For half a century, Sir David Frost, who has died aged 74 of a heart attack, was hardly ever off our television screens, from 1960s satire on the BBC to encounters with the great and good on al-Jazeera. In the process, he became the world's most celebrated television interviewer.
At the outset, the very success of this man in a stupendous hurry proved somewhat alarming to some – as the author and translator Kitty Muggeridge said of him in 1967: "He has risen without a trace." Worse than that, he was nicknamed the "bubonic plagiarist", for allegedly appropriating Peter Cook's gags and sketches from Beyond the Fringe for his television show That Was the Week That Was, and so piggybacking on the achievements of others.
No matter. In the decades that followed, Frost became a media personality and comedian, as comfortable cross-examining the most heavyweight political figures of the day as hosting Through the Keyhole, the show typifying the fatuousness of celebrity culture, in which panellists were given a video tour of a mystery famous guest's property and asked to identify the owner from the evidence.
Frost could never be accused of being a stuck-up or patrician broadcaster. He was a bon vivant, smoker of big cigars, dapper dresser, chum of the rich and famous, and so much of a jet-setter that, for a while, he was Concorde's most frequent flier, travelling from London and New York an average of 20 times a year for 20 years. No wonder he told one interviewer that he was "not driven, but flown".
His greatest journalistic coup came in 1977 when he interviewed the disgraced US president Richard Nixon and induced Tricky Dicky to confess in public his guilt over Watergate. "I let down the country," Nixon told Frost. "I let the American people down and I have to carry that burden for the rest of my life." Some drew parallels between interviewer and interviewee: "Apart from the consideration that Frost is much nicer," wrote Clive James, reviewing the interviews in 1977, "the two are remarkably similar. They are both essentially role-players. At a level too deep for speech, they understand each other well."
In Peter Morgan's West End play Frost/Nixon, and its 2008 film adaptation by Ron Howard, Frost is imagined as a Limey lightweight out of his depth in American politics who nonetheless got the goods that eluded more experienced journalists. It is easy (and dramatically fruitful) to cast Frost as a career-long opportunist, as though riding his luck is all he did. There was surely more to his story than that.
Frost was born in Tenterden, Kent. His father, Wilfred Paradine Frost, was a Methodist minister of Huguenot descent; David reportedly more resembled his mother Mona. He was educated at Gillingham and Wellingborough grammar schools. For two years before university, Frost was a lay preacher after seeing the charismatic evangelist Billy Graham perform at Harringay Arena in north London. One of Frost's sermons from this time reversed the line from Ol' Man River which goes "Tired of livin' and scared of dyin'". Frost sermonised on "Scared of livin' and tired of dyin'".
Whatever failings he would be charged with in his career, Frost was never scared of living. He turned down a contract with Nottingham Forest because his ambition was piqued by the more exciting opportunities that Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, could offer. In his memoirs, Frost recalled attending the Michaelmas term 1958 societies fair at Cambridge: "Two of the large stalls were for Granta, the university's general arts magazine and the Footlights. I remember thinking 'God I'd love to edit that and I'd love to run that.'" By the time he graduated with a degree in English three years later, he had edited Granta and been secretary of the Footlights.
Humphrey Carpenter, in his history of the British satire boom of the 1960s, That Was Satire That Was, argues that there was some public-school contempt for this ambitious nobody from Northamptonshire. The Old Etonian actor Jonathan Cecil reportedly once congratulated Frost on "that wonderfully silly voice" he used in cabaret, only to discover it was Frost's real one. Frost's voice never ceased to intrigue: he developed something called the Frost Drawl, a way of speaking that became slower and whose clarity diminished as it extended its global reach.
Frost, even as a undergraduate, was too thick-skinned and ambitious to be hobbled by snobs for long. He attached himself assiduously to Cook, whose cabaret style he copied. "Compared with Cookie, he always seemed like a little amateur trying to imitate this force of genius," argued the journalist and author Christopher Booker. "David's most obvious quality was [that] he simply wanted to be amazingly famous for being David Frost."
By the end of his time at Cambridge, Frost had not only appeared in a television comedy sketch with Cook, but also had a traineeship with the London TV company Associated-Rediffusion, an agent and a cabaret gig at the Blue Angel club in Berkeley Square. There he was spotted by Ned Sherrin, a young BBC TV producer who had been tasked with creating something singular – a subversive TV show.
Sherrin was so impressed by Frost's impersonation of the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, that he thought he had his man, not knowing that the routine had been cribbed from Cook. Over lunch, Frost convinced Sherrin he should not only appear on the new programme but present it – even though he had no experience of handling an elaborate live TV show on the BBC. After two pilots, the first show was broadcast in November 1962 and quickly gained a reputation for lampooning the establishment.
Its broadcast coincided with the Profumo affair. John Profumo, the war secretary, became a target for derision. Such was Frost's celebrity even at this early stage in his career that he was photographed (as was the playwright Joe Orton) sitting naked back to front on a chair, imitating the iconic photographic pose adopted by Christine Keeler, the model with whom Profumo had had an affair.
Only one problem: Frost the satirist was himself being satirised by satirists more vicious than he. The Private Eye headline: "The Bubonic Plagiarist – or There's Methodism in His Badness", appeared above a story that claimed: "After his latest [TW3] show, 400 people rang the BBC: three in favour, four against, and 393 to say they wrote the script." The story typified resentment over Frost's success, much of which stemmed from the Beyond the Fringe cast. Cook felt the BBC and Frost had taken his idea for a TV show, while another Beyond the Fringe luminary, Jonathan Miller, later said: "And then [satire] all got taken up by fucking David Frost, who took it seriously. Before you knew it, satire had become routine and you could even see it on the BBC."
After two successful series in 1962 and 1963, TW3 did not return in 1964, an election year – so great were the BBC's fears over compromising the corporation's impartiality. Frost went on to co-chair Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life, with Willie Rushton and the poet PJ Kavanagh, for one season from the winter of 1964. Arguably, though, Frost's next British TV series, The Frost Report, was more important than TW3 in that it gave a platform for most of the greatest British comedians of the next 30 years. It launched all five of Monty Python's British stars, as well as many of the talents of The Goodies, The Two Ronnies, Porridge, Yes Minister and Fawlty Towers.
But Frost, still in his 20s, had bigger dreams. He wanted to diversify his TV brand. Back at Rediffusion, he presented an interview-based series, The Frost Programme. Just as he had (arguably) revolutionised TV satire, making it threatening to, rather than complicit with, the establishment, here he was changing the nature of the TV interview: unctuous deference was out; aggression and scepticism were in.
Although guests on The Frost Programme included such controversial political figures as Sir Oswald Mosley, leader in the 1930s of the British Union of Fascists, and Ian Smith, the Rhodesian prime minister and defender of minority rule, the show was most significant for Frost's combative interview in 1967 with Emil Savundra, in which he angrily challenged the insurance fraudster before a studio audience that included Savundra's victims. The interview was criticised as trial by television and ITV managers worried that the interview compromised Savundra's right to a fair trial. Here, too, it could be said that Frost was astutely appropriating what others did better. On The Frost Programme, he behaved with the on-screen forcefulness of Bernard Levin, the commentator who had been one of his foils on TW3.
Perhaps more importantly to Frost, he was going global. From 1969 to 1972, he made five TV shows a week in New York for the Westinghouse network, and three a week for London Weekend Television, the company he had co-founded in 1968. On his US talk show, which ran until 1972, his interviewees included Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and Groucho Marx. In 1970, scarcely into his 30s, he was appointed OBE. He even had a catchphrase of sorts, his "hello, good evening and welcome" drawled by mimics on both sides of the Atlantic.
While professionally he was a success, his personal life at the time was, according to Sherrin, "like a Feydeau farce: I don't know how he got away with it". Old flames from the 60s and early 70s included the actors Janette Scott, Carol Lynley and Diahann Carroll (to whom he was at one stage engaged) and the model Karen Graham. "The 1960s was a perfect time, in many ways, in terms of your private life," he once said. "You mean the contraceptive pill, penicillin, and no Aids?" asked the interviewer Robert Chalmers. "Exactly," replied Frost. "I had a marvellous time. And, hopefully, so did they."
Looking back from the vantage point of his later life, it became hard to credit Frost as a pioneer of combative interviewing: he spent so much of his career interviewing the greatest celebrities of the day in a mutually satisyfing manner that enabled him to bask in their aura while they – perhaps – basked in his. Being interviewed by Frost came to put the seal on membership of the establishment. He alone interviewed all eight British prime ministers who served from 1964 onwards – Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron – and all seven US presidents in office between 1969 and 2008 - Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush, Bill Clinton and George W Bush. He interviewed Prince Charles on the eve of his investiture as Prince of Wales in 1969. He interviewed Muhammad Ali, both in the US and in Zaire before the boxing match with George Foreman touted as the Rumble in the Jungle.
One of his favourite interviewees was Noël Coward. Frost recalled: "I asked him, 'What sort of a child were you?' He said: 'When paid constant attention, lovable. When not, a pig.'" He once challenged John Lennon. "I remember saying to him that, when Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia, if people had said 'peace and love' to him, it wouldn't have done much good. Lennon said, 'No, but what if they had been saying it to him from the moment he was born?' That was wonderful."
The former scourge of the establishment, then, became its friend. He wrote a book called Millionaires, Multimillionaires and Really Rich People (1984), filled with people he knew. Prince Charles, Sir James Goldsmith and Sir Evelyn de Rothschild were among his intimates; Diana, Princess of Wales, was godmother to his youngest son. Frost became a softer interviewer: "Over time, your technique of interviewing changes," Frost said. "It's pointless to get hostile with people if you don't have a smoking pistol; you shut them up, rather than opening them up."
This sense of Frost as the establishment's obliging interviewer of choice rankled for some. In late 1969 or early 1970, John Birt, then an editor for Granada's World in Action (and later the director general of the BBC), interviewed Frost at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. According to Birt's 2002 memoirs, The Harder Path, he wanted to challenge Frost with the notion that "he had betrayed his satirical heritage; he had signed up with the mighty when he should have kept his distance".
The programme was premised on investigating Private Eye allegations that: "David had abused his position as a founder of LWT to win preferential deals to supply programmes from his privately owned company." Birt wrote that he put to him the allegations of impropriety, which he vigorously denied, adding: "We had no evidence to sustain them, so the interview fell flat." The programme was never shown.
In 1971 Frost approached Birt and hired him to work at LWT. Birt became Frost's protege and went on to produce the Nixon interviews in 1977.
These interviews had the largest audience for a news interview in history – 45 million people around the world watched as Nixon admitted his part in the scandal that had led to his resignation two years earlier. "We insisted on six hours about Watergate," recalled Frost. "Otherwise, he'd probably have refused to discuss it." As Morgan's play Frost/Nixon shows, it was easy for Nixon to underestimate Frost, to see him as a soft touch who could be manipulated to suit Nixon's own ends. But in obtaining Nixon's "I let the American people down" acknowledgment, Frost did what the Washington press corps had never managed.
In 1983, Frost was one of the so-called "Famous Five" presenters-cum-shareholders, along with Michael Parkinson, Angela Rippon, Anna Ford and Robert Kee, who launched the breakfast television station TV-am. Although the founders initially boasted of TV-am's "mission to explain", soon Frost was having to share the airwaves with the puppet character Roland Rat.
However, long after the rat, along with the other four-fifths of the Famous Five and many other of the station's celebrity presenters, had departed the sinking ship, Frost remained at TV-am, chiefly because his Frost on Sunday programme enabled him to continue doing what he liked doing best, interviewing on television.
After TV-am folded in 1992, Frost moved his show briefly to the satellite broadcasters BSkyB. Then, in 1993, he began presenting Breakfast with Frost on the BBC. This was his first regular weekly show for the corporation since That Was the Week That Was. It ran for 500 editions, ending in 2005.
From 2006, Frost presented a weekly live current affairs programme Frost All Over the World on the al-Jazeera English channel. Interviewees included Tony Blair, Hamid Karzai, Pervez Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto, Richard Dawkins, Henry Kissinger, Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir and Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, author of the historic fatwa against terrorism. Last year it was succeeded by The Frost Interview.
Frost, who was knighted in 1993, wrote several books, produced eight films and received many major TV awards, including a 2009 lifetime achievement award at the Emmys.
He was married twice, first to Peter Sellers's widow, Lynne Frederick. But their marriage lasted only 17 months and the couple divorced in 1982. The following year Frost married Lady Carina Fitzalan-Howard, a daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. He once described finding Carina as like finding "love at 17th sight".
Even though, towards the end of his life, he worked at a less frenetic pace, he was still working hard. Why, an interviewer asked him in 2008? "People might refer to my Methodist background – that feeling that you have a duty not to waste time; to use your talents to the full."
The confidence he possessed in those talents reinforced his sense of being able to exercise them well. "The target ... is to do with doing something that you enjoy and believe in. That's the ideal. Then you can be pretty much genuine all the time."
Frost is survived by Carina and their three sons.
• David Paradine Frost, broadcaster, journalist and producer, born 7 April 1939; died 31 August 2013
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