Breakfast with Frost

Sunday, May 29, 2005 by

12 years and 499 shows after first interviewing John Major on the BBC, David Frost spent the lion’s share of his last Sunday morning soiree at the Corporation quizzing the ex Prime Minister once again. It was a suitably grand and indulgent gesture to wrap up an equally regal and immoderate institution – except Frost busied himself conducting exactly the same interview as he was doing 12 years and 499 shows ago. To be precise, a post-mortem on the result of the 1992 General Election. Not the last election, or the one before that, oh no. Just one from an entirely previous generation. Could a handful of voters made a difference? Was Labour’s “shadow Budget” to blame? Was “John” surprised by the result? “Well, you know me David … always thought we’d win … don’t have to answer these questions anymore … ha ha ha …”

For those who have long flayed this grand Knight of Shepherd’s Bush with the charge of relying on a never-changing, ever-slurring spiel week in week out, here was the ultimate and, at such a late hour, thoroughly unnecessary proof. To the end, Sir David was doing his own show at his own speed on his own terms, the mere sight of luminaries within knee-touching distance of the man himself considered enough to set the tone of national political debate.

For everyone else, however, it was supposedly “a broadcasting first”: Major and Kinnock debating the election together “on television”, something which had never happened before. Except they weren’t together. They were 100 miles apart. They were on television, sure, but different ones. Frankly, it wasn’t really a debate either. The pair didn’t once address a question or answer to each other. The entire thing was look-over-here rather than listen-to-this television: precisely the opposite of the kind with which Frost launched his career, but upon which he’s built his reputation ever since.

Which of course was the whole point, and why it was such a fitting farewell. Breakfast With Frost was born out of expediency: not that of the BBC, but of David himself, naturally, when he found himself out of a job at TV-am, needed a regular slot on British television, and simply shipped his entire Sunday operation over to Television Centre. It was an anachronism from the start: a 1950s colonial-drinks-lounge talking shop of a show supposedly at the spearhead of a 1990s streamlined mission-to-explain Birtist BBC. It did change over time, but only to become more cumbersome, fussy, peculiar. The last few years it’s been downright bizarre, with astonishingly high-profile international figures interrogated in the most mundane, pedestrian fashion, and David’s ludicrous idiosyncrasies and fancies given as much exposure as demonstrably serious issues and events. Heaven knows how it’s survived so long, which perhaps is also the point. David’s palpably celestial influence moves in mysterious ways.

For evidence of that you needed to look no further than the special studio audience that had willingly flocked to TV Centre to witness this farewell tour of duty. These “friends of the programme” included Anne Widdicombe, Esther Rantzen and Peter Sissons (fair enough), but also, curiously, Paul Gambaccini. Maybe Gambo was going to reel off some amazing facts about the number of foreign palaces David had visited in the course of the show’s history. Ronnie Corbett had a front row seat. Perhaps he was going to contribute a special monologue about David’s tenure at the country’s breakfast table (“I said to the producer before we began, he’s the one over there in the red dress … “). Neither turned out to be true. The audience simply sat, applauding everything and everyone – including the weather forecast – and tittering at David’s haphazard funnies as if he were still doing That Was The Week That Was.

The entire running order of the programme seemed completely perverse as well. After the opening news summary, rather than lead with that flagship “broadcasting first”, David cued in the usual sprawling paper review, blessed with the presence of Nigella Lawson, Gyles Brandreth and Carol Vorderman. Any momentum or energy that might have been present after the news was therefore sucked clean dry from proceedings, and once more it felt like we were back in the days of Harold Macmillan.

Items for review were highlighted on the page of the newspaper in a box drawn by a red pen. David read out a joke from one of the broadsheets which he considered to be “not a bad bit of satire”. Carol had found an item about interior decorating at 10 Downing Street. Gyles plumped for a bawdy piece about Bournemouth. David did the thing he had done every Sunday, which was to point out a giveaway in one of the papers, in this instance the Sunday Telegraph’s offer of free tickets to an England test match. He ended by asking the guests to pick names out of a box poorly wrapped in shiny paper to determine which lucky viewers were going to win parts of the Breakfast With Frost set (not the whole thing, mind, just a few cushions). “This is fantastic television,” hammed Gyles.

It was, but for all the wrong reasons. Any kind of TV programme like this – antiquated, creepy, wizened – can make for entertaining viewing, but only the once. As a weekly effort it’s always been a ludicrous proposition. There’s long been no point in the programme even existing; it’s lunchtime, after all, which has remained the focus for political TV on Sundays, and to pretend otherwise diminished the significance of both timeslots. The fact Breakfast With Frost, during its lifetime, slipped further and further back in the schedules just made this all the more obvious. When the show was at 8am, there was just about enough of a gap between it and its lunchtime cousin for neither to tread on each other’s toes. But when David started having lie-ins, and the programme slid to 8.15, then to 8.30, then to 9, then – most absurdly of all – to 9.30, it wasn’t just its title which deserved to be called into question.

Yet the programme survived, a process that just went on adding to the weight of its bemusing legacy. A parade of clips bore witness to its tragicomic ambition. One piece of footage had David interviewing somebody simply captioned as being in “SPACE”, while another saw him botching an interview with Bill Clinton by stumbling, unbelievably, over the most important and most simple question of all: “Did you l-luve, love her?” These were moments, David intoned, that “made us laugh or cry”, yet it was hard to think of a time when Breakfast With Frost could have justifiably made anybody weep. It was always a very soulless, emotionless affair. Even the set was made to look as drab as possible, the endless bookcases implying we were present at a seat of learning and had to maintain a reverential hush at all times.

This air of the assembly hall persisted right to the very end. Like ships passing in the night, when David referred to the fact he was being temporarily replaced by Peter Sissons the camera was forbidden to cut to the audience where we knew Peter was waiting. We didn’t get to see any gaffes or cock-ups from the archives (David’s glasses breaking, David’s nose bleeding) presumably because this also would’ve have been too disrespectful. Moira Stuart joined the sofa to praise David for doing “a masterclass every week”. Desmond Tutu, “a regular guest”, offered his pre-recorded “heartiest congratulations.” “And how are you?” David asked, as if an afterthought.

The end was unforgettable. While the opera singer Willard White performed a song about shining lights, David sat with his mouth sagging and agape, seemingly unaware of how his bottom lip was flapping helplessly down towards his neck in the most undignified fashion imaginable. The camera lingered on this compelling image as if unable to draw itself away. Still David’s mouth refused to close. His jaw lolled. It was an excruciating few seconds. This was the man, for heaven’s sake, who had interviewed Prime Ministers! Presidents! Who’d spent 12 years trying to find out why the Tories won the 1992 Election!

Finally we cut away, the credits ran and it was all over. The continuity announcer had told us this was “the end of an era”. Whichever era it was, it was certainly the wrong one. Mark Thompson had been in the audience, possibly the first time he’d found himself in a position to watch the entire show from start to finish. You couldn’t help wishing he’d organised his diary a bit better.


Comments are closed.