Obituary: David Frost was most illustrious TV inquisitor of his generation
Broadcaster probably interviewed more world figures than any other
David Frost photographed in 2010. Photograph: Luke MacGregor/Reuters
Sir David Frost — who probably interviewed more world figures from royalty, politics, the Church, show-business and virtually everywhere else, than any other living broadcaster — was the most illustrious TV inquisitor of his generation.
He not only won virtually all the major television awards available, but his professional activities were so diverse that he was once described as “a one-man conglomerate”.
Sir David was regularly scoffed at by fellow broadcasters for his allegedly non-aggressive style of questioning.
But he invariably had the last laugh because he almost always extracted more intriguing information and revealing reactions from his subjects than other far more acerbic broadcasters who boasted about their hard-hitting treatment of their “victims”.
He was as affable and effusive off-screen as he was on it. And his cheery trademark introduction, “Hello, good morning and welcome” to his long running BBC1 Sunday programme Breakfast With Frost set the amiable tone for what was to follow.
His interview with the doomed American President “Tricky Dicky” Richard Nixon was a TV classic. During it, Nixon dramatically admitted that he had “let down the country”.
But there were many other historic moments, including one when he suddenly introduced the word “bonkers” during a tense interview with the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher over the sinking of the Argentine warship the Belgrano during the Falklands conflict. She was furious.
Sir David first came to notice nationally with the Saturday night TV satirical programme That Was The Week That Was, which he hosted and co-created in the early 1960s. By today’s standards of merciless lampooning, it would appear tame.
But in those days, it cocked a snook at the Establishment and pomposity in a way that had never been tried on the broadcasting media before. It shocked authority, and was a programme not to be missed by those who were its victims as much as by those who enjoyed seeing the great and the good so savagely ridiculed.
But it “made” Sir David who was then seen as a coruscating rebel, although quite a likeable one, and who was to develop, ironically, as an Establishment figure in his own right.
David Paradine Frost was born on April 7, 1939, the son of a Methodist preacher, at Tenterden, Kent. He was educated at Gillingham Grammar School, Wellingborough Grammar School and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.
At Cambridge he joined Footlights, the renowned revue and cabaret society. He then started to do some TV for the regional station in Norwich, particularly a programme called Town and Gown which was about Cambridge.
For the Christmas edition of that programme in December 1959, the programme-makers decided they wanted a spoof of TV and they approached Footlights and asked Sir David and the comedian Peter Cook to write it.
Later Sir David said: “We went to the station to do it, and I walked into this rather odd environment of a television studio and I thought ‘This is home. This is for me’. It was an instant feeling, and from that moment on, for me the decision was made. It was a very memorable day.”
After the enormous success of That Was The Week That Was, Sir David set up his own company David Paradine Ltd which gave birth to many more hugely popular programmes, including A Gift of Song, Spitting Image, Through the Keyhole, Peeping Times, How to Irritate People and The Spectacular World of Guinness Records.
Sir David was instrumental in starting up two important TV franchises: LWT in 1967, and as one of the Famous Five who launched TV-am in February 1983. In July, 1969, during the British television Apollo 11 coverage, he presented David Frost’s Moon Party for LWT, a 10-hour discussion and entertainment marathon.
His dramatic interview with Richard Nixon was at the time the most widely watched news interview in the history of TV. It was shown in almost every televised nation in the world, and garnered the largest audience ever achieved for such an interview in the United States. It was later dramatised into a sell-out West End play, and more recently a Hollywood movie.
It was a brilliant scoop. Sir David, whose career at that stage appeared to be on the decline, poured some of his own wealth into this interview. It was a gamble, but it totally restored his fortunes — and there was no looking back after that.
Another of his programmes, The Frost Report, effectively launched John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett on their subsequent glittering careers.
Sir David’s list of interviewees reads like a roll call of the world’s most famous and powerful people. They include virtually every US president and British prime minister during his working life.
Others included Prince Charles, the Duke and Duchess of York, the Princess Royal, Robert F Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, Pierre Trudeau, Mikhail Gorbachev, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, King Hussein, Golda Meir, Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin, Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, and countless more.
He was the only person to have interviewed all six British prime ministers serving between 1964 and 2007 (Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair) and the 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). He was also the last person to interview Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran.
Outside world affairs, his roster ranged from Orson Welles, Tennessee Williams, Noel Coward, Peter Ustinov, Woody Allen, Muhammad Ali, the Beatles, Clint Eastwood, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sir John Gielgud, Norman Mailer, Warren Beatty and many more.
His Sunday morning interview programme Breakfast with Frost ran on the BBC from January 1993 until May 2005. The programme originally began in this format on TV-am in September 1983 as Frost on Sunday and ran until the station lost its franchise at the end of 1992. Later it transferred briefly to BSB before moving to the BBC.
Later he was to work for Al Jazeera English and had recently interviewed F1 driver Lewis Hamilton.
Among his awards were two Emmy Awards (for The David Frost Show), the Royal Television Society Silver Medal and the Richard Dimbleby Award in the United Kingdom and internationally, the Golden Rose of Montreux.
American audiences took to him as enthusiastically as British ones, a considerable achievement because more often than not megastars on the British TV screen flop hopelessly in the United States.
The Chicago Tribune once wrote of him: “Few interviewers have been as consistently well-prepared, bright and engaging as David Frost.”
The Christian Science Monitor also spoke of his programmes producing “results that are often more revealing than anything on prime-time news”, while New York Newsday wrote: “He has become an Anglo-American broadcasting phenomenon.”
During one hectic period in his life, Sir David was virtually commuting on a weekly basis to present coast-to-coast programmes in the United States and returning to Britain to host programmes here. He was undoubtedly the busiest, and certainly the most energetic, television personality of his generation.
Over the years, Sir David wrote 17 books, produced several films and started two television networks, London Weekend Television and TV-am.
In 1983, he married Lady Carina Fitzalan-Howard, second daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. There were three sons.
He was awarded an OBE in 1970 and received his knighthood in 1993.