Feature Michael Parkinson on the brilliance of David Frost
TV journalist David Frost was a master interviewer but revealed little of himself, writes Michael Parkinson
Whenever he was asked by an interviewer how he would like to be remembered, David Frost would say: “For ever.” I think he was joking but there is little doubt that in any respectable history of the first 50 years of television he was one of its most influential figures. Remembering the moment he stepped into a television studio, he said he felt elated and at home. No one did more to represent the cultural revolution of the 1960s and to use TV as a means of exploiting the humour, the anger, the youthful exuberance and the classless vigour of the time. Society changed and TV with it; so did David Frost — talking to everyone who was anyone and becoming perhaps the most significant interviewer in the history of TV as well as one of its most daring entrepreneurs.
Neil Hegarty’s biography of Frost, That Was the Life That Was, is a fascinating and perceptive account of a man who spent 50 years or more investigating the lives of others, while at the same time invariably dodging any attempt to explain his inner man.
The most common recollection of those who knew Frost was of someone who, for all his humour and easygoing charm, was essentially a private man. I was a friend of David’s for 50 years or so, worked both with him and for him. We shared a love of cricket and long boozy lunches; I was best man at his wedding; I spoke at his funeral; I admired no friend more than he, yet never felt myself an intimate.
He was the inspiration and guiding light for all the TV interviewers who lived in his shadow in the 60s. He always reckoned with every interview he was looking for a headline the next day. The one that first obliged his ambition was his encounter with a crook and fraudster called Emil Savundra. It wasn’t so much Frost’s skilful, forensic examination of Savundra’s criminal behaviour that made it memorable, more his palpable contempt for the immorality of the culprit. That, plus his idea of salting the audience with victims of the fraudster’s crime, demonstrated Frost’s unique style of mixing tough journalism and showbiz.
In Hegarty’s book, the journalist and novelist Andrew Marr describes Frost’s interviewing technique as “caress, caress, nod, smile, kidney punch, smile, smile”, never better displayed than when he pulled off his most spectacular coup interviewing Richard Nixon. Frost not only took on the might of the American networks in putting together a deal with Nixon but he assembled a team capable of researching, producing and selling the show to the world. It became part of TV history. More than that, he took a gamble that, had it failed, would have meant financial ruin for Frost. As it was, even winning proved expensive after Frost sold his shares in a TV company he had founded to help fund the Nixon project, thereby losing a profit of £35 million when the company was eventually taken over.
The contacts Frost had made during a successful few years in Australia in the early 70s also helped fund the Nixon deal, when Kerry Packer gave him crucial backing, indicating a robust friendship between the two men. Talking business with Packer, Frost happened to remark he had missed the Melbourne Cup and had not seen the television coverage. Packer immediately called his TV station, Channel 9, with the result that the first showing in Australia of that year’s James Bond film — The Spy Who Loved Me — was interrupted without explanation to screen a re-run of the race.
What comes through in Hegarty’s book is an inspiring story of a man who, for all that he lived a charmed life and met with kings and conmen, saints and sinners, never forgot the example set by his father, a formidable Methodist minister.
The Reverend Wilfred John Paradine Frost was the most important influence on his life. As Hegarty explains, he was “broadminded, evangelical, passionate and socially aware, with a keen sense of injustice and a dedication to a sacred idea of the universality of God’s grace”. How much of this accounted for the phenomenon Frost became? Hegarty’s observes: “Although his later lifestyle hardly gave the appearance of it, David Frost had an understanding of God too and prayed to Him each night.” Put another way, his wife Carina was once asked if her husband was religious and answered: “Most certainly. He thinks he is God.”
His politics, as his biographer notes, remained deeply human and deeply humane in focus. They slipped through party lines. At Cambridge, as part of an intake of students who gained access through grammar schools rather than Eton or Harrow, he was teased and provoked by the likes of Peter Cook who never forgave Frost for being more successful than him. Cook famously saved Frost from drowning, often joking it was his greatest regret. Legend has it that when Frost recovered from the ordeal his first word was “super”.
Frost used his time at Cambridge to build the launch pad for his career, not by the traditional means of diligent work and a good degree but by networking. In the early 60s there was an extraordinary starburst of theatrical talent at Cambridge. Apart from Cook and Ian McKellen, the intake included Eleanor Bron, John Cleese, Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, Derek Jacobi, Trevor Nunn, Margaret Drabble and many more. When asked what created such a galaxy, Cook said: “Rationing”. Frost seized his opportunity, becoming a leading light in Footlights, the cabaret and theatrical society, while also editing Granta, the university newspaper.
While his networking was energetically pursued, Frost spent little time on his degree. His director of studies, Donald Davie, recalled one essay on the subject of Hamlet that started with “As Hamlet said to Peter Cook”. His examination papers were declared by FR Leavis to be the “most disgraceful in the history of the English faculty”.
Anyone else would have despaired, but Frost regarded his time at Cambridge as well spent. He never looked back, and throughout a long career he was never downhearted nor took a backward step. Even after a show that hadn’t worked and others thought a disaster, he would say: “I thought that went rather well.”
McKellen says: “I always had a sense he saw Cambridge as a mere staging post and that he had some kind of game plan which would lead to assuming his rightful place in the world.”
Frost’s life was best summed up by one of his closest friends, Peter Chadlington. He told Hegarty: “David’s success was not an accident. He constantly reinvented himself. He was essentially an entrepreneur where he, personally, was the brand! Success was neither happenstance nor that of a short-lived meteor. He was constantly looking for new opportunities, changing his brand — himself — to adapt to new circumstances as society and the media changed. That was his genius.”
I once asked him the most obvious question — “Which of all the interviews was the most inspiring?” He chose the one with senator Robert Kennedy in 1968, which became the last interview he gave before his assassination. Part of that interview was printed in the order of service at Westminster Abbey. In it Frost recalled: “Kennedy spoke a lot about making a contribution. He used to say ‘For if we do not do this then who will do this?’ It’s so simple. If you have a talent, you have a duty to use it to the full. Making a contribution, making a difference — they should be linked — it’s not only something that famous people can do, or dead politicians … It is something that everyone can do in their own lives.”
This is the nearest Frost got to any assessment or revelation of his inner self. Asked if he had any regrets, he replied he never got around to opening the first TV station on the moon. Hands up those who think he was joking.
PETER COOK NEVER FORGAVE FROST FOR BEING MORE SUCCESSFUL THAN HIM