Obituary: Sir David Frost, television interviewer and satirist

Born: 7 April, 1939, in Kent. Died: 31 August, 2013, on board the Queen Elizabeth, aged 74
Sir David Frost. Picture: PASir David Frost. Picture: PA
Sir David Frost. Picture: PA

DAVID Frost first made his name as a satirist and the anchorman of the BBC’s late night show That Was The Week That Was (TW3). His caustic delivery, sardonic manner and idiosyncratic nasal voice made him an instant celebrity and TW3 became vital watching. His relaxed style (the catchphrase, “Hello, good evening and welcome” was much parodied) disguised his intense research – satirical, or of a more demanding nature, such as The Frost/Nixon Tapes.

Those 1977 interviews were ground-breaking events. Not only did they establish Frost as a major political commentator, but they also became an international hit and spawned a play and a film. Frost, by subtle and concentrated questioning, obtained from the disgraced former US president an admission of guilt regarding his action during Watergate. A sorrowful Richard Nixon mumbled: “I let down my friends, our system of government. I let down the American people.” It was a television coup and made for dramatic viewing.

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Frost’s success on television was extraordinary. Initially there was TW3 then came The Frost Report in the 1960s, The Frost Programme in the 1970s, Frost on Sunday and Through the Keyhole in the 1990s. Also in the 1990s, he was travelling weekly to do interviews in New York. He commuted twice a week on Concorde and once a steward apologised: “Sorry Sir David, it’s caviar again.”

David Paradine Frost was the only son of a Methodist minister, the Rev WJ Paradine Frost. His upbringing was strict and regimented – no alcohol and no television. He attended Gillingham and Wellingborough Grammar Schools, where he excelled at sports – especially at football. He had a trial with Nottingham Forest, but Frost was keen to further his studies and, in 1958, went up to read English at Gonville and Caius, Cambridge.

At Cambridge, he was part of burgeoning young group who were bright, intelligent and in search of a youthful identity. Such imaginative individuals as Peter Cook, Eleanor Bron, John Bird, Jonathan Miller were undergraduates and Frost took the satirical baton that had been born in the Lyceum Theatre in 1960 with Beyond the Fringe.

At Cambridge, he edited Granta and was secretary of the Footlights and came north to the Fringe during those years. He became known as a stand-up comedian in pubs and got some bookings on Anglia TV. He was not a natural comic, but found the studio very different.

“The first time I stepped into a television studio,” Frost said, “it felt like home. It didn’t scare me. Talking to the camera seemed the most natural thing in the world.” Comedian Rory Bremner confirms this. “David,” he said yesterday, “was made for television.”

After graduating, Frost joined Associated-Rediffusion and continued to do stand-up in nightclubs. In 1962, the producer Ned Sherrin was looking for a presenter of his new satirical show and went to see Frost doing a spot as the prime minister Harold Macmillan answering questions at a mock press conference. Sherrin later wrote: “David’s Macmillan lacked an easy charm, but he was adept in provoking questions from the audience and banging home an apparently spontaneous punchline.”

Once, Frost had – as Macmillan – told the audience: “Ask me any question you like: any subject.” “What about the Queen?” came a voice from the audience. Quick as a flash, Frost replied: “The Queen is not a subject.”

Sherrin immediately sent a memo to the BBC executives, “Ex-Footlights man looks promising.” Within weeks Frost was signed up to front TW3 and his career was made. Many objected to TW3’s biting satire (Mary Whitehouse deemed it “the epitome of what is wrong with the BBC”), but it drew huge audiences.

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It demonstrated its maturity and gained respect on the night of US president John Kennedy’s death. Satire and humour were replaced by a more serious and sensitive programme. Frost ended by saying direct to camera: “Even in death, it seems, we are not all equal. Death is not the great leveller. Death reveals the eminent.” There was no music, no applause. Just a slow fade out.

The successor to TW3 (Not so Much a Programme, More A Way of Life) was not a success and some thought Frost’s career would flounder. But he was a dangerous man to underestimate. In 1967 he fronted the purchase of the LWT franchise and hosted The Frost Programme.

In 1968, he signed to do interviews with major celebrities on American TV. In the US, he interviewed presidents, vice-presidents and Hollywood stars, while in Britain he did Paul McCartney, Enoch Powell, Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch. Most memorable, perhaps, was Frost’s interview with the disgraced insurance tycoon Emil Savundra. The image of Frost jabbing the air with his finger and stating firmly but calmly: “But, Mr Savundra, you do have a moral responsibility.” Savundra was later convicted of fraud.

In 1983, Frost was a member of “The Famous Five” who founded TV-AM – along with Michael Parkinson, Angela Rippon, Robert Kee and Anna Ford. It proved controversial and unsuccessful.

It was his tenacity and sheer hard work that earned him an international reputation – and a fortune. Frost’s persistence and reputation secured the contract with Nixon to speak on camera for the first time since his resignation as president.

Frost knew his skill as an interviewer would be tested to the maximum: “Tricky Dicky” was a wily politician. Frost opened by flattering the former president and letting him speak freely about his foreign policy achievements. It was in the third programme that Frost insisted on clear and concise answers. After a pause, he heard Nixon apologise for his conduct during Watergate. Frost sold the tapes worldwide.

His Frost on Sunday became vital viewing for politicians of all parties. Frost was a canny questioner. He forsook the haranguing questions and preferred a more gentle and reasoned approach. In so doing, he relaxed politicians and then came in with a final rip-snorter: as the interviewee stuttered and tried to reply, the play-out music was phased in.

Frost was a popular figure throughout politics and journalism. He was a shrewd entrepreneur and built up a media empire of some renown. He lived in some style – hosting a grand garden party in the middle of Wimbledon week at his house in Kensington and maintaining a substantial property in Hampshire. He published widely and appeared at the Border Book Fair in Melrose last year.

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Two stories of Frost linger in the memory. Nelson Mandela was interviewed on Frost on Sunday and after the formalities Mandela was pleased to see a band in the studio playing South African reggae music. Without a thought, Mandela got up and joyously danced.

Earlier Frost and Mandela had been talking about football before the programme started. Frost (an avid Chelsea supporter) mentioned he had had a trial for Nottingham Forest. “You, too, had a trial?” the president asked. Frost burst out laughing.

In 1981 Frost, who was knighted in 1993, married Lynne Frederick. That marriage was dissolved and in 1984 he married Lady Carina Fitzalan-Howard, the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. She and their three sons survive him.

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