The broadcaster and travel host Alan Whicker enjoyed a long career that found him journeying all around the world. However, beginning in 1958 with segments on the BBC’s Tonight programme before moving to ITV, the various incarnations of his series have more in common with the modern likes of Louis Theroux than simply visiting a country to check out the scenery. The inspiration Whicker provided either directly or indirectly to today’s equivalents is clear. Whicker would find interesting events or personalities to follow and as his show developed during the late sixties he increasingly made himself part of each documentary as interviewer and (impeccably-mannered) agitator, inserting his opinions into these factual narratives as well. Observing, commenting insightfully and occasionally prodding with directly pointed questions, Whicker had developed a style that usually gained the trust of his interviewees and caught them at their least guarded. We’re focussing here on an episode in particular that is interesting both as historical record and in how relevant it still is in today’s political and social climate. It observes essential truths about human nature which illustrate though there are always generational gaps as societal and cultural morals and mores evolve, we’re pretty much the same animal we’ve always been, for better and worse. It also shows the evolving template of Whicker’s World as he moved from the BBC to ITV, when the series was produced by Yorkshire Television, a station Whicker was a shareholder in.
“Papa Doc – The Black Sheep” follows Whicker as he pays a visit to the country of Haiti (which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic) in 1969. Whicker was there to explore Haiti but more specifically to meet the country’s leader, François Duvalier, aka Papa Doc. Duvalier was elected as President in 1957, shortly after this surviving a coup attempt by exiled Haitian military officers supported by the US. Duvalier was a populist who had campaigned on a platform of black nationalism. In 1961 he was ‘re-elected’ in a contest where he faced no other candidates. Between his first and second elections Duvalier had moved to become a totalitarian leader and part of this involved the establishment of his own private militia, Tontons Macoute, which translates as ‘bogeymen’. Eventually, after a second sham election, Duvalier declared himself ‘leader for life’. Duvalier ruled through fear, suppression and by purposefully aligning himself with voodoo traditions, creating a cult of personality that he was to be both revered and feared. Duvalier was a trained physician and the nickname Papa Doc had been apparently given to him by his patients as a younger man, when he had still been working as a doctor. By the time the sixties’ rolled around, Papa Doc believed himself a divinely blessed ruler, whilst at the same time fearing his enemies could shape change into dogs. It’s possible previous illness including a heart attack had affected his mental health too, but regardless of the reasons tens of thousands of people died during Duvalier’s rule .
In 1966 the novelist Graham Greene released the book The Comedians, set in Haiti during Doc’s rule. It was not a kind appraisal of Haiti, but was most likely the reason Whicker went there for his series. Whicker is a great host for this sort of documentary. Always polite when face-to-face with the various subjects of the episodes, it’s the same with Papa Doc. Whicker reserves his judgement for his narration as he tours the country, at once impressed by this nation of black people who had established their own corner of the world and – at times – flourished and disappointed as he observes how Papa Doc is unravelling this. Whicker explores voodoo ceremonies, graveyards and the slum of Papa Doc’s failed city experiment. He is smitten with the country and people and yet under no illusions that the government and middle class Papa Doc created was built on corruption.
There are easy parallels with Papa Doc and today’s emerging leaders, usually promoting isolationist, fear-mongering agendas. Trump is the most obvious, a man who has used a cult of personality to bludgeon his way to undeserved power. Like with Papa Doc, we know he’s corrupt and self-serving but for those that love him, there’s a million justifications for still ‘believing’ in him. Like Papa Doc too, the depth of corruption will probably take years to come out. Papa Doc apparently kept the head of a former enemy in a closet. We’re not suggesting Trump has any heads in closets, but certainly the way in which Papa Doc gained and maintained power is a route you could easily imagine Trump following.
At the times Whicker was making his series, the world was undergoing incredible upheavals as the divide between generations became more prominent, and attitudes changed. Throughout this all, Whicker is an articulate, charming and unflappable guide. These incredible times ensure Whicker’s World left a legacy of truly fascinating episodes. “Papa Doc – The Black Sheep” is a great place to start.