To be honest, I could never really
see the point of David Frost (who died over the weekend). He had no obvious talents as an entertainer;
he couldn’t sing or dance or make us laugh, and his mannered performances as a
television presenter were usually the worst aspect of whatever show he was
hosting. Even his supposed skill as an
interviewer of the great and the good, notably former President Richard M.
Nixon, was lost on me. His trick, I am
reliably informed, was to use a friendly and disarming manner to lull his
interviewees, like Nixon, into revealing more than they wanted to. I couldn’t see it. I thought he let Nixon, for one, off the hook.
Having said all that, I have to
admit that it was probably Frost, a shrewd reader of the runes that expose society’s
tastes in entertainment, who most informed my post-adolescent years – and to an
extent that I can now recognise half a century later even if it didn’t occur to
me at the time.
He first came to prominence as the
host of a satirical television show called That
Was the Week That Was – or TW3, as it became known to aficionados,
of which I was one. Millions of us would
rush home after the pubs had closed to watch it. TW3, a series of sketches and monologues
covering the issues of the day, first went on the air in 1962. In that same year, Beyond the Fringe opened on the London stage, featuring four other graduates
from the Cambridge
club responsible for the impromptu but long-running Footlights Review. Fringe received
rave reviews from most of the critics as a seminal work of satire – I still
find it clever and amusing – but it also courted considerable wider controversy
because it ridiculed august figures of the ruling Establishment who had once
been protected from such harsh treatment.
This was a time, remember, when what appeared in London theatres was subject to censorship by
the office of the Lord Chamberlain. Fringe challenged such an imposition and in
doing so threatened – or so many thought at the time – to sufficiently undermine
the nation’s once-revered institutions as to reduce a once-ordered, polite and
deferential society to chaos.
TW3 and Fringe marked the
death of the Age of Deference. It opened
our eyes to the risible incompetence of the ruling class presiding over Britain’s years
of national decline. As Jonathan Miller,
one of the Fringe four remarked, our
leaders had finally been exposed as nothing more than ‘pin-striped poltroons’
and so deserved to be savaged. Actually,
the satire was of a rather gentle, ribbing kind, but it was still Too Much for
many of the older generation. Even my
working-class father, who had no time for the figures being lampooned, thought that
this sudden outbreak of disrespect might bring about a real revolution. I had thought that revolution was precisely
what he had always wished for, but incongruously even he drew the line at ridiculing
the Prime Minister, as Peter Cook (another Fringe
star) famously did – even when it was a Tory prime minister with a fusty, languid
manner that seemed rooted in the Edwardian Age.
Frost, unlike Cook, was not among
the stellar performers who made us chuckle, but he was such constant presence
in the so-called satirical movement that by the time satire had become
respectable, a prelude to fading in popularity, Frost had joined the very Establishment
he had attacked. An opinion poll in 1969
named him as the third most recognised person in Britain, after the Queen and the
prime minister, Harold Wilson. And Frost
would out-last every one of his contemporary peers in the entertainment
industry, as impresario, deal-maker, interviewer and sage. This was much to the chagrin of Peter Cook,
who, when asked by an interviewer what act he most regretted in life, picked an
incident at a lake in Connecticut
in which he saved David Frost from drowning.
For once, Cook didn’t seem to be joking.
Author Bernard Levin, in The Pendulum Years, a seminal book about
in the Sixties, caught the Frost phenomenon perfectly. “Perhaps David Frost grasped earlier than
most the quality of the Sixties. Always
one jump further on than where he was expected, ever exploiting a new medium, a
new technique, a new hairstyle, Frost divined by a remarkable instinct what the
age demanded, and gave it.”
Apparently Frost had an engaging
personality and a ready wit, both of which served him well in the influential
circles in which he moved. They led to a
knighthood. Sir David’s real talent,
then, lay in surviving the decline in the comedic boom that he had helped to
create, and grasping the opportunities which that fame had afforded.
So it’s not longer “Hello, good
evening and welcome” – his enduring and silly catch-phrase – but “Cheerio,
goodbye and farewell”.
And I’d be surprised if he hasn’t
already asked to interview God.