David Frost

It’s like wading across a river of warm, bubbling molasses, interviewing Sir David Frost. The current is tugging, part of you wants to drift with it, another part fears you might drown. The stuff of anxiety dreams, in other words.

Sir David is slouched on a sofa in his Kensington office, chewing on a fat Bolivar cigar and looking a bit spivvy in blazer, monogrammed gold cuff links and tasselled loafers. It’s a sticky June afternoon and shafts of sunlight are illuminating the wreaths of cigar smoke. Behind them, his skin looks grey. He has pouches under his eyes; thick square glasses; hangdog cheeks. He’s only just turned 60 – had a big, big party in April, with Prince Andrew, Stephen Fry and Andrew Lloyd Webber among the guests – but he probably wouldn’t get challenged if he asked for an OAP’s fare on a bus.

The broadcaster’s manner is as insouciant and amiable as you’d expect – but I’m trying hard, for reasons of objectivity, not to like him too much. After all, you have to be suspicious of someone who flatters with such apparent lack of guile and shame; who is so unflappable he appears not to have a functioning nervous system; who can begin his career satirising the patrician Establishment and glide unblushingly towards its close with a knighthood, a duke for a father-in-law and a day job presenting Through the Keyhole. But Sir David’s powers of seduction are preternatural. From the first matey, ‘Hello, Nigel, hello, come in, come in, super to meet you, great,’ the man has been enveloping me, literally and metaphorically, in his oleaginous charm. He hasn’t seemed insincere necessarily, just on autopilot, turning me into a guest on Breakfast with Frost, putting me at my ease. I’m pretty sure he extends an arm around my shoulder at one point. He definitely offers me a cigar. And though I don’t normally smoke, I find myself clipping the end off one and lighting it up. Such is the man’s voodoo.

We’re talking about his interviewing technique, the laid-back approach. A couple of years ago a Sunday Telegraph survey revealed that Sir David – together with Jimmy Young – is the inquisitor politicians fear and revere most. They know where they stand with the combative Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys but with Frost they are made to feel they’re just having an off-the-record chat with a friend- he lulls them into a false sense of security and then bowls them a googly. In 1994, for example, Jeremy Hanley, the then Conservative Party chairman, was coaxed by Frost into dismissing a riot at a boxing match as mere ‘exuberance’ – in contradiction to the government’s get-tough policy on hooliganism – which ultimately cost Hanley his job.

In 1987 Neil Kinnock had dropped his guard when Frost asked if, as a unilateralist, he would be prepared to send ‘our boys’ into battle against an army equipped with short-range tactical nuclear weapons. Kinnock thought not, on the whole, because we could always put up resistance on the home front. The press seized on this as Kinnock calling for a latterday Dad’s Army. ‘That comment was dynamite,’ Frost recalls in his distinctively slurred and undulating register. ‘If a politician feels he is in a hostile and humourless environment, he goes on to the back foot and plays for time, never giving the interviewer an opening. But if you can make him feel relaxed, and you can ask a tough question in a civilised way, you get a more revealing answer. The late John Smith once told me I have a way of asking beguiling questions with potentially lethal consequences.’ Frost grins toothily. ‘I think I’d be happy to have that on my tombstone.’

Sir David Frost has interviewed the last six American presidents as well as the last half-dozen prime ministers. It’s as good a measure as any of his extraordinary longevity in the fickle world of television. On the walls around us are dozens of photographs of Frost through the ages: a ferrety young Frost with a young Prince Charles; a middle-aged, sideburned Frost with Richard Nixon; Frost as grey-haired elder statesman walking between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair across a lawn. The photographs remind you that Frost is the Widmerpool of broadcasting. He’s been everywhere, knows everyone, keeps on turning up and insinuating himself into the lives of the rich and powerful.

At the height of his fame in the Sixties, when a poll revealed he was one of the three best known people in Britain, alongside the Queen and Harold Wilson, David Frost enjoyed the same reputation for aggressive and fearless interrogation as Jeremy Paxman does today. He eviscerated Rupert Murdoch on the subject of pornography in an interview so hostile it is said to have contributed to the media tycoon’s decision not to live in this country. Frost also stood his ground against the formidable debating skills of Enoch Powell in an interview on the subject of racism. In 1967 he inspired the phrase ‘trial by television’ when he savaged Emil Savundra, the insurance swindler, shortly before he was convicted of fraud.

It must be galling, then, for Frost to find himself labelled these days as a pushover who has ‘gone soft’ and who isn’t taken seriously any more because he is far too chummy, socially, with the politicians he interviews. He doesn’t see it that way, of course. It is more a matter of his interviewing technique having developed over the years into something more subtle.  ‘With Savundra I really was angry, though,’ he drawls. ‘Because at the end of the programme he just sat back and said he had no legal or moral responsibility. So instead of waiting for the usual silhouette shot of the two of us during the closing credits, I just walked out. I thought, “I’m buggered if I’m going to stay with him, it would be completely false.”‘

I ask if there was a day when Sir David woke up and realised he had lost his youthful anger. ‘Anger? Well, I started out with That Was The Week That Was and then moved into interviewing. And we were not so much angry young men as exasperated young men. From Suez onwards. Exasperated with the ruling classes saying they were older and wiser than us. The attitude at the time was that all politicians do what they do for reasons of self-sacrifice and public service, rather than ambition or lust for power. And clearly this was nonsense. They needed to be scrutinised. That’s why TW3 touched a nerve. I don’t know whether it was the times that made TW3 or TW3 that made the times but the programme was absolutely at the heart of the social and political changes that went on in Sixties Britain. When Profumo resigned, it was game set and match to the satirists. But in terms of zeal for reform I don’t feel much different today from what I did then.’

David Paradine Frost has two sisters but, because they were born 14 and 16 years before him, he was raised, more or less, as an only child. He went to Gillingham and Wellingborough grammar schools before going up to Cambridge in 1958. He describes his background as lower middle class, his childhood as peripatetic. (His father, the Reverend WJ Paradine Frost, who died in 1968, was a Methodist minister who moved from a parish in Kent, where David was born, to one in Northamptonshire, where he spent his late teens.) Frost took his first job in television straight after graduating and, for two decades, he lived the life of a playboy. He was engaged twice – to the singer and actress Diahann Carroll and the American model Karen Graham, both of whom broke off the engagements.

In 1981 Frost married Peter Sellers’s widow, Lynne Frederick, only to divorce after 18 months. He finally found happiness when, in 1983, he married Lady Carina Fitzalan-Howard, daughter of the (Roman Catholic) Duke of Norfolk. The couple have three sons, Miles, 15, Wilfred, 13, and George, 12. The eldest goes to Eton (where the others will follow).The youngest had Diana, Princess of Wales, as a godmother. With his acceptance of a knighthood from John Major in 1993, Frost’s metamorphosis into an Establishment poodle was apparently complete. Yet as a scornful young satirist his favourite targets were the aristocrats who ran the Establishment. And it is tempting to think that the 20-year-old Frost would regard the 60-year-old Frost as a fit subject for mockery.

‘It’s an amusing point. The.’ Pause. ‘I think, um, I don’t think there really is an Establishment now. So I don’t really think I’ve joined it. I just don’t think it exists any more. I would also say that class doesn’t matter any more either, except perhaps for the placement at a hunt ball. But, oddly, I’ve been having second thoughts about this because of my involvement in the Nick Leeson film.’

This was going to be my next question but Sir David, clearly worried that half the time allotted for this interview has already elapsed without the subject of the film being raised, has jumped the gun. Rogue Trader, starring Ewan McGregor and produced by Sir David Frost, goes on general release this week. Its subject, Nick Leeson, goes on general release tomorrow.

It is a nerve-jangling film which portrays Leeson sympathetically – more a hubristic hero in a Greek tragedy than a pathological liar who caused the collapse of Barings bank in 1995. Sir David realised the film potential of Leeson’s story when he secured a world exclusive by interviewing him in a Frankfurt prison during Leeson’s ultimately unsuccessful fight against extradition to Singapore. Sir David put in the calls to the lawyers himself when he realised that a court ruling which allowed Edward Whitley, the co-writer of Leeson’s autobiography, access to Leeson could also be applied to television interviewers. Such opportunism shows that Frost’s journalistic instincts, and fixing skills, are still mercurial. (He arranged the only interview with the late Shah of Iran with similar good timing, as well as securing the first post-Watergate interview with Richard Nixon, when all the American networks were still dithering.)

‘Nick’s story taught me that class is still an issue in the City,’ reflects Sir David, talking with such alarming surges of volume and emphasis he sounds like he’s doing a crude impersonation of, well, himself. ‘I’m convinced that if he had been Nicholas Fotheringay-Leeson he would have been extradited to the UK and would, as a white-collar criminal, have served a two-year sentence in the Ernest Saunders Memorial Suite at Ford Open Prison. Instead, he was sentenced to six years in one of the toughest jails in the world. His wife divorced him. And he was diagnosed with cancer. He’s had an operation to remove his colon and part of his lower intestine and now he has a 70 per cent chance of surviving five years. If he had been back here, the cancer may have been diagnosed sooner.’

Sir David says he will visit Leeson when he is released – if Leeson wants visitors – and he hopes that Leeson will find the film cathartic rather than upsetting. When I ask if Leeson will profit financially from the film Frost gathers his thoughts, as though revving up on the starting block. ‘That, yes, you know, I mean… ‘He stubs out his cigar and bites the end off another one. ‘There’s no doubt… ‘ He strikes a long match and puffs on the cigar. ‘Leeson didn’t steal any money. And he still hasn’t paid his legal bills. So he gets. Um. There was a small option originally, after the interview, a fee for the first day of principal photography and then a percentage, less than five per cent, which will go straight to paying his legal fees. If the film makes a profit. Which only one in ten do.’

Like Leeson, Frost had a frugal upbringing and then, through his determination and business acumen he accumulated a fortune. (Frost has been described as a one-man conglomerate because not only was he the joint founder of LWT and TV-am, but also, as chairman of David Paradine Ltd, he has produced eight films, published numerous books and marketed himself as lecturer and host.) Unlike Leeson, Frost hasn’t necessarily felt comfortable with his wealth. According to Lord Wyatt’s posthumously published journals, Frost feels guilty about money and sees himself as a Wilsonian socialist. Can this be true?

‘Ah, yes, well, Woodrow Wyatt thought that because of something I said in an interview with Mrs Thatcher. I was saying that the National Health Service would be better if there was no private medicine, and she countered by saying, “But Mr Frost, you use private medicine!” I don’t know how she knew, or whether she was just guessing, but I then said, “Yes, and I feel guilty about it.”‘ Frost spreads his arms out along the back of the sofa and sinks deeper into its seat. ‘When you grow up in a frugal environment anything above frugal is a treat. Once you’ve got enough it doesn’t matter any more. How much is enough? That is the question. Not quite enough is agony. I rather like Roald Dahl’s idea that luxury is being able to wear a new shirt every day, before it’s been laundered, when it still has that silky quality.’

When I ask whether he ever looks at his own fame, wealth and achievements and wonders what it’s all for, in the end, given that you can’t take it with you and no one gets out alive, he just laughs. ‘I think I’m too much of a boring old Pollyanna for that. The church is half-full rather than half-empty. Yes, living is fatal. But I mean [sigh], I’ve been lucky. Incredibly lucky. Hardly any hiccups in my life and I feel grateful. And I have a Pollyanna-ish faith that my good luck will continue.’

Though he describes his mother, Mona, who died in 1991, as the more extrovert of his parents, it was his father who influenced him most. His nervelessness in front of the cameras he attributes to watching his father in the pulpit, his much parodied speech pattern to his father’s clear diction. There was no alcohol or swearing in the parental home, no Sunday newspapers or television, and his father, whom he describes as having had a quiet strength and wisdom, taught him that ‘the only gospel some men will read is the gospel according to you’. He also inherited a modicum of his father’s faith.

‘Yes, yes. My father would have liked me to become a minister but I didn’t really consider it, although I did become a lay preacher on the local Methodist circuit for a while in 1958. I don’t know how life after death works but I do feel the spirit lives on in some way. And I do believe you can plug into that force through meditation and prayer. That’s not to say I haven’t questioned my faith. I remember asking Billy Graham, “If your God is a God of love, surely he must let everyone into heaven in the end?” And Billy smiled and said, “God doesn’t have to do anything if he’s God.”‘

It is difficult to gauge whether there is any real depth to David Frost because, for all his affability and apparent candour, he precludes intimacy and has a tendency to deflect questions about his own beliefs and values by giving you examples drawn from other people’s lives, namely those of the countless celebrities he has interviewed over the years. It is almost as if he exists through his relationships with his guests or, rather, that he only really exists when he is on television. That for him is real life. It has often been noted of Frost that away from the cameras there is an eerie insubstantiality to him.

One guest on Frost’s show described to me how he got a strange sense that Frost wasn’t really in control, that he was just surfing on a giant wave that could break at any moment. You get that impression about him even when he isn’t on air. Perhaps it is just that, as the greatest living practitioner of the ephemeral and trivialising medium of television, everyone assumes there must be something vapid and shallow about Frost himself – and this assumption colours your perception when you meet him.

For all that, Frost seems benign. And no fool. Nor do I think he’s an arrogant man – pretty pleased with himself, a panjandrum possibly, but not arrogant. He is always relaxed, he says, is rarely ill and never suffers from jet-lag. He sleeps well at night – needing just six hours – and you suspect he is not much of a one for long dark nights of the soul. Certainly there was no mid-life crisis. ‘No, I had a fantastic party in California for my 40th birthday. Borrowed someone’s private ballroom and shared it with Rod Stewart who was getting married that day to Alana. We shared a cake, and there was no time for deep or dire thoughts.’

It would seem, then, that no time for deep and dire thoughts would make as good an epitaph for him as John Smith’s comment. That’s not to imply he doesn’t have a sentimental side. Late fatherhood, he says, changed his life, made him less selfish and made him appreciate that other people’s happiness can matter more than his own. But Frost has no political allegiance, and hasn’t voted since he was first allowed to as a young man.  And, really, you have to wonder whether he has ever been that interested in anything other than his own career.

It is tempting to assume that people who are unctuous and ingratiating must be insecure and desperate for approval. But I don’t think this applies in Sir David’s case. He is steeped to the gills in self-belief and just wants to give other people the opportunity – and pleasure – of liking him as much as he likes himself. One person upon whom Frost’s charms apparently failed to work was Peter Cook. The two were in the Cambridge Footlights together and contemporaries of theirs characterise their relationship as being that of Boswell to Johnson. Cook oozed brilliance and talent and let it all go to waste. Frost, with no obvious gifts apart from an ability to be in the right place at the right time, doggedly followed Cook around, sucking up to him and basking in his reflected glory before eventually usurping him.

At Peter Cook’s memorial service in 1995, Stephen Fry recalled an occasion when Frost rang Cook to invite him to dinner with Prince Andrew and his then fiancée Sarah Ferguson: ‘Big fans… Be super if you could make it. Wednesday the 12th.’ ‘Hang on, I’ll check my diary,’ said Cook, riffling through the pages. ‘Oh dear, I find I’m watching television that night.’ Alan Bennett recalled an even more withering comment. ‘The only thing that Peter ever regretted was saving David Frost from drowning.’

When I ask Frost what he thinks provoked the Peter Cook jibes he rolls cigar smoke around his mouth before answering wheezily, ‘The, I think, um. That great joke about regretting saving me from drowning I think was actually Alan Bennett’s joke. Bennett the great scriptwriter. When he said it at the memorial service I laughed along with everyone else. But it wouldn’t have come from Peter.’

Sir David has someone else waiting to see him in reception. ‘Well, Nigel, I could carry on gossiping all day. I really enjoy a good conversation. And it has been great to see you. But…’ I stub out my cigar, shake his hand and emerge blinking in the London sunshine, several miles downriver from where I started.