Sad To See You Leaving 2013: David Frost

by George_East on December 28, 2013

David FrostBy the time that those who write for this blog were getting into politics  David Frost was a light entertainment figure.  As part of the launch team of the decidedly fluffy TV-AM and as the host of Through The Keyhole he represented something cosy and establishment.     A glimpse of what had been would occasionally be seen in long running Sunday morning BBC interview series, Breakfast With Frost, but this too could be a little bit Wogan and was hardly an intimidating prospect for the politicians he interviewed.

The irony is that it was just this image as a unserious soft touch light entertainer that would get Frost the finest gig in his career, his interview  and former President Richard Nixon in 1977, and result in one of the most devastating interviews of a politician ever broadcast.

Before that, Frost had, of course, made his name as the anchor of the ground breaking satirical programme, That Was The Week That Was, which would become a testing ground either as performers or sript writing  for many of the most talented new crop of comedians and dramatists who emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, including John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Frank Muir, Dennis Potter, Eric Sykes, Kenneth Tynan, Keith Waterhouse, Willie Rushton, Roy Kinnear, John Bird and Richard Ingrams.  For the first time on British television, politicians were not treated with  deference and respect.

That Was The Week That Was would be followed by The Frost Report (of the Class sketch fame) which continued along the same lines but as it title suggests, played much more on the personality and presence of its host.

It was the success of these shows that saw Frost land a huge contract to present an American chat show.  However this bombed and was cancelled after 3 seasons.  Frost found himself in the early and mid 1970s in Australia presenting a light entertainment show.  His career appeared to be past its peak and on a downward trajectory.

The combination of Richard Nixon wishing to rescue his reputation and David Frost seeing an opportunity of re-launching his career would lead to the Frost/Nixon interviews of 1977.

The calculation of Nixon and his publicist was that Frost was essentially a light weight entertainer rather than a hard hitting professional political journalist and that the long format would allow him to dominate proceedings.

Frost was acutely aware of his own limitations and recruited a team of young professional journalists to do the research work and John Birt as producer.   In order to land the interviews, which no network was prepared to finance, Frost sunk pretty much his entire life savings into the venture.

What Nixon’s team had failed to appreciate was that Frost’s natural charm and conversational style was precisely what was necessary to draw the former President out.   Nixon’s famous statement that ‘well, when the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal’ summed up in one sentence the whole underpinning of his administration’s industrial level criminality.  Frost was capable, though, of Paxman style bluntness too, with questions like ‘why didn’t you burn the tapes’.

The result was a record American television audience of 45 million, still the highest ever for a political programme and Nixon’s plans for a comeback in tatters.  Following the broadcast 75% thought he should have no further part in public life and 72% that he was guilty of obstruction of justice.

The Frost/Nixon interviews are an object lesson in how serious political interviews should be done, though it hard to imagine    a broadcaster now giving over 4 90 minute shows to the interview of one politician.   The longer format prevents the endless repetition of sound bites that makes political interviews so depressing and uninformative now.

David Frost pursued both obtaining the interview and his quarry once he had secured the interviews with a vigour and skill that we simply do not see anymore.  He also made a cool million dollars from the interviews, which is not to be sniffed at.

RIP David Frost 1939-2013.

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