Frost Bites the Dust

September 4, 2013 4:28 pm

It was with some shock and surprise that, while I was at work on Sunday (1st Sept), news came over the radio that legendary broadcaster David Frost had died.

He had figured a lot in my televisual life. Growing up as a kid, television was my life.

david frostFrost, or ‘Frostie’ as he was often called, burst onto our screens in the early 1960s and he hit the ground running. He was a mere 23 years old when he was recruited by producer Ned Sherrin for a ground-breaking live show that featured current affairs debate, music, sketches and, as was the craze then, satire. The show was called ‘That Was The Week That Was’ or ‘TW3’ as it was affectionately known.

It was new. It was irreverent. It poked fun at the establishment, at politicians, at royalty, at the government, at big business, at trade union barons. It was fronted by the young Frost who brought with him a brace of equally young(ish) performers – Willy Rushton, Lance Percival, Kenneth Cope (who played the ghost half of the original ‘Randall and Hopkirk Deceased’), Millicent Martin who sang the satirical ditties and, occasionally, the great Peter Cook appeared.

The so-called ‘satire boom’ first saw the light of day in the late 1950s, riding in on the back of Spike Milligan’s ‘The Goon Show’, a long-running BBC radio show that had zanily lampooned the imperial pretensions of post-war  ‘austerity Britain’ that was fast getting out of the super-power business, little did it know.

The brilliant Peter Cook and other ‘Oxbridge’ graduates like Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore, were formed out of Oxford University’s ‘Footlights’. They were a performing comedy quartet whose show ‘Beyond the Fringe’ seemed to capture the essence of Britain’s body politic as it struggled to  maintain its dignity at all costs.

Cook et al’s success – it was taken to Broadway, renamed there ‘Behind the Fridge’ –  made satire ‘the Next Big Thing’. Cook himself made a deep impression on the then British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, who attended one of their performances where Cook played the PM, portraying him as a senile, doddering Edwardian, out of sorts with the new world.

It was Cook who opened the first modern satire venue in London, ‘The Establishment Club’ and went on to found the magazine ‘Private Eye’.

Cusp of a new era

This paved the way for the new comedy to infiltrate TV, which, up until then, pretty much like most of British society, was still stuck socially in the past. Divorce was tricky to come by, if you were a woman especially. Racism was a given – guesthouses still had signs in their windows: ‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ . We still had the death penalty and both abortion and being gay were imprisonable offences.

But we were on the cusp of a new era by 1960, a year that saw the publishers of DH Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ dragged before the courts for ‘obscenity’ for its ‘lewd language’ and, let’s face it, a bit of anal. The case was won by Penguin books and the Great British Public was ‘allowed’ to have a read much to the disgust of, well, ‘Disgusted of Tonbridge Wells’. As the prosecutor in the trial opined: ‘You wouldn’t let your servants read such filth’.

frost-nixonBut, within a couple of years, the disapproving  establishment itself was to be caught with its pants down in the ‘Profumo Affair’.

John Profumo was Tory War Minister (as it was called then) and he had been found to be sleeping with the 18 year old Christine Keeler (unknown to his wife). Unfortunately, Keeler also shared ‘favours’ with a Soviet naval attache. When Profumo denied the story in Parliament, the truth came out and he had to resign in disgrace. It was tabloid fever even  before the tabloids really existed.

Even the satirists couldn’t make it up, but they certainly used it for material in their acts. Stuffy old British politics was seen to be full of cobwebs, hypocrisy and, well, shit.

Bang up to date

As the Beatles were about to burst open the doors of a new, vibrant pop scene and act as vanguard to a new wave of British music to invade the lucrative US, David Frost’s ‘TW3’ hit the screens.

‘TW3’ was to prove so popular. It was current, always bang up to date – scripts re-written, or improvised to the last minute. It often ran over time. It didn’t care if the camermen wandered into shot. There was  no guilty shifting out of the way. They broke through the illusion of TV correctness, and of the facade of the propriety of the day.

So incisive were its political sketches that it had to be taken off the air prior to the 1964 elections. The BBC feared criticism its political content would sway voters. It was not to return.

Instead, David Frost went on to his next show, ‘Not So Much a Programme’, where the emphasis was on comedy and music. But, by 1966, he wanted to revive something of his glory days of ‘TW3’ and his new model ‘The Frost Report’ had some of the elements of his first born but better  rehearsed. He drew around him upcoming personnel: John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett, whose memorable sketches portraying the class system hit the mark and are considered ‘comedy classics’ today.

By the end of the ’60s, it seemed to me that Frostie was all over the TV. There was ‘Frost on Friday’ (studio discussions, where Frost gained a reputation as conducting ‘trial by television’ when he challenged dodgy businessmen or politicians on live TV); there was ‘Frost on Saturday’, as you’d expect, more chat and variety, then more serious interviews with an assortment of guests for ‘Frost on Sunday’.

Even the Beatles appeared on ‘Frost on Sunday’ performing their then new single ‘Hey Jude’ in 1968. Their first live performance since giving up touring two years before.

By now, Frost had honed his interviewing skills to a fine art, always personable, engaging and able to draw out his subject into revealing a little more than, perhaps, they intended. The guest was the star of the show, not like the ‘chat show hosts’ of today like Ross or Norton. You came away actually knowing more about what made the interviewee tick.

Greatest hit

Almost inevitably, Frost, like so many others before him, was seduced by the lure of the dollar and off he went to the States to make ‘Frost Over America’ where he continued to do more of the same.

david frost-nixonPerhaps his most famous and ‘greatest hit’, of course, was THAT interview (or series of interviews) with the disgraced US President Richard Nixon. Nixon was the rabid former McCarthyite communist witch hunter whose dodgy backroom boys secretly bugged election meetings of the Democratic Party opposition at the Watergate Hotel. (It seems every scandal since then has ‘gate’ nailed on the end: ‘Dianagate’ or ‘Squidgygate’ or even, in reference to the Tory MP who recently allegedly verbally abused police officers who refused to open Downing Street’s gate for him – ‘Gategate’!). That made Frost’s name synonymous with penetrating interviews, so much so, they made a Hollywood film of it.

Frost was made. He was instrumental in founding TV company ‘London Weekend Television’ in the 1970s, that made such TV greats as ‘The Sweeney’ and the classic documentary series ‘The World at War’.

By the 1980s, now the multi-millionaire successful businessman, he chanced his arm with a new TV production with a superteam of fellow presenters, among them Michael Parkinson and Anna Ford: the luckless ‘TV Am’. But it was considered too heavyweight for early morning viewing and was given over to the light, breezy, easy likes of Anne Diamond.

Frost returned to TV work and, by the 1990s, had firmly re-established himself with two very different shows – the hard political interviews of ‘Breakfast with Frost’ where he quizzed the usual run of PMs and politicians while hosting the lightweight daytime fuzz ‘Through the Keyhole’. But Frostie was Frostie and he could turn his hand to both with his usual catchphrase opener: ‘Hello, Good Evening and Welcome…’ (you choose the time of day accordingly).

And he was always ready to take on the formidables in political salesmanship – Thatcher, Blair, Mandela, Scargill.

Ask the question

But time waits for no one, and as the years took their toll, Frostie was beginning to look his age. He began to droop physically. His mouth was sagging. I could detect a certain slurring in that voice that had tilted at a thousand windmills of pretension and slick ‘spin doctoring’ (even before the term ‘spin doctor’ was invented).

When he left the BBC for ‘Al Jazeera’, he made a couple of documentaries. One of them an excellent look at the state of ‘satire’ where he looked back at the early days he was so hooked up with – the Peter Cook years, ‘TW3’, and those who benefited from his patronage such as the Pythons right up to the likes of Rory Bremner, Ian Hislop and John Fortune.

David Frost, or Sir David Frost, as he was, had become a member of that same establishment that he once so brilliantly satirised, challenged, cornered, poked fun at all those years ago.

Do we really start our young lives on the left and gravitate to the right as we age? Some do. Some don’t. Frost, I feel, did. I lost count, in the latter years, the number of times I found myself shouting at the TV: ‘Ask the QUESTION. Ask the QUESTION.’ But he never quite did, not in the way that Paxman might have.

David Frost died on board the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship as he was about to deliver a talk. He probably died among his own kind, which is the least anyone can ever ask, on a calm sea, after living a life that once caused so many waves.

‘Hello, Good Evening and Welcome…’ and farewell to you, Frostie, farewell.






%d bloggers like this: