Sunday, September 01, 2013

That Was A Life That Was

The veteran broadcaster, television legend and one of yer actual Keith Telly Topping's proper heroes Sir David Frost has died at the age of seventy four after a suspected heart attack whilst on board a cruise ship. A family statement said that he had been giving a speech aboard the Queen Elizabeth on Saturday night when he was taken ill. Frosty's astonishing fifty year career spanned journalism, satirical comedy, chat show host, light entertainment and serious political commentary. Internationally, he will be remembered for his revealing interviews with the disgraced former US President - and bugger - Richard Nixon in 1977. David began his career at the cutting edge of television satire and went on to interview some of the most famous people of his generation (and, indeed, of the next two or three generations as well), becoming friends with many of them into the process. Personable, likeable, charming though occasionally insufferably smug to the point of self-parody(!), David developed the confrontational interview style subsequently dubbed 'trial by television' although, in later years, his interviews lost something of their bite. Like his friend Michael Parkinson, however, David has many serious claims to being the single greatest TV interviewer the world has ever seen in a way that Jonathan Ross, Graham Norton et al will never have. A statement said that David's family 'are devastated and ask for privacy at this difficult time. A family funeral will be held in the near future and details of a memorial service will be announced in due course.'

Barney Jones, who edited Breakfast With Frost on the BBC for a decade, said: 'David loved broadcasting, did it brilliantly for more than fifty years and was eagerly looking forward to a host of projects - including interviewing the Prime Minister next week - before his sudden and tragic death. We will all miss him enormously.' Cameron his very self slavvered, annoyingly: 'My heart goes out to David Frost's family. He could be - and certainly was with me - both a friend and a fearsome interviewer.' One imagines that if the value of David Cameron's 'friends' is to be judged by those of that number currently awaiting trial for phone-hacking related offences (which, of course, it is important to note, they all deny) then David Frost may well have regarded the Prime Minister's claim as somewhat presumptuous. But, actually, Frosty would've probably been delighted by it. He was that sort of bloke! David Paradine Frost was born in Tenterden in Kent on 7 April 1939, the son of a Methodist minister of Huguenot descent, the Reverend WJP Frost, and his wife Mona. He had two elder sisters. Whilst living in Gillingham, David was taught in the Bible class of the Sunday school at his father's church (Byron Road Methodist) by David Gilmore Harvey and subsequently started training as a Methodist preacher. But, deciding that his future lay outside the church, David instead threw himself into academia. He attended Gillingham Grammar School and – while residing in Raunds – Wellingborough Grammar School, as his father had moved to work as a minister there.

David subsequently won a place at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a degree in English. Throughout his years in education he was an avid and talented footballer and cricketer, and was reportedly offered a contract with Nottingham Forest as a sixteen year old (David himself was a lifelong, and very proud, Norwich City supporter). At Cambridge, he edited the student magazine, Varsity and the literary magazine, Granta. And, more importantly to his future career, he became secretary of the Footlights Club where he met future comedy greats such as Peter Cook, Eleanor Bron, Graham Chapman and John Bird. After university David went to work at ITV - for Associated-Rediffusion, initially, then at Anglia - before he was asked to front the BBC's new Saturday night comedy programme That Was The Week That Was. It was 1962, and Frost was chosen by the producer, Ned Sherrin, who had seen David doing his infamously nasty routine impersonating the then Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, at the Blue Angel club off Berkeley Square. David was asked, on the spot, to host the show which caught the wave of the satire boom in early-sixties Britain and became a massively popular - and very controversial - cause célèbre during the next eighteen months. The programme struck a chord with a nation which had, until then, been naturally rather deferential and forelock-tugging towards its political and social leaders. That all changed with TW3. No target was safe from their withering scorn, with politicians, business leaders and religion being just some of the subjects which came under its microscope. Sir Cyril Osborne, the Conservative MP for Louth, called That Was the Week That Was 'a low sexy thing', adding that he felt that he 'would like to give the performers a good bath.' His complaint highlights two things: firstly, how different the world was when satire was new to television and, secondly, what an abundance of material there was for it to thrive upon. Osborne had just been shouting at Bernard Levin, TW3's resident interviewer and confrontationist, about The Denning Report. Each week, Levin would talk to a group of people about their profession, and generally abuse them in a populist way. He was quite successful in his encounters with scientists and PR executives, but was stopped in his tracks by a gang of angry young farmers. 'We're used to handling dumb animals,' said an NFU spokesman, after Levin had begun the interview with the greeting 'Hello peasants!' Levin's most memorable encounter, however, was with Katina, an astrologer who squirted him with a plastic lemon, repeating 'the answer's a lemon'. (His most outrageous off-screen slagging came from a Cheshire vicar who, disgustingly, called him a 'thick-lipped Jewboy' in print. It was the 1960s, dear blog reader, people said shit like that in those days. Even 'Christians.') Such moments were TV history, because TW3 instantly caught the imagination of the viewing public. The Daily Scum Express called it 'irreverent, tough, cynical, snobbish, leftish and witty,' and it was, indeed, all these things. The Tory press, in particular, played a regular game of numerical switchboards, each week counting the numbers of angry calls that the show prompted to the BBC. The record was four hundred and forty three, which, out of twelve million viewers, wasn't bad.

Frosty's sardonic presentational style - complete with trademark 'Hello, good evening and welcome' introduction - was coupled with an acerbic set of scripts from a huge team of writers which included John Bird, Peter Cook, John Cleese, Bill Oddie, Keith Waterhouse, Roald, Dahl, Frank Muir, Sir John Betjeman and Dennis Potter. TW3 also broke all the technical rules of television. Cameras and other equipment appeared in shot and the programme, broadcast live on a Saturday night, would often over- or under-run depending on how much material was available on the night. The BBC eventually had to place it last in the day's schedules - it had originally gone out at 10pm before the final show of the evening, the American drama series The Third Man, but Frost - wittily - kept on giving away the plot synopsis of the episode which was to follow until the BBC gave in and switched the two shows around! Reginald Bevins, the Postmaster General, studied the scripts, and was asked by Tory MPs to ban all references to royalty and religion. He refused, reasoning - possibly correctly - that to do so would, in all likelihood, lose the Conservatives the forthcoming general election. An ITV answer to TW3, What The Public Wants, was dropped after four episodes because of a clause in The Television Act which stated that ITV programmes could not refer to living people. TW3 only really escaped censorship because, being produced by the Talks and Current Affairs Department, it wasn't subject to the Light Entertainment rulebook. TW3 was written in the week of, sometimes on the day of, broadcast, and contained much improvised material, setting new standards for the comedy of the time. Each week's edition would begin with Millicent Martin singing a new Caryl Brahms lyric to Ron Grainer's jaunty theme tune. In a similar vein, Lance Percival would provide topical (and often improvised) calypsos. In the time before, during and immediately after the Profumo scandal, That Was the Week That Was was the voice of an emergent young generation in Britain, appalled by the stuffiness, cronyism and seeming ineptitude of the MacMillan government. Among the more biting attacks the team - Frost, Martin, Levin, Percival, Roy Kinnear, Willie Rushton, Tim Birdsall, John Wells, Ken Cope, David Kernan, Al Mancini, John Bird, Eleanor Bron, Roy Hudd - mounted were assaults on the producer Norrie Paramour ('he takes all the messy unpredictability and excitement out of music'), Keith Joseph ('he has great experience of housing - he has three of his own') and Sir Alec Douglas-Home (every week, basically). One of the most controversial items was future Labour MP Gerald Kaufman's list of silent MPs, those who hadn't spoken in the Commons for ten or fifteen years. It caused something of an outcry which reached the House itself, but it hardly qualified as satire, being, as Kaufman pointed out, simply an easily-discovered truth. Also the subject of an uproar was A Consumer's Guide to Religions, an ancestor to a thousand Monty Python's Flying Circus and Not The Nine O'Clock News sketches. The skit itself was actually quite harmless, comparing the benefits of various churches in a what now seems a rather twee way. However, it was enough to get some mouthy MPs talking of a ban once more. The show took up the gauntlet on behalf of John Osborne after the playwright was accused of being unpatriotic and featured many famous guests, such as Hattie Jacques and Peter Wyngarde. The atmosphere was that of an Oxbridge supper club, with music and debate at least as important a part of the mix as satire. There was a capital S in the brand in those days, satire, like modern jazz or beat music, being something new, a vital part of the movement against The Establishment. As Sherrin said in the Observer, TW3 'took the relationship between audience and programme a step further' and, like Giles' cartoons, would be eagerly awaited for its verdict on whatever was happening that week. Amongst the other memorable moments on the series were Frost's listing of Britain's remaining dependencies ('... and not forgetting Sweet Rockall') and the astonishing, almost-laughless, episode broadcast on the evening after John Kennedy's assassination (Millicent's dignified performance of 'His Memory Lingers On' is the stuff TV legends are made of). Frost and the team had, reportedly, thrown away that week's already-written bitingly satirical script and instead improvised a hasty, tearful tribute to the dead president. Some viewers were reportedly disappointed, but Frost and co had judged the public mood correctly – something David would continue to do so for much of the next fifty years. 'You will be hard-pressed to find anyone with a bad word to say about him,' one (anonymous) colleague was quoted in the Gruniad as saying after his death was announced. Not a bad tribute from the backstabbing world of TV. TW3 introduced to television writers from beyond the normal range of gag-merchants. Playwrights, novelists and journalists (many later to become TV institutions) all contributed material which, although sometimes misplaced or silly, was frequently 'right on' in a way that TV comedy had never been before and would struggle for a long time to be afterwards. It was as rough as the studio from where the show was broadcast, Sherrin allowing the audience to see cameras, microphones and everything which would normally have been hidden. It added to the impression of hard honesty. A savage profile of Home Secretary Henry Brooke, describing him as 'the most hated man in Britain', ended 'if you're Home Secretary, you can get away with murder.' Frost would often follow such an attack with a sly wink to the audience and the cheeky line 'seriously though, he's doing a grand job.' TW3 was also pivotal in Frankie Howerd's nth revival: revered by Sherrin, Howerd mocked the intelligence of the satire around him ('these days you need a degree to tell a joke about knickers'), but proved more than capable of attacking people in his own unique manner: 'Robin Day - strange man, isn't he? Hasn't he got cruel glasses?' TW3 ended at Christmas 1963, when the BBC got cold feet over the prospect of the programme being shown in an election year and possibly influencing the result. Frost, infamously, ended the final episode with a rant about the forthcoming election and the merits of the Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home and the leader of the opposition, Harold Wilson, noting that the election would see the public given a choice 'between dull-Alec and smart-Alec!'

An American version of TW3 ran after the original British series had ended. Following a pilot episode, the thirty-minute US series, which also featuring Frost along with various American satirists, ran on NBC from 10 January 1964 to May 1965. It was during this period that Frost infamously almost drowned in a swimming pool accident in America and was saved by his Cambridge contemporary - and rival - Peter Cook. The comedian would often tell the story in later years, claiming that his 'only regret in life' was 'that I saved David Frost from drowning!' Back in the UK, Frost fronted a number of programmes following the success of TW3, including its immediate successor, Not So Much A Programme, More A Way Of Life (1964), which he co-chaired with Willie Rushton and the poet PJ Kavanagh and BBC3 (1965) which remains chiefly memorable for being the first programmes on British television where the word 'fuck' was used (by the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan). More successful was The Frost Report (1966-67), which launched the television careers of Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett (notably in the famous Class Sketch). It ran for twenty nine episodes and featured scripts written by some of the best comedy writers of their generation. Most of the future Monty Python's Flying Circus team honed their skills on The Frost Report before going on to launch their own show. One in which Frosty himself was a, not infrequent, target for mimicry and ridicule. The following year, Frost signed for Rediffusion, the ITV weekday contractor in London, to produce a 'heavier' interview-based show called The Frost Programme which saw Frosty move away from comedy into in-depth interviews with political figures, royalty and celebrities. Notable guests included the fascist Sir Oswald Mosley and the Rhodesian premier Ian Smith. The most memorable episode, however, was Frost's confrontation with the insurance fraudster Emil Savundra, generally regarded as the first example of 'trial by television.' Savundra, who was seemingly expecting an easy ride, was taken aback by the force of Frost's questioning and the presenter became increasingly frustrated by his guest's evasive manner. Frost started by setting out the facts for his audience, then gradually turned up the heat on his interviewee, becoming steadily more exasperated by Savundra's lack of remorse as he described the studio audience as 'peasants' and accused them of asking questions which lacked intelligence. 'Nobody is a peasant,' Frost said. 'I'm afraid they're the people who gave you your money.' As Savundra repeatedly obfuscated, challenged audience members to take him to court and accused Fleet Street of misrepresentation, Frost took him to meet people who had lost money as a result of the failure of the Fire, Auto & Marine Insurance Company. Savundra provoked his victims - some of whom lost loved ones in car accidents - and claimed that he had 'no moral responsibility' towards them. Savundra, was later jailed for fraud. The Frost Programme was the first current affairs programme to use a participating audience and Frost was roundly applauded as he stormed off the set at the programme's conclusion, still visibly incandescent with rage at Savundra. The conduct of the interview caused some concern among TV executives, but it blazed a path for the far more aggressive style of interviewing which would be adopted in future generations by journalists such as Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys - both of whom owe Frost a huge debt. 'What the Emil Suvundra interview pointed out was David's great forensic skill in taking on people like Suvundra, who were crooks,' Michael Parkinson noted. 'His moral outrage wasn't a pose, his father was a minister. David was a Christian man in many ways and he had a strict moral sense. And he was offended by people who were cheats and robbers and thieves. He also had a great sense of the dramatic. He was as much an actor as he was an interviewer in many ways. He knew how to build tension, how to create an atmosphere so it became like a movie, a play, it had drama.' David was also a member of a successful consortium, including former executives from the BBC, which bid for an ITV franchise in 1967. This became London Weekend Television, which began broadcasting in July 1968. Interviewees on Frost's ITV chat show included The Beatles (who appeared either individually, together or, you know, with Yoko Ono, on five occasions and who unveiled 'Hey Jude' during an episode of The Frost Programme), Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, Tennessee Williams and Noel Coward, while Prince Charles was interviewed on the eve of his investiture as Prince of Wales. On 20 and 21 July 1969, during the British television coverage of the Apollo 11 landing, Frosty presented David Frost's Moon Party for LWT, a ten-hour discussion and entertainment marathon from LWT's Wembley Studios. Two of his guests on this programme were the British historian AJP Taylor and Sammy Davis, Jr - a sentence which, pretty much perfectly, sums up David Frost's entire career.

It would be on a - much later - episode of The Frost Programme (in 1982) that David had a memorably terse interview with then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher over the sinking of the Argentine cruiser the Belgrano during the Falklands conflict, earning him a proper scowling from Maggie. From 1969 to 1972, Frosty continued with his weekend London shows and also fronted The David Frost Show - a five-nights-a-week chat show - in the United States as well as beginning a third TV franchise, in Australia. (During his career as a broadcaster Frost became one of Concorde's most frequent fliers, having shuttled between London and New York an average of thirty times per year for over twenty years.) The Goodies - all of whose three members had written from Frost during the 1960s - infamously described David as 'the bubonic plagiarist' and once wrote an episode featuring the 'World Domination' scout's badge which, they claimed, had only ever had three recipients - Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and David Frost - 'who pinched his.' His 1970 TV special, Frost On America, featured guests such as Jack Benny. But it was during 1977, that David made the programme he will always be remembered for - using his gently probing but incisive style to take former the disgraced US President Richard Nixon to task over his role in the Watergate affair. In the interviews, which were watched by an estimated forty five million people in the US on first broadcast, Nixon was ultimately prodded into admitting his part in the scandal which led to his resignation two years earlier and confessed that he had let the American people down. 'He was the most fascinating man,' Frost later told CNN. 'I mean, an enigma. There's never been anyone who was such an enigma in the Oval Office. Someone has to be pretty fascinating, enigmatic, Nixonian to keep one fascinated for twenty eight and three quarter hours.' Frost's decision to pay Nixon for the exclusive interview dissuaded the main US television networks from buying the interview and the move was criticised as being an early example of chequebook journalism. So, Frost funded the project himself - selling his shares in London Weekend Television - in the hope that he would make the money back from syndication rights. Which, of course, he did. In an interview with the Gruniad, David - who filmed almost thirty hours of footage with Nixon - recalled: 'I said something to him like, "I think we've not so much been through an interview as been through a whole life" and he said, "Bit tough for you, was it?" - which was so Nixonian; that the person who was really under pressure was me, not him.' The story of their verbal battle was brought to a new generation with Peter Morgan's 2006 play Frost/Nixon, subsequently turned into an award-winning movie by Ron Howard, starring Michael Sheen as Frosty and an Oscar-nominated Frank Langella as the disgraced politician. Michael Sheen paid tribute to David noting: 'He was incredibly supportive. He was a very canny man. He had a totally unique career, no-one could do any more. He was the first major British TV star.' Sheen added that when Sir David came to greet you, 'he really made you feel like you were the most important person in the world. He was a fixture, part of our social fabric.' David was fulsome in his praise of both the play and the movie although was moved to note that it didn't, quite, happen like that in real life! On hearing of Frost's death, Morgan said: 'He was a legendary broadcasting figure and a member of the British broadcasting landscape for two generations and in many ways his success was very un-English. He was a pioneer. He combined being a satirist and someone whom one satirised. It was an extraordinary, four-dimensional, vivid career and he was a great lunch.'

David was a joint founder of London Weekend Television and one of the famous five presenters-cum-shareholders behind breakfast television station TV-am, which launched in 1983. Throughout the 1990s he hosted the panel game Through The Keyhole, in which contestants had to guess the identity of a celebrity after watching a video tour of their home. Yes, it was every bit as bad as it sounds, dear blog reader though it was, bafflingly, popular! Produced by Frost's own company, and featuring appearances by Loyd Grossman, it was originally broadcast on ITV before transferring to the BBC in 1997. In 1993, David began presenting Breakfast With Frost on the BBC, his first regular weekly show for the corporation since the mid-sixties. His new format on Sunday mornings ran for five hundred editions, ending in May 2005 when he switched to presenting a weekly current affairs programme Frost All Over The World on the Al Jazeera's English Channel. His first episode featured a headline-grabbing interview with then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, who admitted during the show that the 2003 Iraq War had been 'a disaster.' Blair has since said in a tribute to Frost that 'being interviewed by him was always a pleasure but also you knew that there would be multiple stories the next day arising from it.' Frost's unaggressive, almost laid-back interviewing technique again came to the fore during the shows, but, as with Blair, he was not afraid of asking tough questions if the subject warranted the scrutiny, lulling his guests into a false sense of security before going for the jugular. His great experience, talent and gravitas also helped make Al Jazeera's name in the UK, and Frost Over the World, then a series of one-off interviews, continued pulling in viewers and producing in-depth, noteworthy conversations until earlier this year. Recent interviewees have included Gordon Brown and former US Republican presidential candidate John McCain. By this time the angry young satirist of 1962 had metamorphosed into comfortable middle age and, with supreme irony, had become a part of the very establishment which he had once lampooned so effectively thirty years before. Some scowly critics derided his new interviewing style, suggesting it should be more properly called Bedtime With Frost; but he was unabashed. 'What is more likely to get the coat off your back: the wind or the sun? Wind makes you draw the jacket round yourself. The sun encourages you to take it off.' The BBC's Director General Tony Hall said: 'From satire to comedy to the big political interviews, for more than fifty years he brought us the history of the world we live in today, that's the mark of the man.' David - an unlikely, but entirely plausible international jet-set playboy - was known for several liaisons with beautiful and high profile women during his life and he is also known to have remained on friendly terms with most of them even once their relationships has ended. In the mid-1960s, he dated the British actress Janette Scott, between her marriages to songwriter Jackie Rae and singer Mel Tormé; in the early 1970s he was engaged to the American actress Diahann Carroll and between 1972 and 1977 he had a relationship with the British socialite and model Caroline Cushing. In 1981 he married Lynne Frederick, the widow of Peter Sellers, but they divorced the following year. He also had an eighteen-year intermittent affair with Carol Lynley. In March 1983, David married Lady Carina Fitzalan-Howard, daughter to the Duke of Norfolk, and the couple had three sons. David was also a patron and former vice-president of the Motor Neurone Disease Association charity, as well as being a patron of the Alzheimer's Research Trust, the Hearing Trust, East Anglia's Children's Hospices, the Home Farm Trust and the Elton John AIDS Foundation. David wrote a number of books, produced eight films and received many major TV awards, both in the UK and internationally (including a BAFTA fellowship and a Lifetime Achievement EMMY award). Awarded an OBE in 1970, he was knighted for his services to broadcasting in 1993. He was the only journalist to have interviewed all seven British Prime Ministers who held office between 1964 and 2010 and every US President who occupied the White House between 1969 and 2008. 'John Smith said to me, "You have a way of asking beguiling questions with potentially lethal consequences." I would be content to have that on my tombstone.' David Frost is survived by his wife, Carina, and their three sons, Miles, Wilfred and George.

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