Sir David Frost on Frost/Nixon
Published: The Sunday Times, 18 January 2009, by Jeff Dawson
There's a lot to be said for the old school. Arranging an interview with Sir David Frost requires no haggling with PRs, press lackeys or intermediaries. You simply phone up Frost's production company and are, in an instant, put through to that distinct, much mimicked voice - one that's being awfully nice to you, while its owner rustles through his no doubt crammed diary. You don't dare contemplate with whom you will soon be sharing page space - Stephen Fry remembers Frost breaking off a conversation to greet another guest: "Boutros Boutros, always a pleasure" - but there is nobody too small in Frost's universe. Charm has always been part of the offensive. A little too offensive for the late Peter Cook, who claimed his biggest regret was having rescued Frost from a swimming pool.
As well as unparalleled media savvy, this particular commodity has served Frost supremely well over his 47 years in television. Far from the savage young satirist of That Was the Week That Was, he has evolved into a genial breaker of bread with the great and good. Where Humphrys and Paxo twist the thumbscrews, Frost eases his guests into a nice warm bath, tenderly administering enough verbal loofah to exfoliate the demons. "You can put just as testing a question in a relaxed way as you can in a hectoring way," he explains. "The late [Labour leader] John Smith said to me, 'You have a way of asking beguiling questions with potentially lethal consequences.' Which I'm happy to have on my coffin."
Today, Frost is quite mellow himself - and unseasonably ochre - having returned hotfoot from Christmas in the Caribbean. He still represents about the most genial and attentive interviewee you are ever likely to encounter, bursting into the lobby in a sharp navy suit, pumping your hand, then ushering you into his cosy study, complete with fireplace and plumped sofa. The desk is piled with papers - cluttered enough to give the impression of a busy man, not messy enough to suggest he's been reading them.
Three months short of his 70th birthday, Frost these days is broadcasting's éminence grise. His main gig is his weekly show Frost over the World, on Al Jazeera, a station maligned in America, unfairly, as an Al-Qaeda mouthpiece. In its English-language version, it has been building itself as an alternatively focused rival to CNN. His show is received in 130m homes in 100 countries, he declares: "The thing is that we in the West are chauvinistic in our interests." He cites an interview with President Lula of Brazil: "Probably the most powerful man in South America, rarely, if ever, seen on British television."
Frost has done them all - premiers, prime ministers, princes, presidents, including every American leader since Kennedy. What is regarded as his Magnum Chinwag, though, is the exclusive series of interviews he conducted in 1977 with the disgraced Richard Nixon. Less than three years after the former president's resignation over Watergate, Frost got from him what those on Capitol Hill had failed to elicit - a mea culpa. "A 99.9 per cent apology," as Frost puts it. Certainly the furthest Tricky Dicky would ever go.
It was a hell of a scoop, not least because Nixon, with his agile legal mind, could run down the clock surer than the most artful contestant on Just a Minute, droning away until a question had no meaning. Funnily enough, my powwow today is not without its own Nixonian moment, as Frost kicks off proceedings with a tribute to the late Benazir Bhutto, with whom he had spoken just days before her assassination - eating into valuable allotted interview time, but done with such heart, it seems rude to interrupt. Frost, though, has been in the game long enough to give you what you want. Soon he is in full Nixon anecdotal mode.
He hunches forward, affecting Nixon's gruff, heavy-jowled demeanour, channelling the moment when the former president described how he had bade farewell to the White House staff: " 'I hope I haven't let you down.' " Their silence had been so deafening that, on recalling this moment to Frost, it had rolled into the famous confession.
" 'I hope I haven't let you down,' " growls the impersonating Frost. " 'Well... I had.' " ("I let down my friends, I let down the country, I let down our system of government," Nixon had continued.) "That was a euphoric moment." With 45m viewers for the first US broadcast - it was transmitted in four 90-minute segments - and millions more worldwide, it remains the highest-rated political interview in TV history.
In 2006, Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan's play about these events, was a critical hit in the West End and on Broadway. Now, with the same stars - Frank Langella as Nixon, Michael Sheen as Frost - comes the screen version. The film has been nominated for numerous awards and looks a strong contender for the Oscars. "What [the director] Ron Howard's done, it's not spectacular," Frost says. "He didn't do anything like putting scenes in the middle of a football field, but he opened it out emotionally. He did a terrific job."
For the subject of a biographical film to give an interview on its behalf is an unusual thing, because a) they're usually deceased, or b) are most likely in litigation. The royal family hardly went out of their way to promote Morgan's The Queen. The writer had pitched the play to Frost as "a sort of intellectual Rocky", and Frost had been sufficiently soft-soaped by tales of theatrical impoverishment (it opened at the Donmar Warehouse) to grant his UK rights for free.
Yet not for nothing is Frost one of the smoothest operators in the business, said to be worth about £20m. This time, he followed the money. "I take the royalty," he whispers. There's also his book, Frost/Nixon, co-authored with Bob Zelnick, the Washington journalist who led Frost's research team, and the original television interviews, or rather the Watergate portion, released on DVD.
Wind back to 1977 and the tale remains fascinating. Although Nixon quit the Oval Office in August 1974 to avoid impeachment, Watergate still dominated the headlines. With Woodward and Bernstein's celebrated investigations transposed to the screen in the shape of All the President's Men, there was no letting up. Hungry both for public rehabilitation and a way to recoup his legal fees, Nixon was prepared to sell his story by way of a television exclusive.
Aside from the interviews themselves - nearly 29 hours of eventual recording - the behind-the-scenes activities proved of equal interest. Here, in the finest Frost tradition, came a collision of politics and showbiz, enhanced by the Southern California setting, as the 38-year-old Brit, holed up at the Beverly Hilton, wrung every last drop of cash from his investors, outbidding his rivals to the tune of $600,000. Negotiations were conducted through the hotshot agent Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones in the film). There followed intense rounds of talks between Frost and Colonel Jack Brennan, Nixon's chief of staff, as to the question of editorial control (which Frost retained), not to mention the infighting between Frost and his backroom boys - the journalists Zelnick and Jim Reston, and the producer John Birt (later DG of the BBC). For the two Americans, frustrated by Frost's passive-aggression, it merely confirmed suspicions - that Nixon had chosen Frost as a soft touch.
Nixon's home, the "Western White House", down the coast at San Clemente, was unusable as a location because of noise from aircraft, so the production repaired to a "set", a rented bungalow in nearby Monarch Bay. There, amid a bizarre suburban circus, the opposing entourages crowded into the kitchen while the protagonists duked it out in the living room. "The first day, I realised I had never interviewed anyone for two hours, much less for 12 such sessions," Frost recalls. (They were taped over March/April.) "But once you got him absorbed in a subject, he was very good."
Strategic breaks had been agreed so Nixon, a notorious heavy sweater, could have time with his handkerchief. Elsewhere, the primitive setup yielded its frustrating logistical moments. "Nixon was going on about making mistakes," Frost says, standing up to mime out the scenario. "Brennan walked in and held up a sign, which I thought said, 'Let us talk.' So I said, 'We've got to change the tapes.' As he came closer, I saw that it said, 'Let him talk,' because there was something Nixon really wanted to deliver."
What with The Deal and The Queen, as well as his adaptation of The Last King of Scotland (about Idi Amin), Morgan has become a prime screen essayist of modern historical figures. Sheen has played Blair for him twice and will do so again in the final instalment of the new Labour trilogy, The Special Relationship. Add to Frost Sheen's role as Kenneth Williams (Fantabulosa!), and his Brian Clough in the forthcoming The Damned United (Morgan again), and he is only a Tommy Cooper away from Mike Yarwood. His turn here, though, seems more "impressionistic" than outright impersonation. "You can't have an impression for two hours of drama - that wouldn't work," Frost agrees. "It's not David Frost, but David Frost-inspired."
A recurring gag centres on Frost's supposed annoyance with his celebrated salutation, "Hello, good evening and welcome", suggested to be a misquote. Certainly, Monty Python's merciless lampooning of Frost helped to create the caricature. He recalls the night the Pythons posted his home phone number on screen at the end of their sketch The Mouse Problem, as a hotline for people with a rodent fetish. Truth be told, Frost doesn't mind his catch phrase at all: "I did use that. I still do. So I'm not sure where that came from."
While most of the Pythons had started out in The Frost Report in the late 1960s, by the time the decade turned, they were still the punks, consigned to the late-night garage of BBC2. Frost was the supergroup, and one that broke America, all champagne, caviar, parties and beautiful women. At one point, he commuted weekly on Concorde. Which brings us back to the film and the one thing that doesn't sit right - its premise that Frost, pre-Nixon, was down on his uppers, a sort of lame variety-show host.
"I worked out that because I had done three years of talk shows in New York, in addition to presidents and prime ministers - Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir and all of that - by the time I did Nixon, I'd done about 4,000 interviews," Frost asserts. "That was Peter [Morgan] letting his imagination run riot in terms of the boxing match, the underdog and overdog." Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed? He laughs. "Exactly."
Frost had already grilled Nixon in 1968 and had met him again in 1970. He had even produced a Christmas entertainment special from the White House. "My dear mother came alone," he asides. "She said, 'You know, I had to give up choir practice.' This was in Beccles, Suffolk." Not to mention Frost the burgeoning mogul, a co-founder of London Weekend Television. (He would later launch TV-am.) Given that the film will become the received history, maybe more than the original interviews, even, is his portrayal not a little disrespectful?
"Well, as far as I'm concerned, it builds to a happy ending, and I think that's the abiding image," he considers. "Word eventually gets around about what's true and what's not true. Given the question 'Would you rather or not this play/film came out?', the answer is that I'm delighted."
He gets off far more lightly than Nixon, played by Langella as a grotesque: "He has the soul, or lack of soul, of a Nixon, but not the looks." Even then, it's an image more favourable than the pill-popping schizophrenic suggested by Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone's 1996 film Nixon. Frost has been sitting on another screenplay, Young Nixon, about the president's bleak Quaker upbringing, written by the late Robert Bolt - "The last thing he ever wrote. Bolt at his very best" - which he hopes will be made one day.
One thing Langella captures superbly, says Frost, is Nixon's fabled gaucheness: "He always insisted on five minutes of small talk, of which he had none." A remark, shown in the film, where Nixon asks Frost, off camera, "So, did you do any fornicating this weekend?", is accurate (although it happened in slightly different circumstances). "If there hadn't been eight people all looking stunned, I'd have thought I'd gone bonkers," Frost says. "I knew he didn't really want to know the answer, but it was touching in a way, because it was Nixon trying to reach out and getting the word wrong, being clumsy."
Nixon was a peculiar specimen, Frost recalls. There are guests who can be talkative in the green room, yet clam up on camera, but with Nixon, "it was the other round".
Even the former president, though, could have his light-hearted moments. "There was a wonderful story somebody told me. Six months after JFK's inaugural, Nixon was talking to Ted Sorensen, JFK's speechwriter. Nixon said, 'There were things in that speech I wish I'd said.' Sorensen says, 'You mean, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country?" ' And Nixon said, 'No, I was thinking more of, "I hereby solemnly swear. . . ' " Which was a good gag."
Watch the interviews today and Frost does succeed in humanising Nixon. For a fleeting moment, you even feel sorry for him. "Not sympathy, but possibly empathy at times," Frost allows. "There were about 30 people in jail because they had done what he asked them to do." There's sadness, too: regret for the passing of a less frivolous time, armed with the knowledge that, 20 years later, the same judicial machinery that fingered Nixon would be used to check for presidential stains on an intern's dress; or the likelihood that even were George W Bush to confess on primetime that, yep, he stole the 2000 election, the ratings would hardly trouble The X Factor.
When Nixon died in April 1994, he received quite a sendoff; all the living ex-presidents attended his funeral. It accorded him a sort of real pardon, after the somewhat grubby one issued by Gerald Ford when he became president. His achievements - the opening of dialogue with China, detente with the Soviet Union, Southern desegregation, even the messy extrication from Vietnam - are to be lauded. "Basically, there was a good Nixon and a bad Nixon, and the bad Nixon won out in the end," Frost muses. "He was a sad man who so wanted to be great."
Frost never saw his interviewee again, but has stood by Nixon's conveyed assessment of those interrogations as "tough but fair" - though Nixon, in two separate memoirs, and as late as 1990, was still grumbling about a stitch-up (despite taking 20% of the profits). "I did not expect the telecast to be positive or even balanced," he wrote, "and I was not surprised when they turned out to be highly negative."
"It was rather a heart-warming reminder of the old Nixon," Frost says with a smile. As Reston says in the film, Nixon's greatest legacy is probably that "gate" has become a suffix to every significant political scandal. Or maybe it's that the nerdy kid in The Simpsons ended up with the name Milhouse.
On the way out, Frost launches into some corking anecdotes - about the playwright Neil Simon, regarding the Nazi rocket scientist Werner von Braun - but one in particular. "To finance the first $200,000 [for the interviews], I sold my shares in London Weekend Television - I had 5%," Frost says. "When, many years later, LWT had been bought by Granada, Ray Snoddy [a media commentator] called me. He said, 'Do you realise that if you hadn't sold your shares, you would today be getting a cheque for £37m?' I said: 'Thanks a lot, Ray.' But I'd make the same decision again."
What the script has changed
The Watergate interviews are shown as the climax of the Frost/Nixon showdown. They actually occurred on days eight and nine of the 12 days of taping. The four shows were broadcast to address topics including Watergate, foreign affairs, civil unrest and his departure from office.
In the film, there is a dramatic "smoking gun" - evidence of key discrepancies relating to Nixon's conversations with Charles Colson, his chief counsel. They added to evidence of a Watergate cover-up. This information is shown being discovered by Jim Reston in the nick of time for Frost's interrogation.
"It was in our possession for eight months," Frost counters. Nor was it that crucial.
"It was helpful, but it wasn't relevant to the building climax." And as for that drunken, late-night call he is shown receiving from Nixon? "A complete piece of fiction. But brilliant, I thought."
Frost is shown picking up the wealthy socialite Caroline Cushing in the first-class cabin on the flight to America. She then accompanies him to meet Nixon and becomes a de facto member of his team. In reality, Frost had met her some time before, and she only showed up at the farewell to Nixon at San Clemente. Yet, as Frost recalls, their host was quite smitten: "He said, 'Marry that girl . . . She's a resident of Monaco. She lives tax-free.' "
Far from being adversarial, the atmosphere between the backroom teams was quite convivial. "There was the occasion when Nixon said, 'I'm paranoid, but Paranoia for Peace is no bad thing.' The next day, both groups arrived wearing buttons reading 'Paranoics for Peace'."
The movie has Nixon showing a particular fascination with Frost's trendy Italian shoes. "I was laughing in the car on the way down about the small talk, the awkwardness of it, and what Nixon chose to talk about. I said, 'Today he'll probably want to talk about my shoes.' Then we're filming and, bugger me, he said, 'Where did you get those shoes?' He actually did ask this incredibly prosaic question." Nonetheless, the footwear did not become the great totem, as suggested.