Interview: David Frost, television's sunshine boy: Hello, good morning and welcome back. Charles Nevin met the BBC's most familiar new face

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The Independent Online
Something of a week, that was, for David Frost: his last TV-am programme on Sunday, complete with Margaret Thatcher, the treaty too far, and Neil Kinnock's confession that he had anticipated electoral defeat; the sudden announcement that he was taking his show to the BBC; accusations in the Commons of collusion with John Birt, the Director-General designate; a summary end to the bid he had organised for the new Channel 5; and, of course, his summer party for 400 friends from King Constantine to Esther Rantzen. After 30 years at it, the capacity to shake, move and exercise is unabated.

'Hello Sunshine,' says Frost, the day after the party, to the head waiter at Claridge's, where he has arrived for breakfast, and where he will spend 90 minutes on anecdotes and Shredded Wheat and dropping names and a plate (he is famously clumsy), opining, quoting, and being as breezily accommodating and apparently open as ever.

It is a persona which used to irritate. The dreadnought confidence displayed at Cambridge by the grammar school son of a Norfolk Methodist minister sits better on the 53-year-old millionaire who married the Duke of Norfolk's daughter, and is a friend of royalty, stars and statesmen.

At Cambridge they couldn't avoid noticing Frosty, but nobody was quite sure what he was for, television personalities being then in their infancy and embryo ones not recognisable. 'We all thought 'What the hell has he got?' ' recalls Christopher Booker.

Peter Cook, Footlights' star turn, did a take-off of Macmillan; so did Frost, but his was rather less admired. 'He wasn't an amazingly good comedy performer,' says Cook, 'But he was a very amiable person.' The two contrived to appear on Anglia Television, and, as Frost says, he 'felt at home immediately'. He was spotted, famously, by Ned Sherrin, recruiting for That Was The Week That Was.

Frost fitted. Hisunreceived pronunciation made him admirably suited to sneer at everything. His success was greeted with a certain miffiness by the front-line satirists. It didn't seem to worry him. Nothing ever has, not even the Kitty Muggeridge quote about rising without trace, not even the sack when the BBC decided that satire might be dangerous. Frost has always appeared impervious to disaster: Cook remembers him dying on his feet at a club but remaining convinced that everything had gone swimmingly.

His reaction to the death of satire was to invite the great and the good (and Robert Maxwell) to breakfast at the Connaught. Harold Wilson, then prime minister, turned up; so did newspaper proprietors, the Bishop of Woolwich and Freddie (A J) Ayer. Within a year Frost had helped set up London Weekend Television, within three he was coast-to-coast five nights a week in America. His own company, David Paradine Limited, owned rights, made programmes, and had such performers as Tommy Cooper and Ronnie Barker under contract.

There were interviews in Britain and the States, linked by transatlantic commuting, with the Princes Philip and Charles, with Harold Wilson, with John and Yoko. And so it has continued, with varying intensity and height of profile, through minutely recorded affairs and a failed marriage (to Lynne Frederick, Peter Sellers's widow), interviews with Nixon and the Shah and the story about him being the only person George Bush recognised at Downing Street, to Through The Keyhole and the brief and chequered life of TV-am, which he helped found and to which he lent bottom and publicity through his Sunday morning show, rejected by the new franchise holders. The BBC will pay him a quarter of the pounds 100 a minute he was being paid for it, but there is a repeat fee from BSkyB and an annual income of over dollars 1m to get him through.

The matter has been complicated by a Commons motion, tabled by Labour MP Rhodri Morgan, questioning links between Frost and Birt, which Morgan claimed go back to 1970 when Birt, then with Granada's World in Action, interviewed Frost in New York and put to him allegations about improprieties in dealings between London Weekend and David Paradine Limited. In the Commons motion, Frost was said to have broken down and cried; the film was never shown; Birt and Frost went on to work together on several projects, including the Nixon interviews. Morgan wants to know what this means. Birt, threatening to sue if the claims are repeated outside the House, has rejected any impropriety, and is supported by Gus Macdonald, then joint editor with Birt at World in Action, now managing director of Scottish Television.

Frost, at Claridge's, is dismissive. The allegations and the tears are 'absolutely untrue', 'daft'. 'The idea of John Birt needing career help is like Margaret Thatcher needing assertiveness training.' There was suspicion of ambition and resentment of success in Britain, and, yes, he did suppose that some people might find his eternal optimism irritating.

'I really rather love the Muggeridge quote now,' he says; 'it's rather fun'. As was Ned Sherrin's remark that 'David always learns from his mistakes without ever actually admitting that he's made any'. Frost thinks it 'amazingly true, actually . . . because I do analyse what I do and try and improve it, and I don't share that with anybody.' Press him on this and he concedes that he and Richard Branson should probably have gone for only one franchise in the last round instead of three. He also remembers giving too much prominence in 1969 to a Taylor-Burton interview and landing a reputation for bland fawning.

Nevertheless, the famed Frost ability to take sunny consolation in adversity remains impressively intact. He points out that he has founded two television companies, and that winning two franchise rounds out of three is 'better than 50-50'. And he adds 'I was very fortunate in a way that some guys at TV-am weren't; in the four days after the announcement I was in Atlanta for a very remarkable interview for the American Talking With David Frost series with Ted Turner, which was terrific because that particular disappointment was behind you very quickly.'

The particular disappointment last week was the decision by the Entertainment Channel consortium, which included TV-am, Time Warner and the Telegraph group, to pull out of the bidding, which Frost helped organise, for the new Channel 5 because of excessively expensive technical problems. 'The whole thing has been a fascinating exercise,' says Frost.

SUNNY consolation in adversity is not universally evident at BBC News and Current Affairs these days. There are complaints at lack of consultation over Frost's arrival, and worries about its implications for other programmes, particularly the Sunday lunchtime programme, On The Record. Frost's deal to repeat Frost on Sunday on BSkyB is seen as further evidence of the BBC's worrying willingness to use too short a spoon with Rupert Murdoch.

But, perhaps surprisingly, there seems to be agreement that Frost himself will be an asset. Memories of the Nixon interviews are outweighed by recent performances, particularly in the last election, when, according to some, he outperformed the other clipboards. His ambush-on-the-sofa technique, his mastery of a brief, and, of course, his 'undoubted pulling power' are admired.

There is less regard, in the heights of commercial television, for Frost the television executive. His recent franchise roles, they say, were those of front man. His expertise and ideas, revolutionary in the 1960s, have been overtaken by more single-minded pursuers. This is not the age of the actor-manager. To be fair, Frost himself makes no great claims on that score for either himself or his company. 'It is a cottage industry, not a tower block,' he says.

Frost on Frost has never been particularly revealing. Ask him what he does, and why he does it, and he embarks on an inspired passage which includes Robert Kennedy and Albert Camus on making a contribution to the world, Tubby Clayton, the founder of Toc H, on service being the rent we pay for our room on earth, and Shaw on dreaming of things that cannot be and asking why not. He manages to mention that he did the 'last, long interview' with Kennedy, and that he used the Shaw quote apropos of the Prince of Wales only the other day.

It is oddly difficult to take offence at any of this. 'You can't hate Frosty at all,' says Christopher Booker. 'All that affability and chutzpah; there's something undeniably likeable about the old thing.' 'I think the key to Frost is that everybody ends up liking him a great deal, as indeed I do,' says Peter Cook, who has been less kind in the past. 'The interesting thing about David,' say Ned Sherrin, 'is that he was the first of that generation of television performers who were magnificently unqualified to do anything else . . . It's difficult to harbour resentment against him. He is so determined to be liked.'

Say to Frost that Shaw and Camus might be a little bit high-flown for the guiding principles of a television presenter and he will say that 'there is nothing more serious than trying to contribute to the public sum of knowledge'. Ask him how Through the Keyhole fits in with this, and he says, 'I wouldn't necessarily claim it's going to go into the time capsule as the most significant thing I've ever done but it's great fun to do, and I think one should be able to have great fun.'

'I think he just enjoys it,' says Willie Rushton. 'Some people are after money, some people are after power, and some people are after the good life, and he's one of them.' Frost talks about his wife and three young sons, about doing the same thing in 10 years. Before he leaves, he goes to say hello to a friend. 'Hello, Sunshine,' he says. Earlier, he had explained that, in America, 'ingratiating' meant 'an admirable desire to please'.