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Frost, Sir David Paradinefree

(1939–2013)
  • Michael Grade

Sir David Paradine Frost (1939–2013)

by Chris Barham, c.1963

Chris Barham / Rex Features / Shutterstock

(1939–2013), broadcaster, was born at Kench Hill maternity home, Tenterden, Kent, the son of the Revd Wilfred John Paradine Frost (1900–1967), Methodist minister, and his wife, Maud Evelyn (Mona), née Aldrich (1903–1991). His and his father's middle name, Paradine, reflected their part-Huguenot descent. His parents had married in 1922, and he had two elder sisters, Jean (b. 1923), later a teacher and missionary in China and Nigeria, and Margaret (b. 1925), later a paediatric nurse, but he was to all intents and purposes an only child.

Methodism and Cambridge

Frost's father, known as W. J. Paradine Frost, was at the time of his son's birth minister of the Methodist Church in Tenterden, and the family lived at Wesley Manse on the Whitstable Road, but in 1942 the family moved to Kempston, Bedfordshire, where he was minister of the Kempston East and West churches. In 1947 the family moved back to Kent, when Paradine Frost became minister of Trafalgar Street and Byron Road Methodist churches, Gillingham. A further move followed to Raunds, near Wellingborough. In 1958 Paradine Frost moved, finally, to Beccles, where he was superintendent minister of the Beccles, Loddon and Bungay circuit.

Frost began his education at the Froebel School in Bedford, then Barnsole Road elementary school, Gillingham. A fine academic career at Gillingham and then Wellingborough grammar schools culminated in a scholarship to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he ‘scraped’ a third-class degree in English. In the two years before going up, he experimented with lay preaching. He was inspired after seeing the American evangelist/showman Billy Graham at one of his mass rallies at London's Harringay Arena, which stimulated his appetite for performing. (He would later interview Graham on several occasions.)

At Cambridge, Frost's contemporaries included Peter Cook, John Cleese, Eleanor Bron, Jonathan Miller, and other luminaries of the satirical movement of the 1960s. There he made contacts that would become invaluable as his career progressed. These somewhat intellectually minded talents were mystified by his rapid career progress: as Kitty Muggeridge waspishly observed in 1967, he 'rose without trace'. He had no easily identifiable or traditional performing talent, just a seemingly inexhaustible and fearless ambition to perform. If audiences failed to respond to his tentative efforts at stand-up comedy (a not uncommon occurrence), it was not in his character to lose heart. The writer Christopher Booker, another contemporary, posed the rhetorical question, 'What the hell has he got?'. The answer was simply that Frost had everything needed to be a television ringmaster, a programme presenter, and a television personality of such versatility and self-assurance that, once discovered, his particular talents, not intellectual, not naturally witty, were in demand. He was in demand for being David Frost.

That Was the Week That Was

On graduating from Cambridge, Frost gained a one-year traineeship with Associated-Rediffusion while also performing comic routines at the Blue Angel in Mayfair. His big break came when Ned Sherrin, a young BBC producer, saw his stand-up routine there. It was 1962 and Sherrin had been tasked with creating a ‘subversive’television show to capture the changing mood of the times. What caught Sherrin's attention was Frost's impersonation of the prime minister, Harold Macmillan (a routine not dissimilar to the act Frost had seen Peter Cook perform, it must be said). Frost was booked, and in the process persuaded Sherrin to let him host the whole show. After two pilot episodes That Was the Week That Was (later popularly known as TW3) was launched. David Frost's career was also launched.

His detractors may have sneered, but they failed to understand that Frost's talent was neither conventional nor easily labelled. The new demands of the booming, golden age of television required someone to hold the ring, someone with nerves of steel to withstand the intense pressures of live broadcasting: in short, someone not simply of journalism, or of the theatre, or of any specialist discipline. The camera, which will always expose a false tone or gesture, ‘loved’ Frost—a relationship that was entirely mutual.

That Was the Week That Was, which ran from November 1962 to December 1963, was an iconic, satirical, and fearless revue that captured the Zeitgeist of the early 1960s. The end of the age of deference, combined with the growing significance of television, created a sensation. The ‘establishment’ reeled from the onslaught. Prime ministers, cabinet ministers, royalty, religious leaders, and business tycoons were all regarded as fodder for lampoon by the dazzling array of writers and performers Sherrin had assembled. The glue, the focal point for this unmissable weekly onslaught, was Frost. He proved an inspired choice. When the BBC governors got cold feet and persuaded Hugh Carleton Greene, their director-general, to cancel the show in the run-up to the 1964 general election (it was followed by Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life, which ran from November 1964 until April 1965, when it too was taken off the air after one sketch offensive to Catholics and another lampooning the royal family), Frost had emerged a national star, a household name, a new kind of talent. At the tender age of twenty-three he had found fame and fortune doing something that came entirely naturally.

Television presenters can come and go, victims of fashion and subject to the whim of changing public taste. Not David Frost. The foundations he laid on TW3 saw him through a career which hardly faltered up to his death. If he wasn't immediately in demand at any given moment (a rare occurrence) he would summon up his considerable entrepreneurial skills to create a show or a format for himself.

Entertainer and interrogator

Frost's next career move saw his name not just ‘above the title’ but within it. The Frost Report (on BBC, from March 1966 to December 1967) was as important as TW3 in the history of British broadcasting. It was a television comedy revue in which Frost presided over probably the greatest array of comedic talent ever assembled on British television. Most were old chums from Cambridge; others were talents he had spotted. The roll call was dazzling: John Cleese and most of the (later) Monty Python team; the Two Ronnies, Barker and Corbett; Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie, and Graham Garden (later The Goodies); Marty Feldman; and the American humorist Tom Lehrer, to name a few. The writing credits were equally starry: Frank Muir, Denis Norden, Barry Cryer, and Antony Jay (later to write Yes, Minister) each provided some of the material. The show ran for twenty-eight episodes. The BBC chose it as its entry for the Montreux Entertainment Festival, a competition in which international broadcasters vied to win the Golden Rose. The Frost Report won the top prize and the Frost phenomenon continued into orbit.

At this point ITV came calling. They wanted a share of the Frost magic and provided him with the chance to prove that he was not just an entertainment host. Capitalizing on the combative approach of TW3, he worked with Associated-Rediffusion, where he had taken his trainee course before TW3, to create The Frost Programme, a weekly interview show in front of a live studio audience, first broadcast in October 1966. Frost exploited his ‘enfant terrible’ reputation by inviting into the studio some ‘victims’ the establishment might have preferred to remain unseen and unheard. Ian Smith, the troublesome prime minister of Rhodesia, was tempted to justify his adherence to white minority rule. Frost grilled him mercilessly, as he did Sir Oswald Mosley, the unrepentant fascist Blackshirt leader.

But it was Frost's televised confrontation with Emil Savundra in January 1967 which caused the most headlines. Savundra was under investigation for an alleged swindle in his insurance company, Fire, Auto and Marine. Frost had the studio audience packed with Savundra's ‘victims’, ordinary citizens who had lost their money in the financial débâcle. Under the glaring studio lights Frost prowled around the seated Savundra, accusing him and condemning him. It made for ground-breaking and electrifying live television: Savundra sweating, Frost taunting, often nose to nose in the closest of close-ups. Frost left his audience in no doubt that Savundra was guilty. Unforgettable television it may have been, but with Savundra soon due in court to face charges it was unarguably a ‘trial by television’, not a trial by due process, with its assumption that a defendant was innocent until proven guilty. Savundra's defence counsel made hay with the Frost intervention. The judge agreed. Lord Justice Salmon opined from the bench that 'Trial by television is not to be tolerated in a civilized society' ([1968] 1 WLR 1765). The broadcasting regulators agreed and Frost <i>v.</i> Savundra was the first and the last of such programmes, which were henceforth deemed to prejudice an accused's right to a fair trial. (Savundra was, nevertheless, found guilty and sentenced to eight years in prison.) Frost was front-page news, news he created with his instinct for ‘the big interview’, fearlessly crossing lines that others before had not even imagined it possible to cross.

Frost's great gift was that instinctively he asked the questions that viewers would ask, given the opportunity. For example, he asked the media tycoon Lord Thomson: 'You are a millionaire. How much money have you got in your pocket?' He got Thomson to empty his pockets, showing he carried not one penny. Frost concluded the exchange: 'That's proof, if you are really rich you never carry money.' Later he developed a more amiable style, which lulled his guests into a false sense of security. So the ‘killer’ question came unexpectedly, as when Frost asked the US president, Bill Clinton: 'Did you love Monica Lewinsky?'. Pure Frost, pure television genius.

Entrepreneur

With such success at Rediffusion, lesser media mortals might have been content simply to enjoy the limelight, and sift and sort the many choices presented by producers anxious to exploit the Frost appeal. Not David Frost. He developed an entrepreneurial flair. He was not content just to be a hired hand, waiting for a phone call. He set up Paradine Productions in 1966, the first talent-owned independent production company in the UK. This was as radical as it was visionary. He could employ himself—and the other talents he had discovered along the way.

That bit was comparatively easy. The next Frost revolution showed the depth of his vision, his audacious and fearless approach to a very conservative industry. With his fame and success and a black book of contacts to die for, Frost bid for an ITV broadcasting licence. ITV then comprised fifteen regional companies. They operated under a fixed-term licence from the broadcasting regulator, the somewhat patrician Independent Television Authority (ITA). With a monopoly of advertising revenues, owning an ITV station was truly a 'licence to print money', in Lord Thomson's memorable phrase.

Every ten years or so these licences were re-advertised. It was a beauty parade before the regulator. It was not an auction (which it later became), so consortia popped up all over Britain, hoping to catch the eye of the regulator and win a lucrative franchise. For the incumbents it was a life or death moment; for the hopefuls it was a chance to promise anything and everything. In return for enjoying the monopoly of revenues the ITV companies were expected to return a ‘dividend’ to public service broadcasting in the shape of high-minded ‘good works’. The government had earlier commissioned an inquiry into television, the Pilkington Report, which had some scathing criticisms of the ITV output, over which the great and the good members of the ITA had presided. 'Down-market' was the wounding charge.

Frost read the mood brilliantly and put together a starry team of high-minded broadcasting heavyweights. They wrote a prospectus that was as up-market as it was commercially unsustainable—as it later turned out. Serious arts and drama productions were at the heart of the application. Frost's consortium won the contest and in 1968 was awarded the newly created London Weekend Television (LWT) licence (Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday). The ITA, in awarding the licence, commented that the Frost consortium had to have its chance, whatever the repercussions.

Frost had put the executive and programme teams together, he had secured serious financial backing, and he had won. He now had his own direct access to the airwaves, with no intermediaries. He could make the decisions about when and in what programmes he would appear. He should also have had a licence to print more money. But sadly, the consortium's lofty ambitions, so acceptable to the all-powerful regulator, were utterly rejected by the ITV audience, and inevitably, their paymasters, the advertisers. Despite Frost on Friday, Frost on Saturday, and, yes, Frost on Sunday, the enterprise floundered very quickly and very publicly. Management changes were an almost daily occurrence, and the press relished the chance to prick the Frost balloon.

One particular Frost interview on LWT involved the newly arrived Australian newspaper baron, Rupert Murdoch. He was grilled live by Frost, who accused him of being a pornographer (Murdoch had launched the tabloid Sun newspaper with topless page three girls). The interview had all the aggressive, confrontational tone of the infamous Savundra ‘trial by television’—except that Murdoch was no swindler. As he came off the studio floor Murdoch is reported as muttering vengefully to his lieutenant, Bert Hardy, 'I will buy this company' (M. Wolff, The Man Who Owns the News, 2008). This he very nearly achieved. LWT was actually spiralling towards bankruptcy, with a depleted and demoralized and, some judged, incompetent management. Arnold Weinstock's General Electric Company, a founder shareholder, sold its 7.5 per cent share to Murdoch in November 1970. By December, Murdoch became a part-time executive and injected £500,000 of new capital, increasing his share to 30 per cent as part of the deal. He continued to increase his stake further so that, by the end of 1971, he controlled 39.7 per cent.

Murdoch became managing director in February 1971 and started restructuring LWT. The ITA was unhappy at how Murdoch was able to buy his way into the company, not least because foreign nationals were prohibited from owning any ITV contractor. It conveniently ignored the fact that Murdoch's cash had saved the company (and the ITA's face). It demanded assurances that LWT's original programme policies and operations were sound, and forced Murdoch from his executive role at LWT.

Frost then executed a masterstroke, which laid the foundations not just for LWT's recovery, but for its development into one of the most successful of the ITV regional companies. He recruited the former broadcaster, Labour politician, and ambassador to Washington, John Freeman, as the new, independent chairman. Freeman by this time had forgiven Frost for including his name in the original licence application, even though he had said no. It was a real touch of Frost genius to recruit Freeman and persuade the ITA not to revoke the licence. By 1975 Freeman had stabilized the company, which then went on to win seven BAFTA awards in 1977—more than the rest of ITV put together.

Having played the ITV franchise game and won once, the opportunity arose for Frost again in 1980. The Independent Broadcasting Authority (successor to the ITA) decided to create a measure of competition for the ITV monopoly. They announced a new contract to be bid for, a seven days a week breakfast station, on air on the ITV channel across the breakfast hours. Frost saw the opportunity immediately. Like Diaghilev recruiting Nijinsky, Picasso, and Stravinsky for his Ballets Russes, Frost put together another starry ensemble of on-screen talent and ‘worthy’ names to pack the board. Finance was secured, and he won again. Sadly, TV-am, as it was called, fell apart at the seams quite quickly and just as publicly as LWT. While Frost was a brilliant performer himself and had an unerring eye for talent spotting, he seemed less capable of picking the right managers to operate his new businesses.

Television celebrity

Despite his breakfast ‘going cold’ Frost personally emerged unscathed. His performing career flourished on both sides of the Atlantic. A typical week saw him jetting to the USA to host a David Frost talk show, then flying back to London to do more Frost shows for the UK audience, and then back again across the Atlantic. It was said that British Airways built Concorde just to help him meet his schedule.

The gossip columns loved him on both sides of the Atlantic as he dated high-profile actresses and celebrities. His engagements to the American entertainer Diahann Carroll and the American model Karen Graham were called off at the last moment. On 24 January 1981 he married Lynne Wagner Harding Frederick, otherwise Lynne Maria Frederick (1954–1994), a former actress, widow of Peter Sellers, and daughter of Andrew Frederick, businessman. The marriage lasted just a year and they were divorced. But Frost found lasting happiness when he met and on 19 March 1983 married Lady Carina Mary Anne Gabrielle Fitzalan-Howard (b. 1952), a former model for L'Oréal, and daughter of the seventeenth duke of Norfolk. They had three sons, Miles (1984–2015), Wilfred (b. 1985, later also a television presenter), and George (b. 1987, later a successful entrepreneur).

Frost/Nixon

Many would judge Frost's greatest hour to have been his Nixon interviews. In 1977 he persuaded the disgraced former president to be interviewed for the first time since being impeached and resigning. He signed the deal with Nixon, through his Hollywood agent. It was a nice payday for Nixon (reportedly $600,000 and a profit share). But it was a massive gamble for Frost. He had committed to the project without securing finance. He is believed to have put his entire wealth at risk to keep the project afloat. He recruited an A team of journalists and producers to plan the interviews, designed to cover Nixon's presidential career, including the Vietnam War, the détente with China, and the Watergate cover-up, Nixon's fatal mistake.

Frost was distracted by the need to fill the financial shortfall, and the early recording hours produced little that was newsworthy. Nixon was shadow boxing and Frost failed to land a blow. The editorial team Frost had recruited prepared him for hours. All were aware of the historical significance of this moment, and the ignominy to be faced if Frost let Nixon off the hook. In the event Frost was inspired, as if all his years of interrogating Savundra, Murdoch, prime ministers, and heads of state were just a training exercise. Nixon astonished the world by apologizing in response to intense but forensic and calm questioning from Frost. No one expected him to land a glove on Nixon, but this was a knock-out. The Nixon tapes were the subjects of a very successful play, Frost/Nixon (2006) by Peter Morgan, which was turned into a film in 2008, directed by Ron Howard and starring Michael Sheen and Frank Langella. Frost insisted that 'it wasn't quite like that' but was definitely pleased that his moment of history was celebrated in this way.

Later years and assessment

In his television career Frost interviewed (at least once) every British prime minister from Harold Wilson to David Cameron (whom he was booked to interview two weeks before his death), and seven US presidents. He had every reason to be proud of this record. His last long-running programme on British Television was Breakfast with Frost, a Sunday morning political interview show on the BBC main channel. It ran for nearly twelve years (1993–2005) and he found no problem attracting the biggest beasts in Westminster to come on the show. He must have been bitterly disappointed when the BBC decided it was time for him to leave. But, typical of Frost, there were no public recriminations. On to the next; just look forward. From 2006 to 2012 he hosted the weekly programme Frost Over the World on Al Jazeera's English-language channel.

Whatever controversy he attracted over the years, Frost was never one to complain, blame, or speak ill of anyone. He made many, many friends and diligently kept in touch with them. He was loyal, generous, and wonderful company. He loved good jokes old and new, and enjoyed gossip. But if the gossip turned spiteful or malicious, he would smile and change the subject. He never spoke ill of anyone; he never lost a friend.

Frost died on 31 August 2013 aboard the Queen Elizabeth cruise liner, on which he was booked to deliver some talks. The ship had hardly left Southampton when he had a massive heart attack, from which he failed to recover. The Times cartoon soon after depicted Saint Peter at the gates, greeting Frost with his own words: 'Hello, good evening and welcome'. His funeral was held at Holy Trinity Church, Nuffield, Oxfordshire, on 11 September, and a memorial service was held in Westminster Abbey on 13 March 2014. He left his three sons and Carina devastated at the shock of his loss. If his career blossomed very quickly, his marital career took a lot longer to find success. But, as his career slowed (it never ended), so he found his family life equally fulfilling.

Noël Coward was once asked what he watched on television. The ‘master’ replied: 'Television, dear boy, is for appearing on, not watching'. David Frost's career embodied this sentiment. Whether it was grilling the disgraced US President Nixon, or hosting a somewhat meretricious panel show, Through the Keyhole, he dedicated his career to appearing on television. When the history of television is written, the name David Frost will dominate the index. It is a shame he will not be around to present the programme.

Sources

  • D. Frost, An autobiography, 1: From congregations to audiences (1993)
  • D. Frost and B. Zelnick, Frost / Nixon (2007)
  • Sunday Times (23 Feb 2014)
  • Sir David Frost: that was the life that was, BBC2, 19 Oct 2013
  • N. Hegarty, Frost: that was the life that was: the authorised biography (2015)
  • WW (2013)
  • personal knowledge (2017)
  • private information (2017)
  • b. cert.
  • m. certs.

Archives

Film

  • BBC
  • BFI NFTVA, light entertainment and interview footage
  • Sir David Frost: that was the life that was, BBC2, 19 Oct 2013

Sound

  • BL NSA, interview, light entertainment and documentary recordings

Likenesses

  • L. Morley, toned bromide print, 1964 (outside Lewis Morley exhibition), NPG
  • G. Argent, bromide print, 1968, NPG
  • T. Leighton, bromide fibre print, 1988, NPG
  • L. M. Williams, photograph, 2011, Getty Images
  • N. Haynes, photograph, 2012, Contour by Getty Images
  • obituary photographs
  • photographs, Rex Features, London [see illus.]
(1849–)
J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)