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Frost, Sir David (1939-2013)

Presenter, Interviewer, Producer

Main image of Frost, Sir David (1939-2013)

In a career spent interviewing the great and the good, David Paradine Frost has emerged from over 40 years of broadcasting with a knighthood, the friendship of presidents and prime ministers, and an iconic status in British television.

He was born in Tenterden, Kent, on 7 April 1939, the son of a Methodist lay preacher. After graduation from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, he worked briefly for Associated Rediffusion (for whom he hosted a trans-European twist-dancing contest) and as a stand-up comic in London clubs. The latter activity brought him to the attention of young BBC producer Ned Sherrin who was preparing a new late-night show, That Was The Week That Was (BBC, 1962-63).

Originally set as the co-host of the groundbreaking show with John Bird as the main anchor, Frost attained the main presenter's role after the BBC committed to the series at a time when Bird was performing in New York with John Fortune. The young, untested Frost soon developed into an unflustered master-of-ceremonies, often giving an edge to the comment.

End-of-the-week satire at the expense of recent events was the aim of TW3, as the series was affectionately known, and its no-holds-barred impact was exhilarating, due to its radical departure from the whole of Lord Reith's beliefs and philosophy. During its brief and stormy existence, the series was seen by between 11 and 12 million people. Perhaps tame by today's standards, TW3 was remarkably fierce satire by the conventions of the period.

From late 1964 Frost hosted the American version of TW3 (NBC, 1964-65), as well as the BBC's successor to the series, Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life (1964-65), jetting trans-Atlantic to appear almost nightly on both US and UK television.

His next programme, a sharp and witty comedy series projecting a cynical, disengaged and often frivolous attitude to contemporary British life, The Frost Report (BBC, 1966-67), presented some of the finest comedy moments of the 1960s from a group of budding performers (John Cleese, Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett) and writers (including Marty Feldman, Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall). A compilation of its best and brightest items, called Frost Over England, was awarded the Golden Rose at the Montreux International Light Entertainment Festival in 1967.

In between, he served as executive producer for Rediffusion's At Last the 1948 Show (ITV, 1967), a little-seen, short-run series poking fun at traditional revue subjects (the job interview, the TV quiz show, bank managers, dentists, judges, etc.). A team of four - John Cleese, Marty Feldman, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graham Chapman - devised the scripts as well as performed.

Frost's career as a hard-hitting TV interviewer began with Rediffusion's The Frost Programme (ITV, 1966-68; 1972-73) in which he showed that he really could conduct the toughest interviews. In 1967, his confrontation with the imperturbable Dr. Emil Savundra, former head of a collapsed insurance company (which left debts of more than £1 million), created national headlines and gave rise to the phrase 'trial by television'.

After co-founding the consortium that put together the winning London Weekend Television (LWT) franchise bid in 1967, his first work for his new company was the three-day Frost programme package (ITV, 1968-70): Frost on Friday (current affairs), Frost on Saturday (celebrity chat), and Frost on Sunday (strictly entertainment). The Saturday strand produced an edition featuring a fascinating clash of views on children outside marriage between an anarchic but sternly moral Mick Jagger and the traditional morality of Mrs. Mary Whitehouse (ITV, tx. 12/10/1968).

In a similar vein, The Frost Interview (BBC, 1974) saw him interrogating the likes of heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, motorcycle stunt rider Evel Knievel, and former radical black activist Angela Davis. The two TV specials The Wilson Interviews (ITV, tx. 22 & 27/10/1976) for Yorkshire Television, in which he and ex-Premier Sir Harold Wilson discussed politics in a non-political way, led him to one of his finest hours with The Nixon Interviews (BBC, 1977).

Frost played the Grand Inquisitor while the discredited ex-President, Richard Nixon, played the great statesman who, while appearing to admit everything about his part in the Watergate scandal, actually admitted nothing. Shown worldwide, the four programmes were remarkable in the first place for Frost managing to persuade the evasive Nixon to submit to some 12 days of interviews, which were then condensed down to four hours of television. According to the New York Times, the programmes achieved "the largest audience for a news interview in history".

The Wilson Interviews were just a primer for the 13-part series A Prime Minister On Prime Ministers (ITV, 1977-78) where, under Frost's attentive gaze, Wilson examined his predecessors at 10 Downing Street, casually but from a tactful distance.

In 1983 Frost set up the ITV breakfast television company TV-am in partnership with Angela Rippon, Anna Ford, Robert Kee and Michael Parkinson (the 'Famous Five'), and co-presented their morning programme Good Morning Britain (ITV, 1983-92). He survived the imbroglio that overtook TV-am in its early months (which saw the sudden departure of Ford and Rippon) and went on to other things. These included hosted the panel game series Through the Keyhole (ITV, 1987- ), a comic exercise in peeping-tommery with a hint of What's My Line? in which presenter Loyd Grossman prowled around the homes of the rich and famous in search of clues to the owners' character.

Presenting a relaxed mix of news, reviews of papers and interviews with people in public life, David Frost on Sunday (BBC, 1986-90) became Frost on Sunday (BBC, 1990-92) and then Breakfast With Frost (BBC, 1993-2005). It soon established itself as a mini television Camelot for Sunday mornings. Virtually every public figure, whether in politics or in entertainment, scrambled to be on the show. On first name terms with those he interviewed, Frost has often been accused of taking the Hello! magazine school of journalism approach and subjecting his guests to a light sautéing rather than the more modern style of a heavy grilling. However, during its 12 years and some 500 editions, Breakfast With Frost can count among its highlights the first meeting with Nelson Mandela, the first interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the only interview with Tony Blair and Bill Clinton together.

Since broadcasting his final Breakfast With Frost in May 2005, he has been invited to join Al Jazeera International, a 24-hour English-language, Arab-owned news station (separate, apparently, from Al Jazeera Arabic), as an interviewer. Even as opinion is divided on whether the once enfant terrible of British broadcasting is now an establishment lackey or simply a subtle interrogator, he remains the only person to have interviewed the past six British prime ministers and the past seven American presidents.

He was awarded an OBE in 1970, a knighthood in 1993 and a BAFTA Fellowship in 2005.

Tise Vahimagi

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Frost Report, The (1966-67)Frost Report, The (1966-67)

Topical comedy show, a successor to the more famous TW3

Thumbnail image of That Was the Week That Was (1962-63)That Was the Week That Was (1962-63)

Groundbreaking and controversial BBC satirical programme

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