Sunday, September 1, 2013

Seriously, he did a grand job

I was shocked to read about the death of Sir David Frost in, of all places, the Karachi-based newspaper Dawn. The bustling cafes and cake shops of Marine Drive seemed almost surreal surroundings to project my mind back half a century to wintery nights in England’s West Country, huddled round the black-and-white television set, waiting in breathless anticipation for the next edition of That Was The Week That Was.

What would they get up to  next?

Because that was my only real memory of David Frost. By the time he went on to other things such as the famous Watergate interview with President Richard Nixon, I had left the United Kingdom and somehow he became more remote; the immediacy of the low budget live TW3, as we all called it then, lost.

While Frost certainly became a global media superstar, I would still credit TW3 as his greatest achievement. The show broke the BBC tradition of being differential, even servile, to senior political figures.

At one point the Postmaster General of the day, Reginald Bevins, whose office had control of television licences, threatened to force the BBC to take it off the air. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan overruled him only for TW3 to savage Macmillan during the Profumo sex scandal. And it was not only British politicians who felt the satirical bite. Complaints poured in from organisations as diverse as the Boy Scout Association and the Government of Cyprus.

But Frost and TW3 knew when satire was not appropriate. Going to air just 24 hours after the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963, a shortened 20-minute edition made a moving tribute to the American President which was later incorporated into the Congressional record of his death.

Of course, TW3 was not just Frost. In Bernard Levin he had one of the most brutal face-to-face interviewers of the day, Millicent Martin, the gritty comedienne whose voice was always heard first when she sang: ‘That was the week that was, it’s over, let it go…’Frankie Howard whose conversion from earlier slapstick comedy was a revelation, and William Rushton, who at the same time was founding the satirical magazine Private Eye. The show was also backed by a galaxy of accomplished scriptwriters, ranging from John Betjeman to John Cleese.

Even so, it was Frost for which the show is best remembered. The man who said the most outrageous things with the same concerned, earnest look; it was Frost who was able to draw an audience of 12 million on Saturday nights previously reserved for pubbing and clubbing.  

As he used to say after a skit destroying anyone from a politician to an archbishop: “But seriously, he’s doing a grand job”.

Job over. Thanks Sir David.