James Cusick

RIP David Frost: 'The Frostie I remember was mischievously funny, and he knew it'

The Independent's political correspondent James Cusick worked with David Frost on 'Frost on Sunday' in the late 80s. Here he remembers a remarkable man

Share
Related Topics

I worked with David Frost when I was a young television producer in the late 1980s on TV-am’s  Frost on Sunday programme. It was the most frustrating, exasperating, disheartening, vexatious – and most brilliantly entertaining job I’ve ever had. On some days, the best days, it was a bloody privilege just to be there – others who got close to him will say the same thing.

I’d been staff at BBC news and current affairs. Accuracy and reliability ruled. Frostie? It was like falling into a global adventure, where the voice, and the eventual presence, of the great and the good were a phone call away.

George Bush, the first one, Thatcher at her most powerful, Benazir Bhutto the day she became Pakistan’s prime minister for the first time, presidents former and current, rulers and would-be leaders, Hollywood stars, faded and rising - these were the best programmes, where Frost was at his happiest, leaving the main studio on Sunday morning with the words :  “A triumph, absolute joy, pure gold”.  A parting benediction to the humblest researcher, who’d maybe brought him tea and a Cuban cigar, took the form “Bless you, bless you for being an angel.”

Mid-day production meetings in David’s office began the same way. He’d casually look at his watch, check it was past noon,  and ask “Pinot Gree-jee-oh?” Tricia, his long-suffering personal assistant would duly arrive with a perfectly chilled bottle.

Just the name “Frost” unlocked doors. And sure, I took advantage. My heroes, my dream cast-list, I have to admit became guests. The Dalia Lama and golf-legend Peter Allis on in the same week? Sure.

If my authoritative Glasgow voice didn’t cut it, Frostie might oblige and make the call himself. A politician at the centre of scandal; a leader lacking leadership, embarrassed headline makers, would be asked “Come on the programme, clear the air.” Then the ringmaster would put the phone down and say : “Come on the programme… and dig yourself in even deeper” his smile widening as he said it. Brilliant.

You learned, just from being around him, to find the hybrid, cross-over territory where showbiz and politics crash into each other. The big set-piece interviews - Thatcher in Downing Street at Christmas, the critical presidential campaign interview with Bush snr in 1988 at his home in Kennebunkport in Maine – were never about policy. Producers slaved in the hunt for killer lines on economics or political misjudgements. David, and the instinct-driven star barrister he could have been, went for the heart and soul.

I remember reams of research on Mike Dukakis, the Democrats presidential nominee. Then in  the middle of a lengthy-but-dull  interview, Frost unexpectedly asked “What makes you laugh senator?” Silence followed. That damaged Dukakis more than anything he said.

Frostie could over-mine for the best lines. A 90 minute recorded interview with Thatcher needed to be edited down to an hour. What could be cut ? Removing his Churchill-sized cigar, and looking bemused at the suggestion, he said “It’s all pure gold, pure gold.”

His death at 74 is sad. But he never saw age like the rest of us. In one Thatcher interview, we thought a selection of previous encounters would be a poignant programme opener. The downside? Frost would see  his younger, more vibrant self a decade earlier. So we gave him a preview. He sat quietly. Five seconds of silence. Then his face fell in horror. “Oh, my God, “ he said. “Hasn’t she aged.” Priceless.

Politicians were the bricks and mortar that built his reputation. Everyone remembers Nixon. I remember the B-listers and his love-hate relationship with them all. After one interview with the abrasive Gerald Kaufman, then in Neil Kinnock’s shadow cabinet, Frost left the studio after the chat, whispering “I suspect he isn’t as nice as he looks.”

He was also mischievously funny, and knew it. A young researcher mentioned she was going to France on holiday. Frostie suggested Italy. “Problem with France is the French – they walk around like they own the place.”

Around Frost it was never dull. One late night Saturday, David was at his Hampshire home, but his chauffeur and Rolls Royce were still in London. I was last in the office. He called. “Take the car, James, take the car.” For the brief journey home I was – Frostie. That still makes me laugh, it always will.

I never knew it at the time, but the ethical showman in Frost was no accident. He’d learned it all from his father, a Methodist minister. The young David, one autumn weekend, helped his Dad create a massive banner which they draped across the church. It read “Come to church this Sunday – avoid the Christmas rush.” It’s Frost, and perfect, and I miss him already.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own