Brian Viner: I'm electrified by this man of 10,000 whats

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The Independent Online

The lengthy interview granted to Sir David Frost by Sir Alex Ferguson, screened last night on Sky Sports 1, has generated considerable excitement in the sporting world. Trumpeted by the press yesterday as the first "feature-length" interview with the Manchester United manager for almost a decade, it was undoubtedly a coup for Sky, and required viewing for anyone remotely interested in football.

Required viewing, indeed, for anyone interested in the human condition. After all, here is a man who has operated at the peak of his profession longer than just about anyone else; who remains driven to succeed even though he has nothing left to prove either to others or himself; who through sheer longevity, as well as sustained excellence, has seen off most of his critics. I refer not to Ferguson but to Frost.

Understandably enough, the coverage in yesterday's sports pages rather overlooked this dimension to the story, but never mind Fergie, the real phenomenon on show was Frostie, still being wheeled out at the end of his sixth decade to conduct the interviews for which most other interviewers – and I include that other great knightly inquisitor, Sir Michael Parkinson, as well as, at a somewhat humbler level, myself – would have given their eye teeth.

I use the expression "wheeled out" figuratively, of course, but only just. On Saturday, fighting the crush in Heathrow's Terminal 1, I happened to see Frost walking towards me. His mouth hung open in that way that old men's mouths sometimes do, as if it would take too much energy to close it, and his chin all but rested on his chest. He looked ancient, much older than his 69 years.

This came as no great surprise because last year I stood in an al-Jazeera television studio watching him hunched in his swivel chair preparing to interview the young motor-racing ace Lewis Hamilton. I have written about this before but it bears repeating; shortly before Hamilton joined him, I thought for one terrible moment that Frost had expired. The life force seemed to have departed him, but I was reassured to see that nobody else seemed worried, and it turned out that he was simply scanning his autocue. As soon as the director gave the signal for the camera to roll, his head jerked upwards and his eyes flashed with vitality. He suddenly looked as if he were powered by 10,000 watts; apt, I suppose, for the man of 10,000 whats.

It was, needless to add, the first major TV interview that Hamilton had done, a coup for Al Jazeera, just as massive as last night's coup for Sky. Moreover, young Lewis seemed fully aware of the distinction of the man opposite him, even though he was not even a spark in his father's plug – or whatever might be the Formula 1 equivalent of a twinkle in the eye – when Frost enjoyed the blue riband episode of his career, the absorbing 1974 conversations with the disgraced US President Richard Nixon.

Even then Frost was something of a telly veteran, having emerged in 1962 as the host of That Was The Week That Was, yet almost 35 years later he is still going strong – albeit rarely as strong as when he has a camera trained on him and a microphone pinned to his lapel.

Frost did well in last night's interview to tease out of Ferguson the admission that in two to three years' time the United boss intends to retire, but I fancy I know who will bag the first in-depth TV interview with Fergie's successor, and doubtless Gordon Brown's too.

Rumbold, champion of the workers

The veteran actor Nicholas Smith is standing for election as president of his profession's venerable union, Equity. If he is successful, I hope he manages to exert more authority than the character he most memorably brought to life, Mr Cuthbert Rumbold, the affable but ineffectual manager of the menswear and ladies' wear departments at Grace Brothers department store, in the popular 1970s sitcom Are You Being Served?

He might also seek Equity's support in a campaign to prevent actors from being forced to suffer endless jibes about their most famous roles, not that the late, great John Inman ever cared, in his thriving later career as a pantomime dame, to declare "I'm free" of Mr Wilberforce Clayborne Humphries.

* In Blackpool there are hotels which in November run "Turkey and Tinsel" weekends for those who like to celebrate Christmas without paying high-season prices.

I was reminded of this on a British Midland flight from Italy on Saturday; our foil-covered lunch, revolting even by the dismal standards of airline food, was turkey with all the trimmings. What inspired this bizarre choice I cannot say. Perhaps BMI thought its customers might be pining for the festive season as the year's mid-point approaches, or perhaps someone had found a batch of Christmas dinners just inside their six-month eat-by date. Either way, my wife handed hers back, barely touched, to a notably charmless flight attendant.

"That was disgusting," she said. "I know," the flight attendant replied. She might have scored nul points for charm, but we gave her full marks for candour.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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