Frosty the showman

After more than 40 years in broadcasting, Sir David Frost finds it difficult to be the retiring type. Which is why he's moving to Sky, he tells Raymond Snoddy

Monday 30 May 2005 00:00

Hello, good morning and welcome - and goodbye. The longest-running Sunday breakfast conversation in the history of British broadcasting - more than 22 years, with a brief interruption - came to an end yesterday. At the age of 66, Sir David Frost put away his coffee pot and juice, smoked yet another fat cigar, and ran down the curtain on Breakfast with Frost.

Hello, good morning and welcome - and goodbye. The longest-running Sunday breakfast conversation in the history of British broadcasting - more than 22 years, with a brief interruption - came to an end yesterday. At the age of 66, Sir David Frost put away his coffee pot and juice, smoked yet another fat cigar, and ran down the curtain on Breakfast with Frost.

Naturally, Frost being Frost, an ending is merely the perfect excuse for a new beginning. On Sunday, Sir David simply moves over to Sky One, with a prime-time series with Des Lynam called The World's Greatest Sporting Legend.

"With amazing convenience, purely by good luck, Breakfast with Frost ended on 29 May, and this starts the following Sunday, 5 June. It couldn't be more convenient. I am really excited about it," says Frost, who has been a broadcaster and interviewer for more than 40 years.

Convenient it certainly is, but hardly a coincidence. Frost, perhaps sensing that nothing lasts for ever, sold the Sporting Legend idea to Sky's programming supremo, Dawn Airey, over a lunch at Le Caprice. The deal keeps Frost on the Sunday television screens for 10 weeks, and Airey has a high-profile property to fill the summer tedium until the football season returns.

"Actually, it's the first time I have been able to indulge my passion for sport on television in any continuous way, although I have interviewed a lot of sports stars over the years, Muhammad Ali in particular," Sir David explains.

His passion for sport includes "soccer", as he insists on calling the national game, cricket and tennis, and appears entirely genuine. To prove it, Sir David reveals a dramatic "might have been". While playing house rugby at Wellingborough Grammar School, Frost moonlighted playing "soccer" for the local Raunds Town Football Club, who play in the United Counties League.

"I was offered a contract as a professional soccer player when I was 18, by Nottingham Forest," says Sir David, who declined an offer that was rather unappealing at a time when there was a maximum wage of £20 a week. The scouts had come to view a defender on the opposing team, and instead saw Frost play what must have been the game of his life. "I had a sudden rush of blood to the head and scored some eight goals with eight shots or something, and I got the offer of a contract," says Frost, with possibly a touch of hyperbole.

Certainly, there seems to be no mention of such heroics - or even of what must be their most famous former player - on the website of Raunds Town FC. "I'm glad it worked out this way. If I'd chosen soccer, I might be reaching the end of my career now," says Frost, whose conversation is peppered with jokes, many of the well-thumbed variety.

In fact, his playing days are not entirely over. He still turns out for weekend kick-abouts in Hampshire, organised by the former BBC director-general Greg Dyke. "He now plays mainly in goal, but he was good in his time. He's just not as active as he was," notes Dyke.

During the Sky One series, each major sport will have a programme and its sporting legend, living or dead, will be chosen from a list chosen by specialist panels. All the winners from the individual sports will go forward to the grand finale, where their cause will be backed by an advocate. In the end, the audience will choose. Arguments are already breaking out over whether Sir Stanley Matthews, Pelé or Muhammad Ali will triumph.

The ending of Breakfast with Frost, to be replaced by a minimum of six big Frost interviews, was obviously considerably less convenient. Clearly, the BBC decided that after picking up the programme more than 12 years ago, when TV-am lost its franchise, it was time for everybody to move on after the election. "We discussed it and I was persuaded that this was the way to go. If I decide in a year or two that I want some more, I'll go back to it, I guess," says Frost, with a burst of his trademark optimism.

You had to be persuaded, so it wasn't actually your idea to go at this particular time?

"Very good question," observes the master of questions. "I couldn't really tell you who came up with this idea first, but I was persuaded in the course of the conversation. I was persuaded in the sense that I decided. I decided more than I was persuaded. I think there was a bit of both."

He rapidly adds, for emphasis: "I am really happy to move on. There is always a time to move on and I always say, 'Never resist a challenge'."

It was Greg Dyke who invented the Frost Sunday-morning current affairs programme when he was chief executive of TV-am. The plan was to have Diana Dors do a Sunday-morning show, but her agent explained that she was a devout Catholic and would be very reluctant to miss Mass. "Does that mean she won't do it?" Dyke recalls asking the agent. "No. But it's going to cost you a lot of money," came the answer.

It was too much money for cash-strapped TV-am. The result was Breakfast with Frost. "Who would have believed it would last 20-odd years?" says Dyke.

For his penultimate Breakfast with Frost, Sir David piled on the political exclusives to prove that he can still do it. Both his main interviews with Chancellor Gordon Brown and the senior Conservative politician David Davis made headlines in the next day's papers. On the programme, Brown set out his plans to help first-time house-buyers, and Davis his hopes for his party's leadership. The last show was planned as "a bit of a frolic", with clips from the past, an appearance by Rory Bremner, and Neil Kinnock and John Major reflecting on what they might have done differently over the past 12 years.

The end of the programme will bring a reduction of cigar smoke in BBC Television Centre. Despite a strict no-smoking policy in the building, Sir David has routinely broken the rule every week for more than a decade - by lighting up immediately after his programme.

What does he think of his successor, Andrew Marr, who is young enough to be his son?

"I am a great admirer of Andrew," says Frost, and then there is a long pause as he selects just the right word. "I normally don't use the word 'super'. I haven't said it for more than 30 years. Andrew Marr has done a super job as the BBC's political editor, and I am sure he will do this equally well. But it's a personal vehicle, and in future it will reflect his tastes where it used to reflect mine."

The use of the word "super", once a Frost catchphrase, is enough to send anyone over the age of 55 crashing back in time to the dramatic days when Frost, aged 23, and satire burst simultaneously on to the black-and- white screen with That Was The Week That Was. It made his career and helped to establish his fortune, and has also provided continuing amusement over the years, as government documents were released progressively under the 30-year rule. There was a comment by the then Postmaster-General, the cabinet minister in charge of broadcasting, threatening to stop "all those sketches". When the minister went to work the next morning, there was a note from the Prime Minister saying: "Oh no you're not. Better to be ridiculed than ignored." It was signed "Harold".

That Was The Week That Was, and its successor Not So Much a Programme More a Way of Life, got, Sir David says, "too hot to handle" for the broadcasters. Tory politicians such as Sir Alec Douglas-Home were ritually savaged, and vicars wrote in to complain about the end of civilisation. Sir David particularly treasures the vicar who wrote to say: "When That Was The Week That Was was taken off the air, we thanked the Lord that Satan had been removed from our airwaves." But in a reference to the fact that TW3 was broadcast only on Saturdays, whereas Not So Much a Programme... was on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, the vicar added: "Now he's back three times as strong."

Over the years, Sir David Frost has been involved in dozens of television programmes, many eponymous, and all meticulously listed in his enormous entry in Who's Who. There's The Frost Report, Frost Over England, Frost Over America, Frost Over Australia, The Frost Programme, The Frost Review and Frost on Thursday, not to mention all the Sunday Frosts.

Apart from the satire, early editions of The Frost Programme were high spots in the Frost career - programmes that showed that he really could conduct the toughest interviews - with insurance swindlers such as Dr Emil Savundra, for example, and eccentric scientists such as Dr Robert Ettinger, who believed in deep-freezing bodies in the hope of eventually bringing people back from the dead.

John Cleese worked on the show at the time, and was persuaded to climb into one of Ettinger's cardboard coffins. "As John started to disappear from view, he could just be heard to sigh, 'I sometimes wonder why I ever bothered to get a law degree'," Sir David recalls.

Frost's finest hour was undoubtedly the Nixon Watergate interviews in 1976, when he confronted the disgraced US President and persuaded him to face reality and admit that he really had let himself, his office and the American people down, and come to the "very edge of criminality". Strangely, although the interviews were sold and shown around the world, they ultimately cost David Frost many millions. He sold his 5 per cent holding in London Weekend Television - he was one of the company's founders - to raise the £200,000 down payment to secure the Nixon interviews. Years later, when Granada successfully mounted a hostile takeover for LWT, a 5 per cent stake would have been worth around £38m.

Despite his considerable success and well acknowledged interviewing "hits", the oft-posed question that hangs over Sir David Frost is that he is a bit of a schmoozer, often talking to his friends, and that he is simply too nice. Certainly, his style is very different from the Rottweiler interviewing tendency represented by the likes of Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrys.

"It's better to be called too nice than too nasty. It's true that I am a bit of a Pollyanna in that I do try to look on the bright side of people. My father [a Methodist minister] used to say that even a stopped clock is right twice a day," says Sir David.

He also likes to remind people of the Aesop fable on the battle between the wind and the sun. It was the warmth of the sun rather than the blustering wind that removed people's coats. Sir David Frost sees himself very much as the sun, opening his interviewees up with his beaming smile and immaculate politeness. He happily gives a couple of examples of gentle, though penetrating, questions.

He once asked the Labour leader Neil Kinnock, then a unilateralist, if he would send British troops against an enemy armed with short-range, tactical nuclear weapons. The Kinnock reply, that enemies wouldn't use them because "our people" would resist, led to days of hostile headlines suggesting that the country would have to be defended by "a Dad's Army in the Welsh hills". "It was a perfectly civilised question, but it couldn't have been a more testing one," says Sir David.

He also once put an apparently jokey question to the late Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Frost asked whether, if someone shook him awake in the middle of the night, he would respond in English or in French. Trudeau, realising that he could upset half of his electorate with his answer, replied that it would depend on who was doing the shaking.

"They were both revealing exchanges, both showing that you don't need to have a hectoring approach in order to get at the truth," insists Sir David.

How about a Trudeau-style question for him? If the BBC strike had happened on a Sunday, would he have crossed the picket line? "Great, great question," replies Sir David, before saying, after a very long pause for thought: "I absolutely admit that I don't know, although I think that Andrew Marr's position was interesting. He said that he would support his colleagues but that he didn't agree with the strike."

After 43 years in television, Sir David doesn't care for everything that he sees on the screen nowadays. There has been, he believes, some dumbing down of television over the past few years, though less at the BBC than elsewhere. "I hope that the trend towards reality television is coming to an end. Celebrity Wrestling and Celebrity Love Island - I can't watch them at all," he says, admitting that he still thinks back with admiration to the days when ITV produced both This Week and World in Action.

"I think ITV is an exciting challenge for someone at the moment," Sir David says, carefully, summoning up all of his niceness and diplomatic skills in one huge euphemism.

Apart from the new Frost interviews due to start in September or October - he has long wanted to interview Fidel Castro, and might try again - and his Sky sporting legend series, he plans to continue with his "hobby" show Through the Keyhole. And almost anything else that comes along. There is absolutely no thought of retirement. "I am not a retiring sort of chap in any shape or form or meaning of the word," he says.

Greg Dyke remains an admirer, and not just of Frost's football prowess. "He's had a brilliant career. When you think that he was a star when I was at school, and when you look at how old I am now [58]. He's also one of the few people who came out of this country who was known internationally as a current-affairs presenter and interviewer," says Dyke.

Despite not thinking about retirement, the end of Breakfast with Frost has inevitably introduced an elegiac note to a long career. Sir David has even thought of something that he wouldn't mind having on his tombstone. It's a remark made by John Smith, the late Labour leader, after he appeared for the last time on the programme.

Smith said: "David, you have a way of asking beguiling questions with potentially lethal consequences."

Sir David roars with laughter before getting his make-up touched up a bit for the photographs to be taken. He has had the same make-up person - Brenda - for the past 20 years. His lips appear unnaturally red, as if a little colouring has been used, but it's only the effect of sucking the fat cigar.

As the programmes continue, so Sir David's lifetime efforts to win commercial broadcasting licences persist. He is chairing a bid for a new regional licence for the Solent area of Hampshire with Jim Moir, former controller of Radio 2, and the broadcaster Chris Tarrant. "Old habits die hard," says Sir David, who was, of course, a founder of TV-am as well as LWT.

The Solent is not even the end of it. One of Sir David Frost's favourite songs is a number by the Western singer Tex Ritter about a radio station in heaven called HEVN. "I'll probably end up chairing that, too!" he says.

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