Joan Bakewell: How Frost beat Nixon

On the TV landmark that RT readers voted the greatest interview ever

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Probably no other individual in the broadcasting world could have pulled off such a coup as the Frost/Nixon interviews, five set-pieces that helped define the modern interview and which, more than 35 years later, remain unrivalled as a moment of televisual history. David Frost combines exactly the correct blend of qualities to have made it possible: persistence and an amiable thoroughness. I was to learn as much when we spent time together going through exactly how it had all come about.

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I can name journalists who are as thorough – Norma Percy, Peter Taylor come to mind – but they worked within the parameters of established broadcasting establishments, primarily the BBC and ITV. But David was virtually outside the system, pledging his own money through his own company, David Paradine Productions, when the others wouldn’t play ball. The Frost/Nixon enterprise would come to cost around $2 million. He was as effective behind the scenes as he was throughout the interviews.

David’s career took off in the 1960s when he hosted That Was the Week That Was, the breakthrough BBC Saturday- night show that launched the satire boom. It was very funny as well as politically incisive. His colleagues in comedy came to realise that, among them all, David was the most focused, most thorough and ambitious.

He would go on to make The Frost Report, The Frost Programme, Frost on America, Frost on Sunday and Breakfast with Frost. Frost has always laced the serious with the humorous. It is a disarming technique both for his programme guests and for audiences. It is why Nixon probably thought he was a lightweight and someone he could defeat in debate. How wrong he was!

So David already had a wealth of broadcasting under his belt by the time in June 1975 when he first approached Nixon for the interviews. He was as comfortable in a studio or on a set as a fish in water. It was his medium; it was not Nixon’s.

Indeed Frost had interviewed Nixon before during an election campaign. Frost had even provided the “entertainment” one Christmas at the White House. But his career had reached a plateau and some believed that he was beginning to lose out. His American show had been cancelled and he needed a major new project to boost his reputation. He couldn’t have chosen a bigger one – although at the time no one else quite realised its potential. It was Frost’s tenacity and insight that saw it through to the global sensation it was to become.

But back in 1975, he faced innumerable hurdles simply to get his quarry before the cameras. He himself had to negotiate the fee (through an agent with the sublime name of Swifty Lazar), to build up a strong team of researcher journalists, to raise money, and to find sponsors. Such was the distaste attached to the name of the discredited former President that sponsors didn’t want their products associated in any with the programme. They also feared the project might fail. They turned Frost down in droves.

It’s worth recalling just what Nixon had done to earn such hostility. In the summer of 1972, with Nixon seeking re-election, five men were arrested breaking into the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate Building in Washington DC. The crime would make Watergate famous, and the use of “…gate” as a term for dodgy activity universal to this day.

The burglary was denied by the Republicans, but two journalists from The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, stuck to their guns and uncovered a slush fund to spy on the Democrats. Slowly, more detail came out, until it was revealed that Nixon had made tapes throughout his time in the White House that implicated him in the cover-up. He was forced by the Supreme Court to hand over the tapes. In August 1974 he resigned to avoid impeachment. Within a year David Frost was on his tail.

By 1977 Frost had won Nixon’s agreement, but still didn’t know where his interviews would be seen. The BBC agreed to transmit, but the big three American networks – ABC, CBS and NBC – all refused, perhaps piqued at being outbid and not liking the idea of a limey quizzing their President. So David had to set about creating his own syndication network, an enterprise that was still going forward even as the interviews were well under way. This was all high-wire stuff and there was nothing to indicate that it might not be a crashing failure.

Frost and his team researched for months: heading up the team was John Birt, then controller of current affairs for LWT, and taking leave of absence to handle the project. Two Americans were recruited to help, James Reston – passionate and angry, and Robert Zelnick – meticulous and forensic. Other back-up staff established their headquarters in California: the enterprise would consist of virtually 29 hours of interviews spread over 12 days, an endurance marathon that would pit the wily fox Nixon against the silky persuasions of Frost.

Things didn’t always go well. Nixon would ramble around a subject, quite deliberately extending his answers to what he must have known would be untransmittable lengths. Frost had the dilemma of whether to let him ramble on in the hope of picking up an unintended revelation, or cut in and risk losing Nixon’s collaboration. Frost bided his time and Nixon walked into several traps.

Both men had prepared for months; both knew it was the most testing encounter of their careers. Nixon struggled to establish legal niceties, Frost brought his adversary to confession and an apology to the American people.

The end result, cut down on first transmission to five programme of 75 minutes each, is one of the legendary encounters of broadcasting history, a testimony to Frost’s energy and persistence. And a piece of history.

Frost on Nixon is on Saturday at 7pm on BBC2
Frost/Nixon is on Saturday 9.45pm BBC2

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