Sir David Frost: Hello, good morning and good night - Profiles - People - The Independent

Sir David Frost: Hello, good morning and good night

The nation will share 'Breakfast with Frost' for the last time this morning. So farewell, then, the trademark greeting, the smooth, sofa style and the deceptively unctuous interviewing technique. So hello, good morning and welcome, then, to his replacement, Andrew Marr. And good luck: it's a hard act to follow

The journalistic view of David Frost is usually less than kind. Revered over in the States, Frostie is less regarded in his homeland. The public takes him for granted, and journalists recoil from his sycophancy: the unctuous interview style is frowned upon by a chattering class which prefers the rottweiler style of Paxman or the repartee of a Dimbleby. But nobody can deny that Frost gets the guests, and his passing from the Sunday morning slot - the last programme goes out this morning - will leave a hole. His replacement, Andrew Marr, will doubtless be a far cannier question-phraser. But will he get the guests, or will Breakfast with Marr become just another Sunday show for political anoraks?

The journalistic view of David Frost is usually less than kind. Revered over in the States, Frostie is less regarded in his homeland. The public takes him for granted, and journalists recoil from his sycophancy: the unctuous interview style is frowned upon by a chattering class which prefers the rottweiler style of Paxman or the repartee of a Dimbleby. But nobody can deny that Frost gets the guests, and his passing from the Sunday morning slot - the last programme goes out this morning - will leave a hole. His replacement, Andrew Marr, will doubtless be a far cannier question-phraser. But will he get the guests, or will Breakfast with Marr become just another Sunday show for political anoraks?

What's the secret of your success?

In one view of the story, David Frost is just plain lucky. He happened to be in the right place at the right time, and that place was Cambridge's Footlights revue at the turn of the Sixties. Hot on the heels of the trail blazed by the Beyond the Fringe quartet, Frost didn't miss his golden opportunity. He began presenting TV shows while still an undergraduate, and made his mark almost immediately. That Was The Week That Was, TW3, made headlines even before it grabbed many viewers. Frost fronted the show, which introduced the likes of Bernard Levin, Millicent Martin, John Bird and Eleanor Bron to an audience unused to irreverence and controversy.

Frost's devastating profile of the then home secretary, Henry Brooke, ensured that the minister's reputation was tarnished for ever - while Frost's name was inextricably linked to the satire boom thereafter. The attention he garnered did not go down well with some of his peers: Peter Cook always claimed that his greatest regret in life was in saving Frost from drowning in a swimming pool. TW3 did not run for long: only just over a year, and Frost's Atlantic journeys began soon after. Leaving the rest of the team behind, Frost took TW3 to NBC in the US, and it proved a hit there, too.

I understand you're hosting a glittering party: Just how many wonderfully famous people will be there to pay homage?

With his name established on both sides of the Atlantic, Frost returned to the BBC with The Frost Report and The Frost Programme. Still in his mid-twenties, David had already managed to get his name in the programme title, and it was an honour he would never relinquish. However talented his co-presenters over the decades - Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett, John Cleese, Esther Rantzen, Rory Bremner - there was never again to be any doubt about who was the star.

Frost's relentless networking and hosting of famous parties has ensured that he maintains the reputation of the man with access. But it has also led to snobbery and envy - the accusation that the grammar school boy with the flat vowels is also a namedropper and a social climber. The gossip was fuelled when his first marriage, to Peter Sellers's widow Lynne Frederick, lasted barely a year. When he chose Lady Carina Fitzalan-Howard as his second bride a year later, few observers thought it would last. Twenty-three years later, their marriage remains.

Do you think that being a celebrated interviewer is sufficient recognition of the breadth of your talents?

Frost's transatlantic reputation reached new heights when in 1977 he persuaded the recently disgraced Richard Nixon to permit Frost's cameras in for a 28-hour session. The five programmes which emerged remain the most watched news interview in history. But TV stardom was not enough. Frost wanted to be a mogul, too. In 1967 he had been one of the founders of London Weekend Television, and one of the "famous five" founders of TV-am in 1983. Even last year he was still at it, running for the BBC director-general's job.

But these attempts have usually ended in disappointment. Frost's LWT was criticised for promoting bland entertainment over more worthwhile programming. TV-am famously dissolved in acrimony, and Frost was passed over for DG.

He does, of course, have that knighthood. And few who work on Frost's programmes are allowed to forget it. He's "Sir David", and make-up artists and floor managers had better remember that. But for every snide whisper, there's a loyal and supportive colleague. Barney Jones, who has edited Breakfast with Frost for 12 years, thinks he knows why the professional hacks snipe: "David doesn't have a background in journalism - he's never prepared a news bulletin and doesn't slave away over a terminal for hours on end checking the wires. But one of his skills as a broadcaster is encouraging people to talk and being at ease himself whether the camera is running or not. Just last week we had a schoolboy on the show - the star of Billy Elliot - and David was as comfortable talking to him as he was talking some months ago to George Bush."

I loved your last interview: will your next ones be even better?

Political interviewing remains his cornerstone. But his perceived closeness to John Major was to prove a stumbling block: it was when Major gave the broadcaster a knighthood in 1993 that the gossip about him being a "patsy" really began. But this reputation lives on; it hasn't prevented him securing a contract to carry on doing interviews with big political, sporting and cultural names until 2008.

Do you prefer chintz or satin?

Frost's reputation for a fascination with style over substance was sealed when he began to front Through The Keyhole, a TV version of Hello! magazine. Again, Frost confounded the critics. Through the Keyhole has run for 20 years, produced by Frost's own company, Paradine Productions, and is one of the few programmes to have successfully transferred from ITV to the Beeb's daytime schedules. Yet again, the glasses and blazer boy proved himself ahead of the game.

Is there a hidden side?

But, of course, there's another view. The give-'em-enough-rope position, which suggests that the most anodyne of questions can elicit the most revealing of answers. "When the president does it, that means it's not illegal." That's a great quote from Richard Nixon. Arguably the best he ever gave, encapsulating in a few short words the Nixon White House's view of Watergate. And Frost got it. You only get the quote if you get the guest. Yes, the argument runs, Frost may be fawning and cheesy. But he gets the right guests, and gives them the opportunity to hang themselves - or not. Tony Blair, no less, has often used Frost's programme as a friendly arena for announcing new initiatives, most famously when in 2000 he revealed plans for increased health spending, leading Gordon Brown to tell him privately "You've stolen my fucking budget". Undeniably Breakfast with Frost has realised the aspiration of so many news outlets, setting the agenda for the week.

Neither could anyone accuse Frost, 66, of being a slacker. He works hard, and is rarely distracted by illness: during one memorable live interview a couple of years ago, Frost suddenly developed a terrifying nosebleed. He carried on relentlessly, with only a disembodied floor-manager's hand encroaching in the shot to dab at the torrent. A Richard-and-Judy land, where only interviewers like Frost existed, might be a horror to contemplate. But so might one in which all interviewers see themselves as dogs to a guest's lamp-post. There's surely a place for the smooth style alongside the rough. Breakfast with Marr has a tough act to follow.

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