If a person’s popularity can be gauged by the number of times his telephone rings, then Sir David Frost is very popular indeed. Every ten minutes, his rolling anecdotes are interrupted by the jarring blast of TRRRIINNNG! TRRRIINNNG!
The volume setting is probably at its loudest because Sir David, at 72, is quite deaf now and wears a discreet-looking hearing aid in both ears.
Sir David (as he is addressed by his staff) takes one out to show me, while insisting that he’s not really hard of hearing. “I could do this interview without them but they’re just terrifically convenient.” Wow, I say, they look like almost invisible ear plugs. “Sorry? What was that you said?”
He himself is so very gallant and kindly that it seems impertinent not to return the favour. So let’s just say that there are moments in our two meetings in London at his High Street Kensington office, conducted over a desk submerged in piles of files relating to his career from That Was the Week That Was to his present gig on al-Jazeera English, where he seems more vigorous – with a flash of that suave wit and slightly vulpine sexiness of old – than others.
The subject of his deafness comes up apropos his father, a Methodist preacher, the Reverend Wilfred Paradine Frost (Frost Jr’s TV company is called David Paradine Productions).
I had asked whether there were any theatrical genes in his family, and he replied: “My father was theatrical in the sense that he was an excellent preacher. He was a very strong pastor of his flock, and he had a very good sense of humour and he also had this amazing thing for a minister – that HE – SPOKE – SO – CLEARLY – LIKE THAT, ALMOSTTTTT-UH – that little old ladies would take out their hearing aids because they no longer needed them.”
When David was 18, he delivered his own sermons for a couple of years, as a lay preacher at the local Methodist church. “The one I remember most clearly was based on Ol’ Man River... what was that bit?” He struggles to recall the lines, scribbling on a scrap of paper to get the memory-juices flowing.
“‘Tired of living and scared of dying’, that was it. So I spoke about what it is for people who are, indeed, tired of living but scared of dying... and then I reversed it and talked about people who are tired of dying – the thing where people die little deaths every day in various ways – and ‘scared of living’, which is when people are presented with a Christian alternative and are sometimes scared to go all the way with faith or whatever.”
Later, when touching on personal matters, he says that he still retains his faith and has found it helpful in “times of crisis”, when he falls back on “a mixture of prayer and meditation”.
He has cleverly inserted his name – reinforcing his brand – into many of his TV programmes over the decades; his al-Jazeera English show is called Frost over the World and the new one-off programme for BBC4 we are here to discuss is called Frost on Interviews – a history of the television interview over the past 60 years, featuring the likes of his old chum Michael Parkinson, Lord Bragg, Joan Bakewell, through to Ruby Wax and Graham Norton.
Frost describes his upbringing as being “nearly poor... it was a very happy life, but money was short.” His family didn’t have a television set, but as a weekly treat he would go across the road to “Mr and Mrs OD Hall, and I would go on a Saturday night to watch the BBC variety show [which featured] Benny Hill. So that was my introduction to television.”
It must have been quite a journey from his “nearly poor” background to Cambridge, where he was described as a “gauche grammar school boy”, and thence, soon after, seeming to propel himself, with a remarkable combination of chutzpah, cleverness, planning and élan into being a player with a capital P.
His response to a setback in 1966 (a show was dropped by the BBC at the same time as an American series came to an end) was to throw perhaps the most famous of his many famous parties: a champagne breakfast at the Connaught hotel, attended by many of the leading figures of the era, including the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. Frost was still only 26.
The parties, including his annual summer bash, thrown with his wife of some three decades, Lady Carina Fitzalan-Howard, rarely mentioned without the addendum of her aristocratic pedigree (daughter of the 17th Duke of Norfolk), have sometimes distracted attention from Frost’s toughness and integrity as an interviewer. They help to give the impression that he is, perhaps, happier to schmooze and hobnob with the great and the good than give them a good grilling.
The massive success of Peter Morgan’s 2006 play, later a film, Frost/Nixon, re-creating the story of the 1977 Watergate interviews (recorded over almost 29 hours, which must be a record in itself) in which the disgraced President eventually admitted that he had let himself, his position and the American people down, has reminded the public of what a terrific milestone in interviewing history that was.
I wonder whether Frost sometimes feels that interview has eclipsed his other work? At first, he mishears and starts talking about pulling together the clips from his shows. I repeat the question: “Oh, I see what you mean. No, one wouldn’t worry about it eclipsing anything. It was such a great experience that I wouldn’t have wanted to be without that in my life.”
What does he consider more important – preserving a friendship or doing his job properly, even if it risks jeopardising that friendship? Sometimes it is a case of either/or, isn’t it – such as when his old friendship with Henry Kissinger was destroyed?
“I think that you’ve got to stick to your principles, even if it’s with a friend – but the important thing, really, is to make it clear, with someone that you know really well, that this is something different. Something where we are both on duty, on show. We are both putting our points of view as strongly as possible and that, even if it is tough, it will always be fair.”
So how did you handle that with Kissinger? “I went to see Henry the day before the interview to say, ‘You must remember that this is a professional [he leans forward] gig tomorrow, and everything we say is on the record. It is a professional assignment and therefore it will be different in tone to a conversation over dinner.’”
You felt the need to explain this to him! “Well, I don’t know how clearly he heard it because his performance the next day was extraordinarily obtuse, in many ways.”
So what was it you asked him about Cambodia that so offended him? Was it what you asked, how you asked it or your persistence, that you wouldn’t let him not answer the question?
“I think it was a lot to do with persistence. And I remember saying,” he seems to get lost in his thoughts for a moment... “‘Why did President Nixon say in his key speech – I think it was April 30th 1970 when announcing that there were to be incursions – that ‘we have never moved against Cambodia in any way’, when you had been secretly bombing it for about 15 months! Why did he say that when it wasn’t true?’
“And Kissinger said [dry gravelly voice], ‘President Nixon was given to hyperbole.’ And I said, ‘In that case, why did you say exactly the same thing in your press briefing 30 minutes later?’ And he said, ‘That... was a mistake.’”
Anyway, Frost continued in this vein and Kissinger didn’t like it one bit. The former US Secretary of State had been given, controversially (not surprisingly), a consultancy role on NBC and used his position to pressurise Frost to redo the interview, when he would obviously be able to prepare for the questions.
“So it was a very tense Saturday morning because I refused to do that and resigned. There was a very real risk in that because NBC could have said that I’d breached my contract and they hadn’t got a show and that they’d sue me.”
Fortunately, it didn’t come to that, but the story illustrates where Frost’s priorities lay.
Did Kissinger ever invite you to anything again? “No.” And did you continue to invite him? “No, not really. It was never the same again.”
In Frost on Interviews, there is a clip of Parkinson interviewing Woody Allen, who becomes furious when quizzed about his custody battles with Mia Farrow. Does Frost, like Parky, feel that for an interviewer, no questions should be off-limits, however personal?
“It’s an interesting point. With the Nixon interview, for instance, I had insisted on sole control – that he wouldn’t know any of the questions in advance and so there was absolutely no legal barrier to me asking him whatever I wanted.”
What about on grounds of emotional intrusiveness, say, or taste?
“A number of people had written about Pat Nixon’s drink problem and that was a subject the production team spent a lot of time talking about but, in the end, we decided that it was her life and that it was no business of ours. The important thing was that he had no way to pressurise us not to do it, so we had to decide – and we decided not to do it.”
When I ask him about his proudest interview moment, interestingly, he doesn’t cite the Nixon revelation, but mentions his encounter with another former American president.
“It’s when you get something from a person who everybody told you would not give at all. A man I greatly respect, the first President Bush – well, everybody had said that he never relaxed on television and when we did the first interview with him up at Kennebunkport, a little village in Maine where he has this delightful sort of wood...”
Is it cabin-y? “Cabin-y, exactly – Cabiny Sauvignon, hehehehe, although we’d never met before, within 10 or 15 minutes he was talking just so frankly about his family and the daughter he lost through leukaemia. He was direct and everything that he is in real life, but he’d never been seen that way on television.”
When, emboldened by these illustrations, I home in on some of the more distressing personal events in Frost’s life, something inexplicable, and rather spooky, occurs. Not one but both of my tape recorders (I always carry two) stop recording at that precise moment!
Frost, ever the gentleman, agrees that I can come back later to re-record the missing chunk of the last ten minutes or so of our interview but, of course, like the Kissinger example he gave, this time he knew what questions to expect.
At any rate, on neither occasion does he say anything particularly revealing about why he left his first marriage (short-lived, to Peter Sellers’s widow Lynne Frederick, who died in 1994 aged 39) out of his Who’s Who entry, and he has nothing to add to what he told a previous interviewer, Mary Riddell, some years back, about Lady Carina’s accidental overdose of painkillers – that the misadventure brought them closer together as a couple.
He does tell me, however, a lovely story about one of his exes, the gorgeous black American actress/singer Diahann Carroll, to whom he was engaged in the early 1970s. I was wondering if they’d ever experienced any hostility at that time, as a mixed-race couple, and he says not. “People had loved Diahann for years and they were all for us as a duo, and the only time when the subject came up was in an hilarious, hilarious way.”
The couple had been staying in a villa in the exclusive Lyford Cay Club in the Bahamas, and “what we hadn’t realised was that Diahann was, in fact, the first black guest in the history of Lyford Cay – but there was nothing they could do about it because we were there.
“At one point, Diahann had gone in to take a call and the woman in the next-door villa said to me, ‘Oh, I must say Mr Frost, your girlfriend has a wonderful tan.’ Of course, when I told Diahann, she just fell about.
“But the point is that it was quite natural and understandable that the woman said it, because her thinking was, ‘Oh, it couldn’t be a black person, so it must be someone with a wonderful tan.’ I just said, ‘Thank you very much. I’ll tell her. She’d love to hear that.’”
As his documentary shows, the arc of television interviewing has gone from the obsequious (“Prime Minister, do tell us about your wonderful achievements”) to the aggressive (“And when did you last hit your wife?”) tone of the modern inquisitors.
But Frost’s own style, as the late Labour leader John Smith once put it, of “asking beguiling questions with potentially lethal consequences”, will continue to ensure he delivers. You can bet that he’s going to be on our TV screens, one way or another, until the day he dies.
My final question to him is to ask whether he is afraid of death, to which he replies, ever debonair, as he helps me into my coat, “No, I’m not at all afraid of dying, but Ginny, I’m not ready yet.”
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 6 March 2012