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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Michael Parkin­son is an English broad­caster, talk show host, jour­nal­ist and author. That Was the Life That Was by Neil He­garty is pub­lished by Ran­dom House, $39.95 (hard­back $85).

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.


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