x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Living legend Sir David Frost talks to us in Dubai

Sir David Frost is in Dubai to be recognised for his impressive career and charity work.

Sir David Frost at Dubai’s Armani Hotel. The broadcaster says he has been impressed by the people he has interviewed in the region. Jaime Puebla / The National
Sir David Frost at Dubai’s Armani Hotel. The broadcaster says he has been impressed by the people he has interviewed in the region. Jaime Puebla / The National

"I don't think one should ever use the word 'legend' about oneself," says Sir David Frost, during a flying visit to the UAE. "Legend is the ultimate, really, in terms of human measurement - it's about as good as it gets."

Taking up the mantle from the Oscar-winner Colin Firth who received the accolade last year, Frost was formally recognised as the 2011 Chivas Regal Legend on Tuesday night at an exclusive dinner held at Dubai's Armani Hotel. More than 200 guests gathered to salute the 72-year-old veteran broadcaster's five-decade-long career and notable charity work.

"It's a great compliment, I'm very grateful and delighted to be here," he says. "And although I've changed planes or stopped en passant on my way to Australia at Dubai Airport, this is the first time I've actually been in the country, which is exciting for me. I think the size and height of the buildings here are spectacular, tremendously impressive, indeed."

Born and raised in England, Frost first cut his journalistic teeth at Cambridge University as the editor of the student newspaper Varsity. It was during that time he also became the secretary of the famous Footlights drama society, with the members Peter Cook and John Bird.

After graduating with a degree in English, a career in television beckoned and Frost became the face of the British satirical programme That Was the Week that Was in the 1960s. The hugely popular format was modified for American television and the budding presenter's career went transatlantic in 1964.

In the decades that followed, Frost flitted effortlessly between hosting entertainment shows such as Through the Keyhole to anchoring current affairs programmes such as Frost Over America and, most recently, Frost Over the World on Al Jazeera English.

He will, however, be best remembered for his unrivalled back catalogue of political interviews, which saw him the only journalist to grill eight British prime ministers serving between 1964 and 2010, in addition to the seven serving US presidents in office between 1969 and 2008.

"The most challenging, I suppose, because of the scale of it and with so much at stake, would be the Nixon interviews," he says. "Because they had such an enormous impact and everyone predicted it would be impossible to get Nixon to say anything indicating his guilt [regarding the Watergate scandal] and it wasn't impossible, which was great."

Frost's series of interviews with the former president were taped and broadcast in four instalments in 1977. Ratings for the first episode reached 45 million, which remains the largest television audience for a political interview today. The shows were the inspiration for Peter Morgan's 2006 West End and Broadway play Frost/Nixon starring Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon. Two years later the actors reprised their roles in Ron Howard's film adaptation, which was nominated for five Golden Globes and five Academy Awards.

"Another [challenging] interview was General [Norman] Schwarzkopf, after the Gulf War [1990-1]," he says. "To find out many years later that this forceful leader was genuinely anti-war was extraordinary. To see a man of war emerging in an interview as a man of peace was really fascinating."

Politics aside, Frost recalls how his bachelor days forging a career as a chat-show host in New York proved to be the perfect way to make new friends.

"The one occasion that stands out was when I fell in love on television and so did the lady in question," he says, smiling "I was interviewing Diahann Carroll, the marvellous singer and actress [in the early 1970s] and we really fell in love on TV. It was a terrific experience and I believe it was Joyce Haber [the Hollywood gossip columnist] from the LA Times who said: 'There's never been such electricity between two people since A Man and a Woman [a 1966 French film].' So that was a memorable exchange."

Though the two were engaged, they never wed and in 1983, Frost went on to marry and have three sons with Lady Carina Fitzalan-Howard. The couple's enviable little black book, bulging with royal friends, celebrities, artists and politicians, has long been put to good use at their annual summer party held in the grounds of their multimillion-pound Chelsea town home.

With no thoughts of slowing down, Frost continues to globe-trot, albeit to a lesser degree than he did at the peak of his career, when he became Concorde's most frequent flyer, travelling between London and New York around 20 times per year for two decades.

He still has broadcast ambitions to fulfil and intends to sit down with more global leaders and key decision-makers before he unclips his microphone for good.

"There are always interviews one would want to do throughout the Middle East," he says. "I've been very impressed by the people through the years who I have interviewed in the region and, incidentally, the quality of English is amazing compared with our [English people's] quality at speaking other people's languages. It is really a great tribute, a great gesture.

"And I did meet Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum on one occasion," Frost adds. "I only go racing one day a year - that's to Ascot - and that's where we had a very delightful conversation."

 

rduane@thenational.ae