Sitting in one of the green rooms at Yorkshire Television on a Saturday afternoon in Leeds, it’s difficult to reconcile the man I’m watching on the monitor with the David Frost of legend. He’s recording four back-to-back episodes of Through the Keyhole to be broadcast on BBC2 later this year and he’s finding it difficult to muster much interest in his current guest, a former soap star called Lee Otway.
‘So, Lee, is Celebrity Love Island the biggest thing you’ve ever done?’
Could this really be Sir David Frost, OBE, the man who has interviewed the last six British prime ministers and the last seven American presidents? The man whose annual garden party at his house in Chelsea attracts a dazzling array of senior politicians and A-list celebrities? The man who presented the most-watched political interview ever broadcast on American television?
In fact, David Frost has been juggling these two personae — the lowbrow and the highbrow — from the moment he burst into public consciousness as the host and co-creator of That Was The Week That Was in 1962. One minute he’s interviewing micro-celebrities, the next he’s coaxing headline-making admissions out of world leaders, as he did last year when he prompted Tony Blair to admit that the violence in Iraq was a ‘disaster’.
‘I think that diversity is what keeps you fresh,’ he tells me over dinner in Leeds. ‘You would have interviewed Saddam Hussein in a different way to the way you’d interview Julie Andrews.’ What he doesn’t say, of course, is that Through the Keyhole, which he’s been presenting for 24 years, is a nice little earner. Not only does he own a share in the copyright, having helped to devise the format, it is made by his company, David Paradine Productions (Paradine is Frost’s middle name). An industry insider estimates that BBC Daytime pays Paradine around £700,000 a year for Through the Keyhole, of which between 15 and 20 per cent is profit.
This is what distinguishes Frost from most other television presenters — he owns the programmes he appears on. Kitty Muggeridge famously dismissed him by saying he rose without a trace, but the same could equally be said of Simon Dee, the now-forgotten Sixties chatshow host. To get to the top in television is one thing, but to remain there for 45 years is another. Without his acute business brain, Frost would have long succumbed to Simon Dee Syndrome.
He is now 67 and at a time when most men would be contemplating retirement he has had to cope with a completely unexpected source of notoriety in the form of Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan’s play about the series of television interviews he conducted with Nixon in 1977. After a successful West End run, Frost/Nixon will open on Broadway at the end of this month and looks set to be turned into a film by Universal Pictures later this year.
From Frost’s point of view, Frost/Nixon is a bit of a double-edged sword, thanks to the liberties that Morgan has taken with the truth. In Morgan’s version of events, the interviews take place over four days, with Frost leaving it until the last minute to broach the topic of Watergate. Up until this point in the play, Frost has been thoroughly outclassed by the wily ex-president, but thanks to a diligent piece of research he manages to ambush Nixon on the fourth day, effectively delivering a knockout punch that forces an apology out of him. Morgan likes to describe the play as an ‘intellectual Rocky’ and that is very much how it comes across on stage, with the brash young challenger snatching victory from the jowls of defeat.
In certain respects, Morgan’s play flatters Frost. Take Nixon’s famous mea culpa over Watergate. In reality, this happened about midway through the interviews — they took place over a 12-day period, not four — and according to his supporters it was entirely premeditated.
‘He was the world’s most calculating man and was not at all ambushed by Frost,’ says Jonathan Aitken, author of Nixon: A Life. ‘He chose his moment to make a dramatic denouement, not least because he was very keen for the Frost programme not to be a flop. He told me that himself. He hated to be boring and out of the limelight and I think he made a calculation that the Frost interviews needed a bit of pep.’
In support of this theory, Aitken wheels out Jack Brennan, Nixon’s chief of staff in 1977. Aitken took Brennan to see the play last year and, afterwards, Brennan was adamant that the depiction of his boss as having been caught off-guard was inaccurate.
‘He was absolutely clear in his mind that Nixon planned the whole thing,’ says Aitken. Of course, Nixon’s friends would say that, but the extent to which the mea culpa was forced out of him remains a matter of conjecture, and Morgan’s play certainly puts a favourable construction on it from Frost’s point of view.
Less favourable to Frost is the first half, in which Morgan depicts him as a journalistic lightweight. This is a distortion of the truth, but it makes for a more dramatic story, since Frost’s knockout blow in the final scene then comes as a bigger surprise. Frost claims to be a big fan of the play — ‘It’s a brilliant piece of theatre,’ he says — but it can’t have been easy for him to sit in the audience and listen to the metropolitan elite roaring with laughter at his lack of gravitas.
There’s one detail, in particular, that won’t have gone down well. In the play, Frost is only able to sandbag Nixon thanks to James Reston, a member of his research staff at the time, who uncovers a vital piece of evidence the night before, proving that Nixon was a more active participant in the Watergate cover-up than he’s letting on. In reality, Reston had done this research eight months earlier and it formed only a minor part of the case for the prosecution. ‘Whenever I complained about a factual inaccuracy,’ says Frost, ‘Peter Morgan would sigh and say, “David, this is a play, not a documentary.”’
There’s an additional reason for Frost to put a brave face on it. After meeting Morgan three years ago to discuss the idea, Frost decided to grant him a licence to reproduce any material from the Nixon interviews — which, needless to say, he owns the rights to — free of charge. However, he has no intention of extending that latitude to Universal Pictures. Should the film get made, Frost will collect a hefty fee.
‘He may be hurting over this,’ says one of his friends, ‘but he’s hurting all the way to the bank.’ At the conclusion of our dinner, Frost tells me he must get back to his hotel because he’s expecting a conference call from New Zealand. It turns out he’s the executive producer of the Dambusters remake that Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame is on board to direct. Frost’s vanity may have taken a bit of blow from Frost/Nixon, but only a fool would count him out.