FROST: THAT WAS THE LIFE THAT WAS
By Neil Hegarty
Ebury Press, $49.95, 352 pages
This is an informative and entertaining book about a talented and complicated man, and if it is not quite a model biography, it is certainly a model authorized biography.
Born in Tenterden, England in 1940, David Frost was a PK, a Preacher’s Kid, who at age 18 turned down an offer to play professional soccer because he saw a brighter future if he went to Cambridge. Good choice. In 1962, shortly after he’d graduated, he became the host of “That Was the Week That Was,” the first real television satirical revue, a big success that brought Mr. Frost to America and a version of “That Was the Week That Was” that ran for several seasons in the early 1960s.
From that point on, David Frost’s was a bold face name in the United States, his star rising and falling in fascinating loops of public favor. In England, however, as this most thorough book carefully documents, the rise was so steady as to bring him a knighthood in 1993. He was also continuously “big” in Australia.
In 1977, to the ongoing consternation of the American television networks, Mr. Frost arranged — and paid for himself — a series of interviews with President Richard Nixon. American media, motivated to a large degree by jealousy at having been outmaneuvered by a “cheeky Brit,” derided the interviews as “checkbook journalism”. But when Mr. Nixon admitted, under polite but unrelenting interrogation by Mr. Frost, that “I have let the American people down, and I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life,” David Frost had accomplished what no other journalist had done and with that earned a place in American history.
The Frost family chose well by selecting Neil Hegarty, the Irish writer, to do the authorized version of Sir David’s life. Mr. Hegarty covers what certainly appears to be all of Mr. Frost’s life, personal as well as professional, admirably, stopping short of hagiography and treating the few warts with candor.
Early in his career, Mr. Frost was accused, most famously by Monty Python co-founder John Cleese, of appropriating comedy material, to use a nicer word than stealing. And Mr. Frost’s obvious ambition did not always sit well with his “mates.” However, as the author brings out, mainly by showing rather than telling, Mr. Frost had a habit of helping his friends — and especially when they were down and all-but-shunned by others.
A prime example of Mr. Frost being simultaneously kind and smart involves his hiring the entrepreneurial American businessman John Florescu to run Paradine Productions, Mr. Frost’s television company in the States. When Mr. Frost asked Mr. Florescu — on a shuttle flight from New York to Washington — to run his American operation, he suggested they each write a prospective salary on a piece of paper. “Florescu suggested $80,000, Frost $100,000. Too bad,’ said Mr. Frost. ‘I’m the boss. $100,000 it is.’”
The book thoroughly documents the fact that Mr. Frost was in equal parts an impresario, an entertainer, and an astute businessman who had the good luck to get into television when the medium was still young and the good sense to see its long range possibilities. Mr. Hegarty quotes Andrew Lloyd Webber: “‘Frost was a child of, and an addict of television, and he loved the deeply serious side, too.”
In America, David Frost went into a bit of an eclipse following the Nixon interviews, but bounced back in the late 1980s with “The Next President,” hour-long television interviews with all 12 of that year’s presidential aspirants, plus one show with Presidents Reagan, Ford, and Carter. (Full disclosure: I co-wrote the book version of that series with Mr. Frost.) After that, he began a new series, with John Florescu as co-executive producer, called “Talking with David Frost” that took star and crew all over the globe. The reader who is not impressed with Mr. Frost’s obvious range and scope is not paying attention.
Also obvious is the fact that David Frost could not stop working. Even after his mid-life marriage to Lady Carina Fitzalan-Howard brought him great joy, as well as three beloved sons, he did not, or perhaps could not, alter his pace. On Aug. 31, 2013, while on the Queen Elizabeth to give a lecture as the ship cruised to the Mediterranean, the 74-year old Frost died of a heart attack.
In the course of his frenetic, peripatetic career, Mr. Frost — whom Barbara Walters called “the best television interviewer ever” — interviewed seven American presidents and every British prime minister since Harold Wilson. And he made many of them, as well as millions of regular folk, laugh.One man who knew Mr. Frost well was his longtime British producer, Trevor Poots, who told Mr. Hegarty, “[David] disliked the word ‘interview’; in fact, he preferred ‘conversation.’He disliked the idea of an interrogation; he wanted a chat. So, although he had strong journalistic instincts, he was not a journalist, per se. I would say he was a politically extremely well-informed host. He loved the idea of a show more than anything: putting people at their ease, and then getting them to talk about areas they had never talked about before.”
Neil Hegarty has written what I would guess David Frost himself would have called a “crackin’ good” book.
• John Greenya is a Washington writer and critic.