THE EYE PROFILE: THE TOUCH OF FROST

DAVID FROST talks with James Rampton
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Apologising profusely for being slightly late, Sir David Frost breezes in and solicitously motions me to the sofa in his office. Although it is only eleven in the morning, he offers me a Graf Zeppelin-sized cigar and a cup from his personal coffee-pot. Careful at all times to keep up the eye-contact and compliments, he is a past master at putting you at your ease. After all, for the past 30-odd years that has been his job.

He may be able to schmooze for Britain - photos of him with everyone from Clint Eastwood to Nelson Mandela adorn his office walls - but it nearly always has a point. He memorably lured President Nixon into revelations about Watergate in 1976, and during the 1987 election campaign, persuaded Neil Kinnock to come out about unilateralism.

As an interviewer, Frost subscribes to the softly, softly approach. The thinking is that you are much more likely to elicit revelations using kid gloves rather than a baseball bat. Frost's canny skills will again be important as all the major party leaders are subjected to trial by sofa on Breakfast with Frost in the coming weeks. Monday morning headlines invaribly follow.

"Politicians fear him far more than they fear Paxman," reckons Andrew Chitty, producer of 1964 and All That, Channel 4's comparison between the present election campaign and that of 1964. "They think David will lull them into a false sense of security. Gerald Kaufman said to me that he considered Frost more dangerous than John Humphreys or the Dimblebys because he lulls you into saying something which is accurate but which you'd rather not say. David's interviewing style seems old-fashioned, but it does work. He gets revelations by liking people. He makes himself open to people's ideas rather than saying, `What can I do to put them on the spot?'. The Today programme fails to put people on the spot. It is just a barney for a barney's sake. The confrontational style lets people off the hook."

John Wyver, the noted television historian and an advisor on 1964 and All That, concurs. "Frost does not have the aggressive style of a Paxman. It is sympathetic and inclusive of the interviewee, and yet acutely intelligent. Because he's gentlemanly and polite, he is able to get them to reveal themselves."

Frost's tip-toeing approach has led to accusations of toadying - particularly since he gained his knighthood in 1993. Wyver mounts a stout defence. "People charge him with being sycophantic, and there are occasions when that has been the case," he concedes. "He's done a lot of soft celebrity interviews, but when it matters - like with Nixon - it's not sycophancy, it's a degree of sympathy that can draw out remarkable things. He was able to create with the Nixon interviews a historical document of immense importance. I'm not sure anyone else could have done that."

Frost rejects the adversarial approach. "The aim is to open people up," he stresses. "You have to establish a rapport with the person you're talking to whereby they're interested in your questions or eager to persuade you of something. Therefore, cardboard confrontation is a mistake. If politicians feel personally hostile - whatever the subject - you can see them go onto the back foot and play the ball out into the covers. No one scores any runs.

"If you press the most difficult points in a civilised dialogue," he continues, "it can be more testing because the person can't bridle, and therefore has to answer the question. In 1987, I asked Neil Kinnock: `If you were Prime Minister with a unilateralist policy, would you send British boys into battle with an enemy armed with short-range nuclear weapons?' I don't know how I would have answered. It became a huge talking- point. The interview itself couldn't have been more civilised, but it didn't stop it being testing."

Despite his success as an interviewer, Frost professes that he has no secret formula. "It's very important to listen - it sounds absurdly elementary, but some people are more concerned with their prepared ad libs than with listening. And it's very important to do your homework. The more you know, the freer you are to go with whatever catches fire. It also helps if you're born with an insatiable curiosity for what makes people tick."

The other thing Frost is famous for is his energy; he has been described as "a one-man conglomerate" capable of anything from satire (he presented That Was the Week That Was) to entrepreneurship (he was joint founder of both LWT and TV-am.) As if he didn't already have enough on his plate, he is now bringing Through the Keyhole to a daily weektime slot on BBC1. It may not be the most heavyweight show he has ever fronted, but for Frost, the programme is "a very enjoyable hobby. It's terribly important to do a variety of things because it keeps you fresh."

Still hosting talk shows on both sides of the Atlantic at the age of 57, Frost has flown Concorde more often than many pilots. "Energy and enthusiasm are two indispensible qualities," he avers.

Despite the odd ropey programme, Frost's sheer energy has kept him at the top of the TV tree for more than three decades. And anyone who mainlines adrenaline in this way cannot conceive of retiring. "My mother had tremendous vigour. I once said to her that when she died, on the way to her funeral, she'd lift up the coffin-lid and say, `Come along, dears, we're going to be late'. Maybe I think that about myself, too - so much to do, so little time to do it. To be taken in mid-question - that would be my ideal."

David Frost presents: `Through the Keyhole' weekdays at 3pm on BBC1; `Breakfast with Frost' tomorrow 8.30am on BBC1; and `1964 and All That' on Thur at 9pm on C4

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