12.07.08

The Making of David Frost

How a satirist became a political interviewer.

An essential dramatic conceit of Frost/Nixon is that David Frost was a TV lightweight who, with Nixon, was getting in over his head. This might seem even more plausible if you look at the initial cause of his fame, the weekly satirical program on the BBC called That Was The Week That Was, which was—in its insolence, acidity and lethal political targeting—a watershed piece of television. From the anchor chair of that program, Frost moved on to journalism in a cautious trajectory. So, you ask, in American terms, wasn’t this like Bill Murray leaving SNL (itself a direct crib of That Was The Week) to take over Meet the Press?

The fact that a switch like that would be impossible to make in American broadcasting perhaps explains why when, for millions of people who had never seen him before, Frost’s conquest of Nixon was so surprising—and so annoying to the networks who had rejected the interviews.

I felt that the instinctive rapier wit David Frost had deployed as a satirist might—just might—be the right underpinning for journalism.

That’s why seeing the Ron Howard movie was so gripping for me. I was in at the creation.

In the summer of 1966 I was part of the team that put together Frost’s first sustained run at journalism, The Frost Programme. David chose two people as the “creative consultants” for the enterprise (inventing that term!), Tony Jay (later distinguished for his brainchild Yes Minister) and me. Each of us had an agenda.

Tony’s idea was that TV could and should be opened up as a forum for the people to engage with power, and it was Tony who insisted on doing something that nobody had risked before, having a live studio audience with a microphone swinging precariously on a boom above them so that David could pull people into the discourse when they were provoked. Thus a lot of politicians found themselves suddenly not only being cross-examined by Frost but by aggrieved members of the public. Amazing to think now how novel and dangerous that was then, in 1966, when it began.

My own idea was to suggest that the mainstream interviewers of the day, however effective they were, came from central casting of the British class system as it then was: coming across either as barristers (Robin Day]; toffs (John Freeman) or after-dinner speakers (Malcolm Muggeridge), demonstrably not of the common folk. (It was Muggeridge who wrote a pompous put-down of Frost titled The Apotheosis of Mediocrity in The New Statesman.)

I felt that the instinctive rapier wit David had deployed as a satirist might—just might—be the right underpinning for journalism if we could persuade him to go serious and mix wit and gravitas. He did accomplish this with a long series of astounding encounters with politicians and major figures and which—his true apotheosis—he used to such deadly effect with Nixon.