The Oscar-winning actor and comedian Robin Williams was back in London last week. He and I have been friends since his first trip to London back in 1987 when he accepted our invitation to star in a Prince’s Trust Gala I was co-producing at the Palladium.
And what a great professional he was (and is). The gala was to be a special for broadcast on ITV in the UK and on the ABC network in the US. Many American guest stars would simply have replicated their American act in London and relied on editing and a bit of “sweetening” in LA to make the performance sound as if the British audience adored it. But not Robin. He wanted his Palladium appearance to be an unaltered hit in both countries. So he spent the three nights before the gala performing in three of London’s comedy clubs, ensuring that his show would delight both sides of the Atlantic. His dedication won him a standing ovation from the all-British audience.
His comic timing on his current trip was as sharp as ever. He told me that he and his wife Susan, who married in October, had first met outside an Apple store in San Francisco and had hit it off immediately. “Love at first sight?” I murmured. “Well, love at first bite, I think,” he said, “After all, we were outside the Apple store!”
It’s a festive time of year for everybody, but particularly so for the 24-hour international news channel Al Jazeera English, which has been celebrating both its fifth anniversary and the fact that during those five years its global footprint has grown from 50 to 130 countries, reaching 260m households. I suppose I could be accused of being a trifle biased, having been on the air at Al Jazeera for more than 200 shows so far, but it is a remarkable achievement.
The network’s birthday party was held at the House of Commons, where Al Anstey, Al Jazeera English’s tireless managing director, said: “We entered the world among adults. CNN and BBC were walking tall. We had to run from day one.” He said that he thought it was above all the integrity of his journalists around the world that had “made us in many senses a channel of reference on what’s going on in the world.”
He highlighted how new media brought pitfalls as well as advantages and told how the station had made contact with a Syrian dissident via social media. However, Syrian intelligence became aware of this and when Al Jazeera called this person a member of Syrian intelligence answered and pretended to be our contact.
“We obviously clocked it, it never went on air. But that’s a clear example of some of the dangers of spin operating out there in the world to try and steer us off course,” he said.
We very much take democracy for granted in this country but all over the world, from Burma to Egypt, people are fighting – and sometimes dying – to bring democracy to their lands for the first time in decades or even centuries. This was brought home to me when I was talking the other day to Amr Moussa, formerly secretary-general of the Arab League and now a well-supported candidate for next year’s Egyptian presidential elections.
I asked him whether he was confident that he could win the election. And he replied, “David, I must say that democracy is democracy. We cannot opt for democracy and then lament the results and just change our mind. Whatever the outcome, we must accept it if we want to play fair with democracy.”
There was also news this week of a “crystal ball computer” that is supposed to be a new way of preparing for future disasters such as recessions or pandemics. Professor Steven Bishop, a mathematics professor at University College London, says, “We would hope to find the precursors of instability and disasters and maybe do that in time for politicians to stop them happening.”
I have my doubts because of a previous experience with premonitions. That was in 1966, just seven days after the Aberfan disaster in Wales. There had been several reports of people claiming to have had premonitions of just such a tragedy. And one professor advocated a computer centre where people with premonitions could phone in and thus perhaps prevent a disaster from taking place.
Intellectually, the concept of whether it was possible to have premonitions of something that can be prevented was fascinating, and our research team invited people who had contacted the professor to come to the studio from all corners of the land. Twenty minutes before the programme, Geoffrey Hughes, our producer, strolled into my office and said, “David, I think you ought to come and talk to these people.” He was enigmatic about the reason for his suggestion.
I entered the hospitality room and went over to the first psychic forecaster. “I understand that you had a premonition about the Aberfan disaster,” I said.
“Yes,” an intense-looking man replied. “Aberfan was something black going down in Wales. My premonition was of something white going up in China. And so, you see, I knew.”
I turned away, my confidence not quite as strong as it had been a few moments earlier. I asked the closest at hand how he had learned in advance of Aberfan.
“Well, you see, I was out walking and I went to the top of this hillock and relieved myself, and then I knew ... ” There was a pause.
“Yes ... ” I said encouragingly.
“That’s all,” he said.
The next two premonitions were just the same.
I escaped from the hospitality room as fast as I could. Obviously we could not go ahead with this item just seven days after Aberfan. The whole programme ended up being devoted to our other guest, the poet John Betjeman. We would have to apologise afterwards to our psychics for the way in which John’s item had overrun. As it happens, the ensuing programme was quite magical with John leading the audience into quoting their own poems to their loved ones and the 40 minutes raced by in what seemed like no time at all.
After the programme I walked back to the hospitality room to make my apologies. “I am terribly sorry,” I said to the first psychic I met. “I hope you don’t feel you’ve wasted a journey.” “Not at all,” he said very generously. “As a matter of fact, on the way here I had a premonition that this might happen.”
Sir David Frost presents ‘Frost Over the World’ on Al Jazeera English, Freeview channel 89 and Sky channel 514