Alice Thomson

The Times

How do you interview someone who is dying? The text to Alice Thomson arrived on a sunny morning. “Hey Alice. I have a favour to ask. I’ve been given a few weeks at most to live. Maybe it’s not your cup of tea but I want to do one last interview.” Alice had first met #Bowelbabe Deborah James after she was diagnosed with incurable cancer and over the next few years interviewed her five times. She told Alice she never wanted to be “a sob story” but in her final testimony as her life slipped away, both were in tears. Alice tackled the fundamental questions that we too rarely ask friends and family who are dying. This last print interview contributed to the extraordinary outpouring of national emotion at Deborah’s bravery, which led in turn to her being created a Dame, as well as raising £7million for charity and raising awareness of bowel cancer.

Bill Gates, the second richest man in the world, was a very different interviewee but again Alice had met him several times before, building up a relationship whether avoiding goats in Ethiopia or watching him do his daughter’s maths homework in Seattle. Here the challenge was to humanise a man who would prefer to speak in numbers and graphs, persuading Gates to talk about the man as well the mission. His aides insisted the personal was off limits, but this magazine interview built on Alice’s past talks with Gates and his wife, cleverly revealing why Gates felt so distraught at their separation. In addition to explaining how he predicted this pandemic, Gates talks poignantly for the first time about why he still loves Melinda, how he is grieving for their relationship and why he wishes he had never met Jeffrey Epstein. The interview was picked up globally. Tony Blair, like Bill Gates, is another individual who has spent decades in the public eye and given dozens of interviews, several of them to Alice. Unlike Gates, he appears happy to talk more personally, but in fact is even more adept at not answering questions he wants to avoid. But because Alice has interviewed him several times, the first time when he was leader of the opposition, she knew how to both provoke, amuse and encourage him. This interview for The Times magazine was a reminder of why the Goldilocks of politics remains relevant as he presciently called time on Boris and predicted the invasion of Ukraine. But as with Gates, the interview was given additional impact by rare parallel personal revelations, from the fact that he doesn’t polish his own boots or drive a car, to finally coming to terms with being hated. Alice’s interviews are important records because she allows interviewees their own voice, she doesn’t judge in person or in print, winning their trust as she guides them from public posture to private revelation, revealing their fears and hopes, and vulnerabilities, giving her readers a unique insight into extraordinary people’s motivation as human beings.