Sir David Frost: Pioneering journalist and broadcaster whose fame often equalled that of his interviewees
Sunday 01 September 2013
In the world of entertainment and the media, early promise does not always herald a lifetime of achievement.
Yet David Frost, having burst into the nation’s consciousness as a satirist in his early twenties, was still in the public eye nearly half a century later. Not only was he talented in a variety of fields, but he proved adept in managing his affairs so that he remained in the limelight and in demand: an entrepreneur whose defining skill was the successful marketing of himself. He died of a heart attack on the Queen Elizabeth II cruise ship, where he was giving a speech.
While still in his twenties he hosted lavish parties, invitations to which were sought eagerly by leading figures in the arts and public life. Knighted in 1993, he had been awarded the OBE 23 years earlier, aged only 31, for his services to television. By the mid-1970s he had amassed seven major international industry awards, a number that would double before the end of his career.
Almost unknown before being chosen to host the ground-breaking That Was The Week That Was in 1962, he had quickly established himself as a television personality on both sides of the Atlantic. In the ensuing years he gradually manoeuvred away from satire to become an accomplished interviewer. In that role his supreme achievement came in 1976 in a gripping series of interviews with Richard Nixon in which he persuaded the former US President – with difficulty – to apologise for the Watergate affair and the attempted cover-up that had forced his resignation. Those historic encounters were dramatised by Peter Morgan in Frost/Nixon, a play and later a film that drew plaudits in the West End and on Broadway.
Yet Frost saw in himself something more than a mere on-screen performer: he wanted to own a piece of the action. In 1966 he established his own company David Paradine Ltd (Paradine was his second name), to manage his growing portfolio of activities and interests. The following year he helped put together a high-powered consortium that won a major ITV franchise and became London Weekend Television. In 1981 he was similarly involved in the creation of TV-am, Britain’s first commercial breakfast-time station.
For a man who would come to be seen as a symbol of the Sixties, an era identified with permissiveness and rebellion against established authority, Frost’s upbringing was surprisingly staid. His father was a Methodist minister whose rigidly enforced principles included bans on alcohol and Sunday newspapers. The nature of his calling meant that he was periodically transferred between congregations, so David’s early life was peripatetic. Nevertheless, as he wrote in his 1993 autobiography, his was “a wonderfully stable childhood”. At 19 he briefly became a Methodist lay preacher himself.
He went to school first at Bedford, then Gillingham and finally to Wellingborough Grammar School, where he won a scholarship to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. There he quickly involved himself in the high-profile extra-curricular pursuits of journalism – becoming editor of the university magazine Granta – and satirical entertainment, as a member and then secretary of the Footlights revue, where contemporaries included Peter Cook, John Cleese, John Bird and Ian McKellen.
During his time as an undergraduate Frost made a few appearances on regional television stations, and on graduating was offered a year-long traineeship with Associated-Rediffusion, one of the largest ITV companies. At the same time he began to perform at London cabaret clubs and there caught the eye of Ned Sherrin, a BBC producer who had been asked to devise a Saturday-night programme taking a satirical look at the week’s news. He persuaded Frost to leave Associated-Rediffusion and become host of That Was The Week That Was.
The programme, soon known familiarly as TW3, became a cult hit and turned Frost into an instant celebrity. His odd hairstyle (featuring a prominent quiff) was quickly picked up by cartoonists, and his slightly nasal drawl by impressionists. The show had its enemies, though. Not merely did it sometimes border on blasphemy and obscenity; but its trademark disrespect for politicians of all parties quickly got under their skin, and some urged the BBC to kill it after the first few editions. The Corporation’s management resisted for a year before succumbing to pressure and agreeing that it should not be broadcast in 1964, when a general election was due.
One of the last and most memorable editions went out on 23 November 1963, the day after the assassination of President Kennedy. The entire programme was devoted to paying tribute to the President and was shown – and much appreciated – in the United States, helping establish Frost’s reputation on American as well as British television. For the next decade and more he was a frequent commuter across the Atlantic, at one stage hosting three weekly shows in London and five in New York.
Although TW3 was not to be revived, the BBC recognised that Frost was a considerable talent and did not want to let him go. In 1963 a comedy show, A Degree of Frost, was constructed around him and in the following year he teamed up with Ned Sherrin again on Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life. This followed an agenda similar to that of TW3 but was more laidback, and was aired on three evenings a week. It had an even shorter life than its predecessor, being dropped after one sketch that offended Catholics and another deemed offensive to the royal family.
Again, he was not absent from the screen for long, returning in 1966 with The Frost Report, a mixture of sketches and interviews. It was in that year that he began to put together a team of prominent people from television and public life to bid for the ITV franchise to serve London from Friday to Sunday, due to be reallocated from 1968. He used his networking skills to persuade senior BBC executives and well-known industrialists to join the bid and even managed to get a commitment from John Freeman, then British Ambassador in New Delhi and later in Washington, to join the board once freed from his diplomatic duties.
The result was London Weekend Television (LWT) and, in awarding it the franchise, the Independent Television Authority said it represented “perhaps the greatest concentration of talent in one company ever seen in British television”. Despite that, the new station was soon in financial difficulties because its programming was deemed too serious and demanding for the weekend and failed to attract enough viewers to lure big-spending advertisers. Some of the other companies in the ITV network either refused to transmit its programmes or did so at off-peak times. In 1969, at the end of its first year of operation, the managing director, Michael Peacock, was dismissed and some key programme makers resigned in protest.
Frost figured prominently in the LWT schedules, initially hosting programmes on each of its three nights of transmission, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Shortly after the internal upheaval came one of his most notable interviews. Rupert Murdoch, the young Australian who had recently acquired the News of the World, had attracted hostility by publishing the memoirs of Christine Keeler, the central figure in the Profumo scandal of 1963. Frost’s questioning of him was so severe that Murdoch left threatening angrily to take over the company.
He came close to carrying out the threat when he bought a block of shares the following year, but was thwarted by the regulations on cross-ownership of newspapers and television companies. The station recovered when John Freeman, having served his time in Washington, took over as chairman. Talented young executives were recruited to replace those who had quit and the balance of programming improved. Frost was one of the few founders to survive the initial upheaval.
The interviews with Richard Nixon in 1976, two years after he had resigned as President, were the result of a personal initiative from Frost. He negotiated directly with the ex-President and his advisers, then arranged the financing and the syndication of the programmes to stations all over the world. The team he hired to produce and research the shows included John Birt, a young producer at LWT, later to be director-general of the BBC. The interviews were compulsive viewing, in particular the one that focussed on the Watergate session, which Birt later described as “David’s greatest hour as an interviewer”. It reached its climax when Nixon admitted: “I let down my friends. I let down the country. I let down our system of government... I let the American people down. And I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life.”
Within months Frost had produced a book, I Gave Them a Sword, a behind-the-scenes account of the interviews and the long period of negotiation that led up to them. One startling incident that he recorded served to illustrate the ex-President’s gaucherie, his lack of small talk. As he and Frost were on their way to a taping session, Nixon inquired: “Well, did you do any fornicating this weekend?” After a brief pause, Frost responded: “No comment. I never discuss my private life.”
Others did, though. As one of Britain’s most eligible bachelors, his liaisons were exhaustively chronicled in the gossip columns. After an earlier two-year relationship with the actress Janette Scott, he was over 40 when, in 1981, he was married for the first time, to Lynne Frederick, also an actress, the young widow of the comedian Peter Sellers. They were divorced after 17 months and in 1983 he married Lady Carina Fitzalan-Howard, the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. She and their three sons survive him.
At around the time of his first marriage, Frost was involved in a second attempt to launch a television company. In 1980 the Independent Broadcasting Authority sought bids for the provision of programmes at breakfast time, a slot that had for many years proved popular in other countries, including the United States, but had never been filled in Britain. Frost’s approach was in many respects comparable to the one he had taken with LWT, recruiting a host of big names in television and a former senior diplomat as chairman.
The team of potential presenters – quickly dubbed the Famous Five, after the characters in Enid Blyton’s series of children’s novels – were Anna Ford, Robert Kee, Michael Parkinson, Angela Rippon and Frost himself. The ex-diplomat was Peter Jay, who had recently stepped down as British ambassador in Washington.
The initial outcome, too, was much the same as that experienced by LWT – low ratings caused by an over-estimation of viewers’ appetite for a hard news agenda at that time of the morning, compared with the softer offering that the BBC had launched two weeks earlier. After a boardroom showdown Jay was dismissed and soon the Famous Five went their separate ways.
Frost proved the great survivor, as he had at LWT. His principal contribution to TV-am was a Sunday interview programme, Frost on Sunday. Such was now his standing in the industry that he had no difficulty in persuading leading politicians and other national figures to appear and submit to his questioning. What they said frequently provided headlines for the Monday papers.
Although earlier in his career he had practised a confrontational style of interviewing (as with Murdoch and Nixon) he had by now moderated his approach. He liked to quote a compliment that John Smith, the late Labour leader, once paid him: “David, you have a way of asking beguiling questions with potentially lethal consequences.” Frost himself described the technique as opening people up rather than shutting them down.
Frost on Sunday ran on TV-am until 1992. The following year he transferred the format to the BBC under the title Breakfast with Frost. That ran for 12 successful years until in 2005, to his displeasure, the BBC decided to replace his show with one featuring its former political correspondent, Andrew Marr. To the surprise of many, Frost, now 66, accepted an invitation from Al Jazeera, an Arabic station based in Qatar, to appear regularly on its newly launched English-language news channel. His weekly programme featured interviews with leading international figures.
Until 2008 he still had a regular slot on British screens, if at a less exalted level. Since 1987 he had hosted a series for ITV called Through the Keyhole, in which studio guests were shown film of celebrities’ houses and had to guess the identity of the owner. Part-produced by his own company, it was transmitted by ITV until 1996, when it was moved to the BBC, becoming a staple of the daytime schedule for 12 years (the programme resurfaced on Saturday night with a comedian at the helm). In 2012 he hosted Frost on Interviews, a series for BBC4 in which his leading contemporaries in the field discussed what made a successful interview. It was a question few were better qualified than him to answer.
David Paradine Frost, journalist and broadcaster: born Tenterden, Kent 7 April 1939; OBE 1970, Kt 1993; married 1981 Lynne Frederick (marriage dissolved), 1983 Lady Carina Fitzalan-Howard (three sons); died at sea 31 August 2013.
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