It can hardly have escaped your attention that Sir David Frost, one of the most iconic TV personalities of our time, has passed away aged 74 after suffering a heart attack. Due to computer difficulties I've been able to respond as quickly to this event as I would have liked, but as will become clear the enforced pause has been helpful in making me reflect.
Unlike many of the individuals to whom I've paid tribute on this blog, my feelings towards Sir David are not exactly unequivocal. He was always something of an opportunist, which brought him many triumphs but often at the cost of his integrity. Many people of my generation are only familiar with Frost through his gentle interviews on Sunday mornings, much-parodied on Dead Ringers and the like. But there was a more ruthless side to Frost which, in his early days at least, won him few friends.
Frost's first big break, That Was The Week That Was, came on the back of the British satire boom of the early-1960s, spearheaded by Beyond the Fringe. The show was the forerunner of many topical sketch and panel shows, but even from the outset Frost was accused of stealing from Beyond the Fringe and other comedians of the time. Jonathan Miller dubbed him "the bubonic plagiarist", while Peter Cook went further still, savaging him in later life while editor of Private Eye and remarking that his greatest regret in life was saving him from drowning. The Pythons disliked him just at much, lampooning his smarmy reputation in the sketch 'Timmy Williams Coffee Time':
Being something of a Peter Cook fan-boy, you'd expect me to just denounce Frost on this basis. But I must also acknowledge his talents as an interviewer. He was certainly influential on the confrontational interview style that we now associate with, say, Jeremy Paxman. And in terms of what they achieved, in both the information they produce and the impact on the medium, the Nixon interviews are an incredible achievement. Even in his later, gentler days, he had a knack of luring his guests into a fall sense of security, getting them to drop their guard and then exposing their weaknesses - such as asking Tony Blair whether he and George Bush prayed together.
It is this contradiction between satire and celebrity that sums Frost up. He had a way of rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, making them enjoy his company and confide in him. Sometimes this seemed chummy, even sycophantic, but beneath it all was still some kind of subversive, moral spark: he would get what he wanted and what we needed, just not in the way or at the time that we expected.
You could call Frost a sell-out, who lost his satirical bite through all those journeys on Concorde, but you could equally see him as some form of trojan horse, within the walls of celebrity and picking them off one at a time. Whatever your view, the world will be a more boring place without him. Goodbye, good night and thank you.