Unusually among broadcasters, Sir David Frost chose to list in Who’s Who every single programme he had ever made, with the result that his entry eventually occupied almost 20cm between the diplomat and businessman he alphabetically divided. These credits ran from That Was the Week That Was, for the BBC in 1963, to Frost on Sketch Shows, shown on BBC4 this year. But, despite this on-screen career lasting for a neat half-century, his enduring influence on the TV industry will not be as a presenter.
Frost, who died on Saturday of a suspected heart attack onboard a cruise ship, first emerged as host of satire shows — not only TW3, but also The Frost Report and Not So Much a Programme — and then as a topical interviewer. However, while the post-Watergate interviews with Richard Nixon will remain a reference point for as long as the American presidency and TV journalism exist, most modern news interrogators are drawn more to the Paxman/Humphrys model of hectoring scepticism than to the manner of later-era Frost, in which the interviewer resembled a friendly college admissions tutor who would occasionally slip in a zinger. Political satire has also, in recent decades, graduated towards standup comics and impressionists, with no role for the straight frontman Frost played on his comedy shows. Frost’s lasting legacy to the medium that entranced him from a young age will be in having created a new model for a broadcasting career: from employee — as he was on That Was the Week That Was — to tycoon and producer.
The ability to create income streams that did not depend on his being hired to read an Autocue was typical of Frost’s canniness and understanding of the commercial possibilities of television, although he was helped by a knack for turning bad luck to good. What came to seem his smartest deal — the ownership of the rights to the Nixon interviews — had been forced on him by circumstance, Frost having to fund the project largely himself because no one at the time trusted an apparently fading satirist to undertake the greatest White House story ever told.
And, while his creation of a consortium to claim the TV-AM breakfast television franchise in 1983 was initially a disaster on-screen, with big names such as Michael Parkinson and Anna Ford failing to attract audiences, Frost typically flourished both in front of camera — creating the weekend show that he later transferred to BBC1 as Frost on Sunday — and financially, through his shareholding in a company that was rescued by Roland Rat and Greg Dyke.
Until Frost, it was widely assumed that British and American television programmes were as inherently different as the accents and manners of Richard Dimbleby and Walter Cronkite, the most trusted journalists in their respective countries in the postwar years. However, though in some ways very English — drawn to cricket and Anglicanism — Frost had a soul that was at least half American. And, at the cost of some weird vowel slippage and an exhausting diary, though the latter was eased for much of his life by his beloved Concorde, he routinely presented alternate programmes in both nations, while his production company sought out internationally exportable formats.
In this sense, Frost’s example can be blamed for the careers of both Cowell and Piers Morgan, which will seem to some a heavy guilt to bear. No one, though, can be held entirely responsible for who follows them and the business model that Frost pioneered came from perceptions — the weakness of being a mere employee, the cultural compatability of transatlantic entertainment — that mark him as a great television visionary. Tricking the truth out of Tricky Dicky was, in many ways, the least of his achievements.