Frost: That Was The Life That Was: The Authorised Biography by Neil Hegarty

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Frost: That Was The Life That Was: The Authorised Biography by Neil Hegarty

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Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A painstakingly-researched biography of the renowned broadcaster, covering his professional and personal life in detail, undertaken with the full cooperation of his family. Sensitively written, with considerable insight, this is an extremely well-rounded portrait of a remarkable career.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: September 2015
Publisher: W H Allen
External links: [ Author's website]
ISBN: 9780753556702

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Just a glance at this book is enough to make us realise, or remind us, that Sir David Frost was a towering presence in the world of television for around half a century. From the days when he stormed the barricades of cosy light entertainment at the start of the swinging sixties, to his major political interviews and his position as one of the founding fathers of TV-am, he was a cornerstone of the industry. Without him, the history of broadcasting during that period would surely have been very different.

Born the son of a Methodist minister, Frost briefly considered following in his father’s footsteps before going to read English at Cambridge. As secretary of the Footlights Drama Society, he came into close contact with fellow future luminaries such as Peter Cook and John Bird. Even then, it seemed that he could make himself equally at home in TV entertainment and comedy, reporting or documentaries, and his career would demonstrate that he did all three with ease. Ironically Anglia employed him briefly one summer vacation and considered him ‘not television material’, which as fellow broadcaster Greg Dyke later said was ‘the equivalent of Decca Records turning down the Beatles’.

Hegarty tells the story of Frost’s early career thoroughly, setting him in the context of the age when the ‘you’ve never had it so good’ post-war complacency and general deference was beginning to be shaken by a reaction against the establishment. The time was ripe for a new era, and in the satire against the status quo, led by the groundbreaking ‘That Was The Week That Was’, or ‘TW3’ for short, Frost was the cheerleader of a show which stormed the barricades in proclaiming that an old, perhaps gentler order had gone for good. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan wisely advised his more sensitive ministers not to take any action over the cheekiness of the programme, saying it was better for the government to be laughed over than be ignored.

Frost then took a variation of the show to the United States, before unleashing its successor ‘The Frost Report’ on the home audience. Few if any of a certain generation will ever forget the highlight of the whole series, the classic Class Sketch, which helped to launch the careers of John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett.

It therefore may have been a surprise to the viewing public, but certainly not to those who knew him, that Frost soon moved into weightier pastures. His interviews of the notorious financier Emil Savundra, the former British Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, the impeached American President Richard Nixon, and to an extent those with every British Prime Minister from Harold Wilson to David Cameron, were not only news-making events in themselves, but also demonstrated his skill in prising pertinent answers, even confessions out of those whom some referred to as his ‘victims’. He was the ultimate professional, rarely if ever putting a foot wrong, often calmly entering a studio for a live programme with seconds to spare, perfectly prepared and ready to go on air while the rest of his staff were panicking in sheer terror at the prospect of him being late – which he never was.

This book is an authorised biography, written with the cooperation and some input from Frost’s widow and sons. Not surprisingly it is a charitable, friendly read, but the reader has no reason to suppose that anything unfavourable has been suppressed. The subject comes across, and convincingly, as not only industrious and hardworking to the very end, but also the most likeable of men. There were early affairs, a broken engagement and a brief unfortunate marriage to the widow of Peter Sellers. All of these are dealt with succinctly enough, and it is heartwarming to read that soon afterwards he found lasting happiness as a husband and father. His close friends included not only other broadcasters but also politicians from different sides of the spectrum, entertainers and royalty. Nobody, with the possible exception of Rupert Murdoch, appears to have had a bad word to say for him. It was noticed that he had a particular empathy and readiness to fraternise with the unfortunate; according to Lord Owen, he was the very opposite of a fair-weather friend, and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber noted that as far as possible he tried to see the best in everyone.

The four hundred pages present a scrupulously-researched account of a full life and career, in which there was evidently rarely a dull moment. Frost the public broadcaster was familiar to many of us, but this is a very well-rounded portrait of the private man as well. There are also two pages of plates, and although the group are not referred to in the text, the pictures include an amusing one of a briefly bearded, broadly smiling Frost with the Bee Gees. I found the book a fascinating read, and laid it aside with my respect for a man of whose personal life I had known little considerably enhanced.

For a more general look at television as a medium, may we also recommend Armchair Nation: An intimate history of Britain in front of the TV by Joe Moran.

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