Sir David Frost
The longest, most successful on camera television career must surely be that of David Frost. Louise Baring meets the man and just a few of his awesomely powerful gang of friends
In the first week of July, Sir David Frost and his wife Carina give a party in the gardens of Carlyle Square in Chelsea, to which everyone – and I mean everyone – wants to be invited. Bouncers hang about in the bushes ready to repel unwelcome intruders, while politicians, rock stars, academics, aristos, tycoons and TV celebrities circulate, chatting and checking each other out. Last summer’s guest list ranged from the billionaire financier and founder of the Referendum Party Sir James Goldsmith through Kenneth Clarke to Bob Geldof and John Cleese, while David Seaman, the goalkeeping hero of Euro ’96, stood like a totem pole in the middle of the throng as elderly British dukes approached him for autographs, for their grandsons, of course. By the garden gate, surrounded by paparazzi, was Frost, waving his cigar and making each guest, as one of them – Michael Parkinson – put it, “feel absolutely certain of the fact that they were his single greatest friend”.
A glance at David Frost’s entry in Who’s Who shows that it is longer than that of both the Prime Minister of Britain and the President of France, fattened by a list of TV projects such as A Degree of Frost, The Frost Report, Frost Over England, Frost Over America, Frost’s Weekly, The Frost Interview, Frost on Sunday, Breakfast with Frost and so on. Meanwhile, his autobiography, From Congregations to Audiences, published three years ago, weighs in at a hefty 530 pages and, to the reader’s dismay, ends in 1969 with cheery words, “but that’s another story…” A further two volumes are to follow.
Back in the late Sixties, an opinion poll revealed that only the Queen and Prime Minister Harold Wilson were as well known as Frost. These days he’s still a familiar presence on British TV – there’s Sunday morning’s Breakfast with Frost, where he gives the rich and powerful a cosy reception, Through the Keyhole with Loyd Grossman, and ITV’s Beyond Belief, in which he teams up with the likes of Uri Geller for investigations into the paranormal – but a younger generation remains ignorant of Frost’s youthful triumphs. He was, for example, the man whose interview with ex-President Richard Nixon about his role in the Watergate scandal is said to have attracted a billion viewers around the world.
Old pal John Birt now director general of the BBC, still claims: “David is undoubtedly the world’s most successful broadcast presenter. No one else has travelled across frontiers in the way he has.” Recently, on Talking with Frost, his monthly slot on PBS in the US, Frost talked to all three presidential candidates, while in England, apart from his TV slots and the occasional scoop such as his interview with Nick Leeson of Barings fame, Frost remains at the heart of public life, often commanding the premier placement at establishment dinner parties. A brilliant networker with what many describe as the best address book in the world, Frost pursues a relationship with anyone powerful he meets or interviews. “Have him call me at home,” he casually told an assistant not long ago, when she informed him that George Bush was on the telephone.
Despite a lifetime spent using his persuasive charm to get people to reveal themselves, Frost allows few glimpses into his own personality or beliefs. Nor has he ever voted. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard David pronounce a point of view except in the frame of a question designed to extract an answer from someone else,” says Ned Sherrin who, having seen Frost as a standup comic in 1962, picked him as front man for the satirical BBC show That Was the Week that Was. Other acquaintances refer to an eerie insubstantiality about Frost which precludes true intimacy: “In that sense he reminds me of Ronald Reagan,” says one who has talked at length to both men on a number of occasions. “Frost has become a media personality divorced from his true psyche, which seems to have got left behind somewhere along the way.”
That sort of concealment, Frost later explains, is a deliberate ploy: “extraneous personal details” distract the audience from the “eminently more important” issues he discusses with political leaders. With his shiny dark blue Bentley and trademark Bolivar cigars, these days Frost resembles a friendly tycoon rather than the more ferrety creature leaning accusingly towards his interviewees in TV clips from the Sixties. His face with its pouchy eyes is slightly waxy, while his receding hair now has a carefully frosted tint. In the old days, he would buy new shirts rather than go to the bother of sending his dirty ones to the laundry, but his slightly baggy blue suit and scuffed Guccis betray a lingering indifference to clothes.
When we meet at his Kensington offices, he is already on his third cigar and is sipping an enormous cup of black coffee. He has just come from Hyatt Carlton Tower Hotel in Knightsbridge, where three times a week he has breakfast meetings. “My idea of a real chore would be to have breakfast with half a dozen industry folk,” says Michael Parkinson, “but David feeds off it, loving every moment.” A rare working lunch at his desk is followed by an interview with Adam Faith for British Airways’ monthly audio show. Then comes a launch for Talk TV and a late dinner at Bibendum with his close friend Andrew Lloyd Webber. A couple of days later he flies off to record three political interviews in three different American cities, returns briefly to London, then flies off to Los Angeles for a string of meetings, and back again to quiz John Major on Breakfast with Frost. All this comes in addition to a dozen or so other projects in the wings. “Life is always hectic. I like it that way,” explains Frost, who sleeps for only six hours a night.
A frequent jibe against him is that he has no particular talent for anything except self-promotion. ” He rose without trace,” Kitty Muggeridge once famously remarked, or is it just that his overt ambition and can-do energy rub up against what he calls “that great English quality, the uncompetitive spirit”. Never easily rebuffed, he applies a mixture of charm and flattery which, combined with a relentless attention to detail and a genius for access, are his most effective weapons. In 1966, when his career faltered after he was fired by the BBC from Not so Much a Programme, Frost gave a highly publicised breakfast for such powerful acquaintances as Harold Wilson at The Connaught Hotel in Mayfair. The good times rolled through to lunchtime, when caviar and champagne were wheeled in.
For all his swashbuckling style, Frost has always remained loyal to his roots. “I always think of Frostie first and foremost as the son of a Methodist preacher,” says Sir James Goldsmith, a friend from the early Seventies, whom Frost has interviewed on a number of occasions. It’s a background he shares with many other media luminaries: Anna Ford, Jon Snow, John Wells, Simon Jenkins and Andreas Whittam Smith are all children of clergy. “Maybe it’s got something to do with all those hours watching your father in the pulpit,” says Frost, who himself was a lay preacher during his teens.
Born in 1939, David Paradine Frost had a peripatetic childhood, ending up as a teenager in Beccles, on the Suffolk coast. He has two much older sisters, and his upbringing was frugal, any luxuries being denied either by money or Methodism. His sisters, now in their seventies, sometimes turn up on the set of Through the Keyhole, bringing along a bunch of elderly friends. “It’s all very warm and natural,” observes panel member and former editor of the Sunday Express Eve Pollard.
Being a focus of loving attention from his family has, by all accounts, made Frost unusually secure: “David’s dominating characteristic is a selfbelief that defies description he’s not the sort of person who would ever feel the need to go to a shrink,” says Neil Shand, a former close colleague from Frost’s New York days in the early Seventies. Even so, when Frost arrived at Cambridge in 1958 after a grammarschool education, few recognised his potential, despite his being admitted to the Footlights Revue.
It was only with That Was the Week that Was following an ITV stint during which he hosted a trans-European twist contest – that Frost came into his own as a master of the medium. While most people are terrified of the technical aspects of TV presenting, he found the camera “friendly” and didn’t even use an autocue. He was TV’s young, thrusting Mr Outrageous, the original classless accent at a time when BBC English was stuffy and stultifying. But what set Frost apart from his contemporaries was his entrepreneurial vision of the TV business. He started his own company, David Paradine Ltd. in 1966, a time when independent programme-making companies were almost unheard of “David was the first person to appreciate the advantages of being on screen, and to manipulate that to his advantage,” says Ned Sherrin. “It gave him an entree to all sorts of boardrooms and merchant banks.”
“I also think going to the States made me see the future in all its possibilities,” explains Frost. He became the first weekly trans-atlantic commuter, at one point hosting television shows in Britain or the US seven nights a week. Not that his career has been sunny all the way: in 1972 his American nightly talk show was pulled, while many of his other TV projects in the US have foundered over the last couple of decades. TV-Am, which he cofounded in 1981, was swiftly restructured and ultimately lost its franchise. Frost is nevertheless a man capable of constantly regenerating his career. “He learns from his mistakes without ever admitting he made them,” Ned Sherrin once explained. He is also a multimillionaire whose fortune is rumoured to have been made when his friend Paul Hamlyn sold Octopus books in which Frost had shares – for £535 million in the late Eighties.
An unlikely sex symbol, Frost has enjoyed a string of love affairs with beautiful women, including actress Diahann Carroll and singer Julie Felix. “At one point,” recalls Ned Sherrin, “David’s love life resembled one of those French farces by Feydeau. God knows how he got away with it, but he always did.” Then, 15 years ago, Frost married Lady Carina Fitzalan Howard, the second daughter of the Catholic Duke of Norfolk, a mere 10 days after he proposed. It was his second stab at wedlock, his first wife being Peter Sellers’s troubled widow, Lynne Frederick, though the union lasted only 18 months.
In contrast, his second marriage has, by all accounts, brought Frost happiness and stability, though apparently Carina on one occasion persuaded her husband to get rid of a secretary with whom she considered he had too flirtatious a relationship. “I think Carina is a great rarity,” enthuses Eve Pollard. “She’s a very warm, sensible, down-to-earth woman.” She is also, apparently by her own admission, not as clever as her husband: “They both roar with laughter about it,” says one acquaintance.
The couple have three young sons, Miles, Wilfred and George: one Christmas the family card featured them behind presenter desks with microphones, like miniature David Frosts. All three are now at boarding school: “We miss them like crazy, God bless them, but they do settle in,” says Frost. They all meet up at the family country house in Hampshire at weekends. Frost rises at the crack of dawn on Sunday mornings to present Breakfast with Frost, after which he returns in time for lunch with friends, followed by football in the garden with his sons. A gifted athlete, Frost was once offered a place with Nottingham Forest but turned it down in favour of Cambridge.
During the week, the couple have a hectic social life, attending smart shindigs, dining at restaurants such as Harry’s Bar and Mark’s Club and giving the occasional dinner at their house in Carlyle Square with an eclectic bunch of guests. Close friends include Paul Hamlyn, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, John Cleese, Sir Evelyn and Victoria de Rothschild and Victor Blank, chairman of Charterhouse Bank, with whom Frost hosts an annual cricket match in aid of WellBeing, which provides research funding into ovarian cancer.
An entertaining guest on holiday with the likes of the Rothschilds in Barbados, he cracks endless jokes. But for all the apparent bonhomie, he sometimes slumps back with a distracted expression on his face. “Then you know he’s thinking about work,” says a friend.
David Frost once likened his addiction to the TV camera to eating a Chinese meal: “Half an hour later, I’m hungry again.” Neil Shand believes that he is above all a performer, which is why he also he finds popular TV shows like Through the Keyhole irresistible. “There’s a cynicism among the chattering classes towards this sort of TV, in part because it appeals so much to ordinary people,” Frost argues. Whatever the case, observing his clearly exhausted figure in the Breakfast With Frost studio, he showed no hint of strain or effort once he crossed that invisible line into the limelight. “It’s as though he’s received some injection,” agrees Neil Shand. Though he easily goes on automatic pilot, Frost appears a genuinely kind man who seems invariably to have something positive to say about everybody: “My father always used to say, ‘A stopped clock is always right twice a day, ‘” he informs me.
However, his softly softly approach towards his interviewees, compared with the more combative Jeremy Paxman and John Humphries, has attracted criticism. “He wouldn’t be so successful if he weren’t able to ask the difficult questions,” argues John Birt. Indeed, Frost is particularly adept at catching his guests costly off guard as politicians such as George Bush, Neil Kinnock, Margaret Thatcher and, more recently, Clare Short have discovered to their cost. As John Major, from whom he received his knight-hood and who will doubtless be interviewed again by Frost before the elections in May puts it: “David is never less than a master at putting the most searching questions. In cricket parlance, you have to watch out for the googly.”
1, That Was the Week that Was team, 1963.
2, Frost with Richard Nixon.
3, married to Lynne Frederick, 1981.
4, with Andrew and Madeleine Lloyd Webber
and, 5, Lady Thatcher.
6, interviewing Prince Charles, 1969.
7, with Diahann Carroll
and 8, present wife Carina
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