Sir David Frost: A pioneer of broadcasting

Compliments are often too heavily applied when a famous name passes away but in the case of Sir David Frost, no compliment is too much.

Compliments are often too heavily applied when a famous name passes away but in the case of Sir David Frost, no compliment is too much. In fact some may argue that no compliment could do him justice. 

Sadly, Sir David passed away this weekend of a suspected heart-attack at the age of 74. His passing was unexpected and has produced an outpouring of memories and achievements from those who knew him. From Prime Minister David Cameron, who was scheduled to meet Frost next week, to the man who portrayed him with brilliant detail in a Hollywood movie, Michael Sheen, the former calling him a ‘friend and fierce interviewer’ while the latter simply referred to him as the ‘first major British TV star.’

The 60s and The Week That Was

Frost first gained fame as the host of satire show, The Week That Was, a show which broke boundaries in the 60s by poking fun at anything and everything—politics and religion were often the main topics. It was Frost’s ability to deliver such a comical script in a serious way which made the programme popular with the nation and saw the emergence of some then unknown writers and comedians such as John Bird, Peter Cook, John Cleese, Keith Waterhouse and Dennis Potter. The programme proved so popular that the BBC decided to decommission it in 1964 in fear that it could hugely influence the results of the general election due to its sketches aimed at political figures.

The Frost Report came next, and brought together three legends of comedy, Ronnie Barker, John Cleese and Ronnie Corbett, producing the famous ‘class sketch’ and allowed a little group of writers and performers to master their comedian skills before going onto launch a little programme called ‘The Flying Circus.’ That group was known as Monty Python, you may have heard of them.

Towards the end of the 60s, Frost turned to interviews and quickly gained a name for himself as hard hitting interviewer with the ability to grill a guest at length. The Frost Programme was the first current affairs programme to use a participating audience. It was a set up that broke boundaries and along with his fantastic interviewing technique inspired a generation of journalists—just look at Jeremy Paxman.

The interview with Nixon

It takes a talented man to find fame on both sides of the Atlantic (excluding Piers Morgan) and Frost found that with the David Frost Show before finding unprecedented fame after interviewing the disgraced former US President Richard Nixon.

The interview, conducted in 1977, was watched by 45 million people as Nixon, who had resigned as President in 1974 over the Watergate Scandal effectively apologised to the American people for his actions.  Nixon had believed that Frost was a soft touch and the interview would be a route back into the country’s popularity books. However, the former President was mistaken and Frost’s interview technique forced one of the world’s most memorable apologies.

The interview, in which there was 28 1/2 hours’ worth of recordings, was later made into an Oscar nominated film starring Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon, in which Sheen noted that the real Frost was ‘very supportive of the whole thing.’ 

The famous interview to a new generation

Frost/Nixon brought the famous interview back into the public eye and to the attention of a whole new generation, myself included. The way that Frost corned a man such as Nixon, someone who was clever, witty and fierce and stripped down his defences and removed that persistent boundary that surrounded Watergate until Nixon was nothing but a simple human being—emotional, guilt ridden and finally accepting of his wrong doings and most importantly willing to eventually apologise to the US public was nothing short of magical. 

Frost remained on TV throughout the 80s and 90s, presenting ‘Breakfast with Frost’ from 1986 for ITV before moving to the BBC in 1993 as well as ‘Through The Keyhole’ with Lloyd Grossman where the duo looked through famous people’s home before a panel had to guess just whose house it was.

Breakfast with Frost ran for 12 years and for 500 episodes, coming to an end in 2005 after interviewing important figures such as Nelson Mandela, Margret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Frost later moved to Al Jazeera English where he continued to interview big political players and was due to interview PM David Cameron next week. 

Frost: An idol for aspiring journalists

Frost’s later interview technique was criticised for being softer but those who underestimated him in his later years did so at their peril as he could still throw guests with a brilliant question and although his grilling technique was no longer evident, his ability to get the answer the people wanted to hear never disappeared.

He remains the only man to interview all 7 British PMs who were ruled the country from 1964 to 2010 and the 8 serving US Presidents from 1969 to 2008, a feat no one will ever match.

For aspiring journalists, Frost was an idol. You can see bits of him in the prominent interviews of today: Jeremy Paxman, John Humphrys or Andrew Neil who all house a little bit of Frost in their own techniques.  For those like me, who want to become a serious journalist, the Nixon interview is a bar that we can only dream of and a bar set by a man that few will, if any will ever succeed.

R.I.P. Sir David Frost – a pioneer of broadcasting.

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