I love lots of McCartney’s music, especially of course his work in the Beatles, I don’t often see such fulsome praise for him (maybe I hang around mainly with Lennon fans). I had recently watched the Get Back documentary, which was compelling viewing - with joyous moments such as when Billy Preston joined the Beatles in the studio, and the famous rooftop concert - and tended to confirm me in my view of McCartney at that time, as absorbed in himself and his idea of how he wanted the Beatles to be, and inattentive to some others, George Harrison in particular.

But that was a long, long time ago, and, reading my friend’s positive comments, I thought I should listen to this programme, and what better time to do so than at a time when I was decorating a room in my flat, perfect conditions for attentive listening. And it was thoroughly enjoyable, and McCartney does indeed come across as a thoroughly interesting, decent bloke, not just as the musical genius he undoubtedly is. The programme was one of a series called This Cultural Life, in which a famous person is interviewed about their cultural influences by BBC presenter John Wilson. As I stood on my ladder, painting the ceiling, my computer clicked on to the next in the series, in which Wilson interviewed the artist, Tracey Emin. Then the next, which featured film director, Mike Leigh. They too, came across as interesting and decent, humble and intelligent, as well as fascinating creative artists. And like Paul McCartney, Tracey Emin has not always had the best press.

There was one moment in the interview with Mike Leigh that really grabbed my attention, and that was when it seemed for a moment or two that John Wilson had asked him a question that he wasn’t going to be able to answer. I will come back to what the question was later, but what then happened - this is how it seemed to me at least - is that John Wilson noticed that Leigh might be about to struggle with his question, so followed up quickly in such a way that Leigh was able to respond. I liked the way Wilson did this, and it led me to think that the common factor in these three interviews was… John Wilson, and what a skilful and sympathetic interviewer he was.

I first came across John Wilson when I heard an advert for one of his radio programmes, Mastertapes, in which Wilson interviews a musician about a classic album they have been involved in the making of. This episode was going to feature Wilko Johnson, the album being Down By The Jetty by Johnson’s former band, Dr Feelgood. Johnson had recently been diagnosed with cancer and had not been given long to live. He had reacted to this in a remarkably positive fashion, organising a farewell tour and agreeing to appear on Mastertapes being just two of the things he did. The radio show was recorded at the BBC’s Maida Vale studios in London, and I was fortunate enough to get a ticket. I am a big fan of Wilko Johnson’s and it was a special experience to be in that audience, to see him demonstrate his unique style of guitar playing, and hear him talking with John Wilson about his life and career.

Understandably focused on Wilko Johnson as I was, it is only now that it has occurred to me that the quality of that conversation will have also arisen from John Wilson’s ability as an interviewer. To interview a man who has been given less than a year to live cannot be an easy task, but this is how it seemed in this case, as far as I recall. Though actually, as I think back, I don’t find it easy to remember John Wilson’s interviewing at all. I remember Wilko Johnson vividly, so perhaps this was a case where the interviewer left no footprints, on me at least (that therapists should aspire to “leave no footprints” is a well-known idea of one of the founders of solution-focused brief therapy, Insoo Kim Berg).

I can end this anecdote on the happy note that Johnson did not die as had been predicted, as he received a sort of second opinion from a doctor who attended one of his farewell gigs, and, from what he saw, questioned the extent of the growth of his cancer. This led to Johnson having an operation which saved his life.

So I knew of John Wilson, and had now heard four interviews of his, all of which foregrounded fascinating subjects, who, I was now thinking, Wilson had brought the best out of, in an unobtrusive and unassuming manner. How did he do it? I decided to listen to the Mike Leigh interview again, as this was the one that contained the moment I had first noticed, when Wilson’s skill in interviewing suddenly jumped out at me, and this time to focus more on Wilson than on Leigh.

The programme is just over 40 minutes long, and, apart from some very short (and wonderful) clips from some of Mike Leigh’s plays and films, is entirely made up of the conversation between him and John Wilson. I will focus on a few illustrative moments rather than analyse the conversation moment-by-moment and Wilson’s interviewing question-by-question, but I’d encourage you to listen to the whole interview.

A few general comments first though, one being that much of the relaxed nature of the conversation will have come from lots of preparation, and I’m sure that Wilson will have been well assisted in that by the programme’s producer, Edwina Pitman. A helpful framework for the conversation was also provided by the fact that Leigh had been asked to choose a number of important cultural moments in his life, that were used as jumping off points during the interview.

Another general point is that I couldn’t actually learn about Wilson’s skill as an interviewer by focusing only on what he did. What was crucial was how Wilson listened to Leigh, which enabled him to ask questions that helped Leigh extend and build on his answers. A good interview is a conversation, in the sense that subsequent questions connect with previous answers, which requires close listening. So to pay attention to Wilson’s skill as an interviewer was to pay attention to what Leigh said too.

It’s worth considering how an interviewer starts a conversation, as its beginning will set a tone and influence what follows. We hear some of the setting up of this conversation and its recording, and just after the director indicated to Leigh where to sit, the comment “the cameras are rolling” could be heard, and Wilson asked Leigh, “Are we in character now?” As well as being a light-hearted reference to the improvisational method of film-making that Leigh is famous for, and so bringing some humour to a situation where nerves were likely to be around, this had the effect of immediately acknowledging one of Leigh’s great strengths, in facilitating the creation of character by his actors.

Wilson then opens the ‘interview proper’ by asking Leigh for his earliest cultural memory, setting in train a simple, chronological framework for the interview, not unlike the beginning of a description of a ‘preferred future’ in a solution-focused session.

As Leigh begins to reminisce about his early childhood through this cultural lens, from going to see Laurel and Hardy on their famous UK tour, aged 9, to music hall, the arrival of television, and then on to artistic activity at school, Wilson interjects occasionally, to add in little details that help to make Leigh’s account vivid, giving it a time, place and list of characters:

ML - … of course, in school from the earliest age I was drawing, putting on sketches, generally wanting to be creative in all kinds of different ways.

JW - This is in Salford, Salford Grammar School.

ML - Yes, well, I’m talking about the primary school and Salford Grammar School was of course was later and there I was in all the school plays and did art and all that stuff.

JW - So, growing up in Salford…

ML - In North Salford, yeah.

JW - …and your father was a doctor, wasn’t he?

ML - He was, and we lived over the surgery until I was about 13, in a very working class area…

As Wilson continues to assist in a careful delineation of the milieu in which Leigh grew up, and asks Leigh about the influence of his parents on his personal creativity, a rich picture emerges of both an encouragement by his parents of cultural interests and a reaction, by Leigh, against their rather stuffy, conservative conception of the arts. This picture includes his father’s desire for Leigh to become a doctor or lawyer, and not to work in arts or entertainment, fearing that this would be low-paid. Leigh’s dreams, however, were affected by his regular visits to the cinema - one of the 14 in walking distance from his house (JW - 14?!) - and again Wilson helps Leigh to paint the background to his dreams:

ML - I used to watch Westerns, and from the earliest age, there were two things that I always thought about films, was, wouldn’t it be great if you could have a film where the characters in the film were like real people, not like actors. And the other thing, which is of far less significance, is that watching Westerns, you know, because of the nature of the number of frames and length of film, the wheels on a stagecoach would go around backwards…

JW - Yes (laughing)

ML - …and I used to sit there thinking, when I make films, they’ll go round the right way. Now that was from a very early age…

JW - (coming in quickly) What sort of age?

ML - Oh, little, I mean, 6, 7, 8, I don’t know…

JW - You were thinking of making films at that age?

ML - Well, I was thinking, somehow that that… and anytime I saw anything, I was just interested in doing it, basically.

JW - Did you see the world in a cinematic way at that age?

ML - Well, in retrospect, I suppose I did. Actually that’s a very interesting and possibly convoluted question you’ve just asked me, because the turn on for me was and is the real world. So it’s not a question of seeing the world in a cinematic way, it’s seeing cinema in a real world way, if that makes any sense.

JW - Absolutely, yes.

One of the cultural moments that Mike Leigh had chosen took the form of an epiphany, which occurred when he was taking part in a life drawing class at art school. He had studied acting before this, and found this “mechanical, superficial and inorganic” while in the art room, “real creative work was happening”. Leigh began to touch on how this resonated with primitive ideas he was having about creating theatre in a collaborative way, using rehearsal in an organic way, and Wilson helped him to go further into this. He heavily accented the words “What did you do” in his next question:

JW - You talk about that moment as a revelation. What did you do with that experience, or did it occur to you in that moment, I can use the energy in this room…?

This and his following questions prompt a fascinating account by Leigh of developing creative process.

Then into the flow of the conversation came the question that might have been about to halt Leigh in his tracks:

JW What does theatre mean to you now?

ML - Theatre?

JW - Umm.

ML - Err…

A big, open question, and maybe the size of it had Leigh unsure how to begin answering it. My take on what happened next was that Wilson came to his rescue by, first, immediately noticing that Leigh needed some help with the question, and then provided this with a follow-up, swiftly and easily delivered:

JW - Given that you started at RADA, and put on so many plays, and written so many plays, how do you regard theatre now, as someone who is primarily regarded as a film maker?

As well as the rewording, the extension of the question and its additional words gave Leigh a little time to think, and he continued with his interesting reflections and experiences.

Many years ago, I was a budding bass guitar player, and I had the great fortune that an experienced singer-songwriter and guitarist took me under his wing. To help me improve my bass playing, he encouraged me to listen to lots of different types of music, even if I might never play that particular style of music myself, country, soul, blues, and listen to what the bass player was doing.

I’m not sure where I heard or read this, but I’m sure that Steve de Shazer once recommended that, rather than read about psychology, therapists should go to watch plays, or perhaps it was read novels.

When I am teaching solution-focused therapy, and helping people to develop their interviewing abilities, I sometimes refer to the skills that journalists have, in eliciting the sort of detail from people that enables them to bring their news stories to life, and encourage trainees to think of themselves as obtaining a story like a journalist. In my time as a social worker, I also came across many police officers who were excellent at interviewing people, in a very different context.

As therapists, who follow an approach which has asking questions at its centre, we can learn a lot by observing the interviewing done by people in other professions. It is not easy to observe journalists - print journalists at least - and police officers, at work, but we can see and hear broadcast journalists. Set piece political interviews are increasingly adversarial and to some extent formulaic, which I believe makes them less useful.

Strangely perhaps, it has not occurred to me before that there are many interviewers out there who we can hear at work, those who, like John Wilson, interview people for programmes on the radio and television like This Cultural Life. So, just as my singer-songwriter friend encouraged me to listen to a wide range of music, if you wish to develop your conversational interviewing abilities, I’d encourage you to listen to a wide range of interviews. Paradoxically, when the best interviewers are at work, you will tend not to notice them, as they will do what they do in such a way that all the focus will be on the interviewee. Those might be the best interviews of all to listen to, but don’t get too interested in the interviewee - pay attention to how the interviewer does what they do too.

Guy Shennan

15 January 2022

Sign-up to my Blog:

bottom of page