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.