Through The Keyhole is not the most important work Sir David Frost ever did, but it does offer us an indication of what has been lost with his passing. On Saturday, the same day that Sir David died at the age of 74, Keith Lemon hosted a new series of the show on ITV, in a reboot that one reviewer called a “lurid, throbbing purgatory for confused showbiz souls.” It was never a heavyweight format, but at least no one ever had cause to refer to Frost as a “hyena in a vest”.
By coincidence, another of Frost’s successors, Andrew Marr, made a very welcome return to television the following morning, nine months after the stroke that nearly killed him. Marr is a more obvious heir to Frost, and sometimes channels the same affability. But he has a more abrasive side. Frost would not, you feel, have asked Gordon Brown, as Marr did, whether he had a problem with prescription painkillers.
I’m at the end of my 20s, which I guess makes me about as old as you can be and feel that you grew up in a post-Frost era – he was still on the air, and a force, in the period that I became politically conscious, but it was increasingly clear that the wind had changed. It seems extraordinary today to think that in 1969 a poll found him to be the third best-known person in the country, after the Queen and the prime minister. And it slightly makes me want to live in 1969.
I am always wary of the easy credit that we give the past for virtues that might once have been balanced by drawbacks we have forgotten, but watching some of Frost’s interviews at length for the first time yesterday, it felt like something real had been lost: whether you loved his style or hated it, you would find it hard to argue that the same approach could gain traction in the present media landscape. If a 26-year-old journalist invited the modern equivalents of AJ Ayer and Harold Wilson to the same breakfast, as Frost did, could anyone conceive that they would turn up? If Jeremy Paxman secured an interview with a presidential challenger, as Frost did with Michael Dukakis, would he try to get the story by asking him what makes him laugh?
There are, of course, still some television journalists conducting long interviews with important people. And some would argue that to set Frost alongside Paxman or John Humphrys is to miss the point – that his real peers were people like Michael Parkinson and Piers Morgan, and that his real specialism was chat. But that analysis is to confuse means with ends. Yesterday, our own James Cusick – a producer on Frost On Sunday in the late 1980s – remembered that his then boss, after persuading a prominent figure to be interviewed in the midst of a crisis, would put the phone down and say: “Come on the programme… and dig yourself in even deeper”. He might have had the bearing of a showman – but there is little doubt that he had the instincts and priorities of a journalist.
That famous charm probably wouldn’t be enough to get them on the air these days. Our leaders might still broker the occasional sit-down interview for TV, but they will often feature Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby, and the kinds of stories that they generate will never be about anything more profound than the contents of their iPod. You couldn’t have said that about Frost’s meetings with the likes of Richard Nixon, or Enoch Powell, or Henry Kissinger.
The Nixon example is an instructive one, more for what we can divine from the disgraced president’s approach than that of his interviewer. Nixon was happy to accept a payment of more than $600,000; he fell hook, line and sinker for Frost’s stealth approach; and he was, as John Birt, who produced the interviews, marveled yesterday, quite unprepared. No modern political leader, retired or not, would put themselves in the same position.
The modern day would-be Frosts are, accordingly, at something of a disadvantage. It is facile to suggest that the journalistic mindset perhaps best summed up as “Why is this lying bastard lying to me” is a strictly modern phenomenon. As Lord Northcliffe – who died in 1922 – put it, “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising”. What has changed, rather, is that the lying bastards have become more proficient, and viewers have lost patience. There is less time to be polite.
It doesn’t seem excessively fogeyish to consider this a shame. For when Frost succeeded, the discomfort of his skewered subjects was all the more exquisite for being only visible through a patina of etiquette. “I’d like to say straight away that I don’t see this as a contest,” Frost said at the beginning of his 1969 interview with Enoch Powell, before tossing up a softball about Powell’s favourite other politicians. Within an hour, though, as Frost’s questioning sharpens and Powell becomes increasingly flustered, it is pretty clear who has won.
That electrifying programme, it is worth noting, went out during weekend primetime; That Was The Week That Was was a Saturday night smash. It is hard to imagine the same thing happening today. It is hard to know who to blame, really, for the decline of this vital part of public life. Not Frost, certainly; not Paxman, or, the politicians, or the viewers, or even Keith Lemon. Whoever you blame, though, one fact seems unfortunately clear: these days, we would rather have a look around a celebrity’s house.