September 1, 2013 1:44 pm

David Frost: Satirist and skilled inquisitor of the powerful

Sir David Frost©Getty

At just 23, David Frost came to prominence as the presenter of a taboo-breaking satirical television show and, with the exception of Barack Obama, went on to interview every US president and British prime minister of the past 44 years.

Frost, who died at the weekend aged 74, began a distinguished if not always highbrow career in 1962 by fronting That Was The Week That Was, which aired on Saturday nights on the BBC. Within three months, TW3 had garnered 12m viewers – and the ire of a political class unused to public ridicule.

It was a time when parliamentary debates were not broadcast live, even on radio. The cut and thrust across the Commons aisle was mediated mainly through newspapers; satire was the preserve of press cartoonists. Into this cosy world came the caustically disruptive Frost, Cambridge graduate and son of a Methodist minister.

While TW3 had been killed off by its third year, out of BBC managerial nerves that it would put the corporation’s impartiality at risk as a general election loomed, its presenter found fresh outlets through programmes such as The Frost Report. The launch of a US series allowed him to establish a commanding presence as an inquisitor of the powerful on both sides of the Atlantic.

But when David Cameron on Sunday described him as “both a friend and a fearsome interviewer”, Downing Street’s current occupant gave a perhaps inadvertent nod to a difficult duality in Frost.

Precariously for a journalist, he mingled with and ultimately became part of the rich and famous. Coupled with a languorous approach – the 1977 post-resignation interviews with Richard Nixon, which gained Frost global fame, ran to about seven broadcast hours – it drew admissions that came only over time as his subjects were lulled into an illusory security.

Nixon – whom Frost had paid to appear – finally offered his British interlocutor a memorably idiosyncratic interpretation of the US constitution: “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Even more tellingly: “I let down the country.”

Certainly, Frost could go for the jugular. Margaret Thatcher was livid when he challenged her conduct of the Falklands conflict. And from the outset he could be as sardonic about his own profession as he was about heads of government. A TW3 book compilation featured passages he co-authored with Christopher Booker, a Private Eye founder, that ripped into both.

Among “Ten Commandments for Journalists” were: “6. Thou shalt not kill stories, only reputations. 7. Thou shalt not omit adultery. 8. Thou shalt not steal stories unless they be from obscure foreign publications . . . ”

Yet his later mellowing aligned him more with Alan Whicker, his BBC senior by five years, who died in July. Though neither might have relished the comparison, they shared not only a nasal intonation and lugubrious style but a taste for proximity to power and a love of the high life.

In Frost’s case that extended to presenting Through the Keyhole, a panel game in which footage of home interiors had to be matched to their celebrity occupants, posing the question: “Who would live in a house like this?” It transferred to a prime-time ITV slot from TV-am – where his more enduring catchphrase of “Hello, good evening and welcome” had gained a morning variant when he was among the “famous five” to launch the short-lived independent breakfast channel in 1983.

Though much of his best work was for the BBC – to which he transferred Frost on Sunday from TV-am – David Paradine Frost was beholden to no one broadcaster or ethos. Born in Kent on April 7 1939, by university he had marked himself out as a leading member of a cohort of pomposity puncturers who, above all, were determinedly free spirits. His middle name became that of his own production company and it was he who set the parameters within which he would work; Frost’s most recent incarnation was at Al-Jazeera.

Following a failed marriage to Lynne Frederick, widow of the comedian Peter Sellers, in 1984 he married Lady Carina Fitzalan-Howard, who survives him along with their three sons. Frost was knighted in 1993.

His fatal heart attack came aboard Queen Elizabeth, Cunard’s newest cruise liner, en route between Southampton and Lisbon, on which he was an after-dinner speaker. But he outlived by nearly a decade his favoured mode of transport – Concorde, on which the consummate jetsetter said he flew “somewhere between 300 and 500” times.


Letter in response to this article:

Investment made TV-am live longer / From Mr Alan Ford

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.


Sign up for email briefings to stay up to date on topics you are interested in