Celebrated television host and interviewer
David Frost - Born: April 7th, 1939; Died: August 31st, 2013
David Frost, left, talks with former US president Richard Nixon. Photograph: AP
David Frost interviewing Enoch Powell on LWT. Photograph: PA Wire
Sir Harold Wilson talking to David Frost at a recording session in Yorkshire Television’s Leeds studios for “The Wilson Interviews”. Photograph: PA
For half a century, Sir David Frost, who has died aged 74, was hardly ever off television, from 1960s satire on the BBC to encounters with the great and good on al-Jazeera. In the process, he became the world’s most celebrated television interviewer.
Frost was a bon vivant, smoker of big cigars, dapper dresser, friend of the rich and famous, and so much of a jet-setter that, for a while, he was Concorde’s most frequent flier.
His greatest journalistic coup came in 1977 when he interviewed the disgraced US president Richard Nixon and induced him to confess in public his guilt over Watergate. “I let down the country,” Nixon told Frost. “I let the American people down and I have to carry that burden for the rest of my life.” The play, and later film, Frost/Nixon, was based on the interviews.
Frost was born in Tenterden, Kent. His father was a Methodist minister of Huguenot descent. He was educated at Gillingham and Wellingborough grammar schools. For two years before university, he was a lay preacher after seeing the charismatic evangelist Billy Graham.
A talented footballer, he turned down a contract with Nottingham Forest to attend Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.
By the end of his time at Cambridge, Frost had not only appeared in a television comedy sketch with Peter Cook, but also had a traineeship with the London TV company Associated-Rediffusion, an agent and a cabaret gig at the Blue Angel club in Berkeley Square. There he was spotted by Ned Sherrin, a young BBC TV producer who had been charged with creating something singular – a subversive TV show.
After two pilots, the first That Was the Week That Was, or TW3, was broadcast in November 1962 and quickly gained a reputation for lampooning the establishment. After two successful series in 1962 and 1963, the show did not return in 1964, an election year – so great were the BBC’s fears over compromising the corporation’s impartiality.
Frost went on to co-chair Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life, for one season from the winter of 1964.
Arguably, though, Frost’s next British TV series, The Frost Report, was more important in that it gave a platform for most of the greatest British comedians of the next 30 years all five of Monty Python’s stars, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett.
But Frost, still in his 20s, had bigger dreams. He wanted to diversify his TV brand. Back at Rediffusion, he presented an interview-based series, The Frost Programme. Just as he had (arguably) revolutionised TV satire, making it threatening to, rather than complicit with, the establishment, here he was changing the nature of the TV interview: unctuous deference was out; aggression and scepticism were in.
Guests on The Frost Programme included such controversial political figures as fascist Sir Oswald Mosley, former Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith and insurance fraudster Emil Savundra. From 1969 to 1972, he made five TV shows a week in New York for Westinghouse, and three for London Weekend Television, the company he had co-founded in 1968. On his US talk show, which ran until 1972, his interviewees included Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and Groucho Marx.
Looking back from the vantage point of his later life, it became hard to credit Frost as a pioneer of combative interviewing: he spent so much of his career interviewing the greatest celebrities of the day in a mutually satisfying manner that enabled him to bask in their aura while they –perhaps – basked in his.
Being interviewed by Frost came to put the seal on membership of the establishment. He alone interviewed all eight British prime ministers who served from 1964 onwards – Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron – and all seven US presidents in office between 1969 and 2008 – Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush, Bill Clinton and George W Bush.
The former scourge of the establishment, then, became its friend. He wrote a book called Millionaires, Multimillionaires and Really Rich People (1984), filled with people he knew. Prince Charles, Sir James Goldsmith and Sir Evelyn de Rothschild were among his intimates; Diana, Princess of Wales, was godmother to his youngest son.
He was involved in the launch of TV-am in 1983. When it folded in 1992, he moved his show briefly to the satellite broadcasters BSkyB. Then, in 1993, he began presenting Breakfast with Frost on the BBC. This was his first regular weekly show for the corporation since That Was the Week That Was.
From 2006, he presented a weekly live current affairs programme, Frost All Over the World, on the al-Jazeera English channel. Interviewees included Tony Blair, Hamid Karzai, Pervez Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto, Richard Dawkins, Henry Kissinger, Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir and Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, author of the historic fatwa against terrorism. Last year it was succeeded by The Frost Interview.
He was married twice, first to Peter Sellers’s widow, Lynne Frederick. But their marriage lasted only 17 months and the couple divorced in 1982.
The following year Frost married Lady Carina Fitzalan-Howard, a daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. He is survived by Carina and their three sons.