Profile: Hello, good morning and welcome back: David Frost, returning to the BBC

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The Independent Online
On the last day of the Lord's Test between England and Pakistan, John Major sat in David Frost's box in the Mound Stand, an extraordinary mark of favour from a newly elected Prime Minister to a television celebrity whose star has been waning for 20 years.

On Thursday evening this week, that same waning celebrity gave his summer garden party in the elegantly secluded Carlyle Square in Chelsea, where Frost and his wife, Lady Carina, have their grand London house. There was the usual contingent of who's thats ('Who's that gorgeous young woman?') with teeny skirts, dangly handbags and daddy- longlegs legs, and a more solid ballast of famous faces. David Owen (now Lord Owen) and Jeffrey Archer (ditto), Virginia Bottomley, Robin Day with Sally- Anne Field, Jimmy Goldsmith (Sir James) and Lord Lichfield (5th Earl). It was a party with every trapping of worldly success, the oxygen that makes David Frost run.

For 30 years, since he emerged as a young but fully formed television personality, Frost has been professionally or socially linked with just about everybody in positions of power in Britain and America. Only a TV genius, hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic, could have sustained it for so long; and only a man such as Frost, with his insatiable appetite for celebrity, would so passionately have wanted it. Money, power, influence and honours come second to his relentless pursuit of fame and the famous.

These days if you want to see Frost you have to get up very early on Sunday mornings to watch TV-am - a minority sport - or have a taste for shows about breakers of weird records, or for guessing what sort of furniture vaguely famous people have in their homes - hardly the high ground of quality broadcasting.

And yet - earlier this week he completed arrangements to transfer his Sunday morning show, which had just completed its life on TV-am (soon to lose its franchise), to BBC 1. Immediately, allusions were made to his old friendship with John Birt, Director General-designate of the BBC. That the BBC should want him is no paradox; not only is he the most famous television interviewer to get up early on Sunday mornings, he is also as good an interviewer as there is to be found on British television.

And, unlike every other person in British current affairs, his name counts in America, too. 'The big names answer the phone to him,' says an executive at the BBC. 'Nobody else can phone the people he can and get through - and they're pleased to talk to him.' At pounds 2,000 per programme, BBC 1 might even be said to have got him cheap.

Frost has had a symbiotic relationship with the great and the good, the famous and the notorious, ever since the Connaught hotel breakfast that he hosted on 7 January 1966, when he was 26 - younger than any of his guests. He entertained members of the British establishment from Harold Wilson to the Bishop of Woolwich, Freddy Ayer and Lord Longford. Frost was earning pounds 40,000 a year at the time, but this brilliant publicity stroke catapulted him from the line-up of satirical young men who had brought That Was The Week That Was to a thrilled and scandalised nation into a seriously marketable celebrity.

For the rest of the Sixties, Frost was one of the most famous people in Britain. By 1964 he was earning pounds 600 a week. Yet it was chance as much as choice that led to him being the main presenter on That Was The Week That Was. Ned Sherrin, the show's inventor and producer, had signed John Bird to front it, but two weeks before the first pilot Bird accepted another offer in the States. Sherrin had heard about a nightclub act in which Frost impersonated Macmillan; he went to see it, thought him promising and gave him the job. The first programme went out on 24 November 1962. It outraged both critics and audiences with its satire on religion, the Royal Family and MPs, but having begun with three million viewers, at its peak it was attracting more than 12


David Frost's classless accent, nasal voice, bizarre hairstyle and not-quite Carnaby Street suit - 25 guineas from Cecil Gee - gave him an instant identity. He was probably over-praised as well as over-vilified. John Freeman said he possessed 'high intelligence, driving energy, unspoilt simplicity and a religious conscience - in that order'. But Christopher Booker, critic of the carefree Sixties, saw Frost as the embodiment of all that was vacuous - 'a hollow man in pursuit of fame for its own sake'.

Today, after 30 years in television, Frost is described more moderately as a veteran interviewer, and with his greying, thinning, hair and tortoiseshell-framed spectacles, he looks like one. But he claims that the buzz he gets from doing his job is as great as ever.

Born on 7 April 1939, he had an ordinary, close, secure, if hard-up childhood, probably more religious than most: his father was a Methodist minister. Energetic and football-mad as a child, the cherished only son was clever and thrifty. In 1958 he went up to Cambridge, where he gloried in being a 'professional undergraduate', editing Granta and being secretary of the Footlights dramatic society, through which he met Peter Cook, John Bird and Eleanor Bron.

After his early success with TW3, however, he was prematurely written off. 'David Frost: a short life and a sad decline,' said the Daily Express in 1964, barely containing its glee. Yet in 1967 he was one of the founders of LWT, with 5 per cent of the shares, and in the same year, on The Frost Report, he conducted what is probably still his most notorious interview, with Emil Savundra, the disgraced insurance fraudster. When Savundra's trial started a week later, the phrase 'trial by television' was used by Savundra's defending barrister to excoriate Frost, and not everyone approved of this 'lynch TV'. Savundra was eventually found guilty of fraud and imprisoned.

In 1968 Frost signed a pounds 125,000 contract with an American network, the biggest-ever salary offered to a Briton. He became a legendary transatlantic commuter, each week hosting programmes from New York and London. By 1969 his salary was rumoured to be dollars 500,000 (then more than pounds 208,000).

Somehow he combined this with a series of highly public love affairs with, to name but a few, Janette Scott, with whom he lived; Julie Felix; Diahann Carroll, whom he took home to meet his mother in 1970 but who left him practically at the altar in 1973; the actress Carol Lynley and the model Karen Graham, who in 1974 did the same thing: more humiliatingly because the Frost family had crossed the Atlantic to attend their wedding.

In the Seventies his frenzied pursuit of work and money seemed temporarily to slow down, though he was as busy as ever, especially in the States. But his TV interviews invited less controversy; 'the Frost treatment' was replaced by kiss-kiss guests. Now in his thirties, he was certainly a millionaire, with homes and secretaries in London and New York and a country place in Suffolk, close to the house he bought for his parents when his father retired.

Then, in 1977, he had his biggest coup: four interviews with the disgraced Richard Nixon. A deal was done in advance. Nixon insisted that only 25 per cent of the material should be about Watergate. Frost insisted that Nixon should not be given the questions beforehand, and would exercise no editorial control. Deceptively easy-going at first, almost at the end he put the boot in. Nixon found himself apologising to the American people for Watergate. The BBC alone paid him pounds 146,000 for the four one-hour programmes, which were bought by almost every country in the world.

In January 1981 Frost married Peter Sellers's widow, Lynne Frederick, six months after Sellers's death, but after 17 months they were amicably divorced. In a Who's Who entry studded with the names of every programme he has ever made, as well as nearly a dozen eminently forgettable out-of-print books, his first wife is not mentioned.

Since this time, by comparison with his frenzied commuting by Concorde, Frost has done relatively little work in the States. Back in Britain, at the beginning of the Eighties, he was one of the Famous Five who launched TV-am, and the only one to survive the debacle when the other four were axed. This was the more remarkable considering that he was, at the time - this was March 1983 - on honeymoon in Venice with his second wife, the second daughter of the Duke of Norfolk.

'Marriage,' says Ned Sherrin, 'has been tremendously good for him. She's an awfully nice girl and he doesn't have to live that Feydeau bedroom farce sort of thing any longer. She has brought immense ballast and steadiness to his life.' Frost, the first of whose three sons was born when he was 45, is a genuinely dedicated father and husband. 'He loves his children,' said a friend. 'He is obsessed with them and adores their company; and I didn't expect that to happen. He's an altogether happier and better-balanced man nowadays, though he will always want to score the next success.'

What is it all about? He is rumoured to have been on Harold Wilson's retirement 'Lavender List' for a knighthood, and to have been one of the names struck off. 'It probably jars a bit,' said a close associate, 'that Andrew Lloyd Webber has a knighthood and he hasn't. I'd be surprised if he weren't offered it at some time. I'm sure he wouldn't mind being Lord Frost of Beccles at 70.'

He has said: 'It is making things happen, rather than making money, that interests me.' He is on record as feeling liberated by the realisation that nothing he can do will ever make him as rich as some of his friends - 'People like James Hanson, Jimmy Goldsmith, Evelyn de Rothschild, Paul Hamlyn. Financially, I just regard myself as very lucky that if I need something for myself or my family, I can get it. Coming from a Methodist minister's home where we didn't have any money at all, that is a blessing.'