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David Frost on Interviewing

Aired May 12, 2006 - 19:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney, in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
He's a television legend, arguably, the king of broadcast news and entertainment. So David Frost's career is nothing short of remarkable.

He's interviewed six British prime ministers, seven U.S. presidents, as well as the Beatles, Muhammad Ali, Orson Welles, Prince Charles, and many, many more famous people.

Well, David has graced our TV screens for more than 40 years and he joins me now to discuss his life and work.

Where to begin, Sir David? What do you think when you look back over the last 40 years?

SIR DAVID FROST, BROADCASTER: Well, I come back, really, to having been very fortunate to have -- I mean, obviously, we all have to have luck and then we have to seize our opportunities. But if you don't have the luck, you probably never get the opportunities to seize, as it were, you know.

So I was very lucky to begin with "That Was the Week that Was," a weekly satirical show which I co-created with Ned Sherrin, and that was an amazing way to begin, because it just took off immediately.

The British people, back in 1962, were desperate for demolition jobs to be done on their leaders and so on. We all were. The young were all desperate for that and we did it and we'd have watched it if we hadn't done it, but we did it and that had a tremendous impact and it liberated producers in the years that followed to do much more daring things.

SWEENEY: When you look at the leaders you've interviewed over the last number of years, have leaders changed, in your mind, in terms of their presentation?

FROST: Well, that's very interesting. I mean, I think that one change is, of course, the change in one's self. I mean, one tended to look at leaders with more respect when you were 30 years younger than them. Not on "That Was the Week" where we did that, but in general, you know.

People say today, "Well, leaders are not as good as they were," but that's probably because they're, by now, the same age as those leaders or older than those leaders and so there isn't that natural 20 year gap of reverence or whatever, as well.

So that I think people today tend to that. However, analyzing it, I don't think the leaders today are that bad. Tony Blair is in great difficulties at the moment, but he's a very brilliant man. And around the world, there are still those leaders.

I don't think that the leaders have totally fallen off the perch, as it were. I think there are still bright leaders in the world today and I think, of course, the thing is that with television's immediacy, then new opinions of people get round that much quicker, you know.

In America, for instance, it's different between -- America, always, there was the ability, if you could use the big and the great phrases, you'd get support and, at the same time, self- deprecating remarks always work in America.

I mean, politicians who can make fun of themselves, I remember, President George Bush the first and when he came back from Japan, when, you remember, he...

SWEENEY: Had been ill.

FROST: ... had actually vomited over the prime minister, Mr. Miyazawa or something like that.

And then when he did his State of the Union message, oh, about ten days later, he was speaking and there had been other people saying "is he really ill" and so on and he just stood up and he said, "Well, I think both the Senate and the vice president, after what I did in Japan, they're delighted they're sitting behind me," you know, and that sort of thing.

And then he said to me, at the presidential library opening of his, he said, "Actually, Miyazawa," or whatever, "I actually invited him to this," he said. And I said to him, "This time, dinner is on me."

Good humor, but self-deprecating humor always works. British politicians don't use it as much.

SWEENEY: Well, I wanted to ask you, you did an interview with Tony Blair, I think it was just coming up to the last election, in which you asked him a couple of times about whether or not somebody in his position can tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

And what is your opinion of world leaders today compared to maybe the '60s and '70s when you were starting out?

FROST: Well, Senator Eugene McCarthy of the state said, on one occasion when I was talking to him, that a politician can tell all the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth, i.e., that a politician can avoid lying, but he often can't reveal the whole picture.

I think that's true and I think, obviously, if somebody gets involved in a coverup, that's always dangerous, if they've been corrupting the truth in any way.

SWEENEY: Let me ask you, you've done a lot of interviews, obviously, with a very heavy news orientation. You've also done a lot of entertainment interviews.

There's always this maxim in the news business that if you do entertainment or too much of it, somehow your credibility is damaged.

How do you manage to maintain your credibility?

FROST: Well, I think the key thing is that doing from the humorous to the lighthearted to the more serious and so on, that is a fantastic plus to have that versatility or that ability to do the various things.

The only price you pay is you do have to explain yourself more often. Do you know what I mean? You know, you have to just sometimes explain where you're moving to now and so on.

But as long as you go -- you know, obviously, if you interview Saddam Hussein, you do it differently than Julie Andrews.

SWEENEY: What makes for a good interview?

FROST: First of all, doing your homework. I'm sure you know the answer to this question, as well as asking the question, I'm sure, because doing your homework is the first thing.

The second thing, which is incredibly obvious, is to listen. Now, that sounds crazy, but I know when I first went to America to do the talk show, people reviewed me and said, "He really listens."

Well, of course, you listen, because that's the fun of it, hearing what the person is going to say and following up. That's good fun. But in America, at that time, there were lots of talk show hosts who had a lot of prepared material that they were more concerned to get to than just doing the questioning and so on.

So that is vital, listening, as I'm sure you know and as you've just been demonstrating.

And then the third thing is just striking up some relationship with the guest, particularly in a longer interviewer and so on. Now, that relationship may not be mutual respect. It may be mutual awareness or whatever. But the more that there's eye contact with the person you're talking to, the more that -- there's a physical thing, too, sometimes.

I remember when I was going to interview Richard Nixon on Watergate and we got six hours to do it and John Byrd, who co-produced the show with me, said, on the way down to do the Watergate interview, said, "Now, remember, you've got to do that physical thing you sometimes do."

Now, he couldn't explain it really and nor can I, but there was something about the fact that -- there's something about the fact that, you know, if it's really vital, you've got a limited amount of time and you've got to get through the material and so on, then do probably, maybe you move forward like this in some way, but to just establish a bit of extra control on the tempo of the interview.

And if you relax the person, I mean, that's the other thing. Perhaps that's point number four. But if you relax the person, then you get the individual -- I mean, and then, oddly enough, Richard Nixon was the reverse of that, because Richard Nixon had no small talk. And so, therefore, he was very tense and monosyllabic before the interview, in the green room, as it were.

But once he got absorbed in the conversation, he was absolutely fine and absorbed, whereas with most people, they would be relaxed in the green room and then might need relaxing when they get on the set.

SWEENEY: And after that interview with Richard Nixon, had he relaxed at all after the interview?

FROST: No, I mean, he didn't. I mean, small talk with Richard Nixon was always, always very difficult. I mean, he was, in a way, the most relaxed, and never completely relaxed.

The only time I ever saw him relaxed was for 15 minutes when I went to take my leave of him. We had edited the programs. The first two were going out. He hadn't seen the edits until they went out on the air and so on.

And just when I went there with my girlfriend to say goodbye, there was about 15 minutes when there was a jealousy in the air that I had never seen with Richard Nixon, either during the interviews or before. Suddenly, he said, "Manono (ph)," the famous Manono (ph), "Manono (ph), get us the caviar the shire sent us for Christmas," and he got that and he relaxed and he took Caroline, my then girlfriend, around the house and said, "Brezhnev slept in there. He was a great swordsman." You know, so quite relaxed, just for about 10 or -- no, 20 minutes, probably, there was a relaxed Richard Nixon that I had never seen before and few people have ever seen.

And then the sort of shadows came down again and he was back to being the person who didn't really communicate with people one-on-one at all.

SWEENEY: It makes one wonder how much media coaching can help or hinder or how much it's changed over the years.

Have you seen its presence more in the latter years?

FROST: Well, I think that it's a continuing chess battle, isn't it, with politicians, when you think of a new way of approaching the subjects and then they work out how to deal with that, with the aid of their spin doctors, and then you're going to move on and find a new angle to approach them on that they haven't had before and so on, stage by stage, and to find the question that will just trigger their mind.

I remember with Margaret Thatcher, talking about her memoirs, for instance, "The Downing Street Years," and I said to her, at one point, again, trying to find the question that was new and fresh, and I said, "What would you say is the most self-critical thing in this book?" Well, there wasn't much that was self-critical in the book, so the answer was fun, you know, seeing what she would say and so on.

But, I mean, you've got to keep finding the new way to go on.

SWEENEY: So, David, we'll leave it there for the moment, but we will be back after this short break. Stay tuned to INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS.


SWEENEY: Welcome back to INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. I'm talking to Sir David Frost.

So, David, compared to when you started, at the beginning, was there ever a point in your career where you suddenly went, "I've got it. I'm able to do these interviews. Nothing much phases me these days."

FROST: Well, I don't get nervous, I never have. I don't know why, because there are -- I mean, I remember being in Australia on a program hosted by Margaret Whitlam, the wife of the then prime minister, and Leonard Bernstein was on the program.

And for some reason, Margaret said to him, "When are you going to retire?" And he said, "I shall retire the moment that, before a performance, I cease to feel the pain up and down my spine. I shall retire the moment I cease to feel sickness in the pit of my stomach."

And I said, "That's funny. I shall retire the moment I start to feel any of those things." You know, so I love being comfortable before an interview, but great artists often only figure they can do their best, you know, when they're absolutely knackered before a performance.

SWEENEY: Different strokes for different folks.

Have you ever walked away from an interview or finished an interview where you've gone, "I wish I'd asked that" or "I've missed that on the kernel of what I really wanted from this?"

FROST: Well, actually, one classic example of that was the Nixon interviews, because we researched cleverly, we worked for a year, and between the 12 taping days, we examined what -- and we finished and we covered everything, every question, in the 28 and three-quarter hours, we had wanted to ask.

And afterwards, when we had finished, we suddenly remembered that we had not asked him, "Who was deep throat." We had absolutely, 28 and three- quarter hours, and we just left that out.

Now, on the other hand, we realized we hadn't lost much, because he had no idea who "deep throat" was. Today we know, but back then, he had no idea who was "deep throat." So we didn't lose a lot.

Other people said it was Al Haig. I did an interview with Al Haig. I mean, this was at a time when quarantine for people suffering from HIV, quarantine was a big issue on the Republican right, you know.

And I said to him, you know, "Do you believe in quarantine for HIV sufferers?" And Al Haig said, "No, no, I don't, but I do believe in a measure of prophylactic segregation." And I said, "What's the difference between quarantine and prophylactic segregation?" He said, "Nothing, really. It just sounds better." A touching, honest answer.

He also, in that interview, Nixon pioneered instead of saying "now," saying "at this moment in time," which just meant "now." And at one point, Haig said, "At this juncture of maturation," wonderful bit of gobbledygook.

SWEENEY: But these were their own gobbledygook.

FROST: Oh, yes.

SWEENEY: It wasn't stage managed for them.


SWEENEY: I mean, just coming back to the point we were touching on earlier. How much do you think people are stage managed now and coached in what to say and how to say it?

FROST: Yes. Well, I think there have always been spin doctors, but they didn't get as much coverage and they weren't called spin doctors, which is such a good, memorable title.

But, I mean, if we go back to the early days of Margaret Thatcher, with Sir Bernard Ingham, well, then Bernard Ingham, her press secretary, I mean, he was a spin doctor. He doesn't like it now when people say he was a spin doctor, because he thinks he came from a purer, cleaner age, probably, and from a great sense of humor and so on.

But, I mean, I think there were always spin doctors. I don't think they're a terrible evil, particularly, spin doctors, as long as the interviewer is asking testing questions and so on, you know. And, obviously, you don't want a spin doctor who goes over everything that a candidate should say, because that candidate will be less good.

I mean, that is the other thing that -- here's an absolute rule of television, I think, which is that whenever a politician seeks to be someone else in an interview to what they really are, they are invariably worse.

SWEENEY: And have you seen that happen?

FROST: Yes. People who lose their sense of humor in an interview, who say things they think that they -- just like they used to lose the glass of wine, because they shouldn't be photographed with a glass of wine.


FROST: In a different way. But people who think that they shouldn't be humorous, people who just, you know, are trying to get a false dignity and so those things never work, never work.

SWEENEY: Some people that you've interviewed recently, and I want to touch on this subject again, you know, in relation to the war in Iraq. George W. Bush, Tony Blair, are they men that you consider themselves to be themselves in an interview?

FROST: Yes, I think so, yes. I mean, George W. Bush is much better in an interview than you would expect. I mean, for instance, in the interview, we did -- I mean, people were saying, you know, exaggerated criticism of George Bush and were saying, "Oh, well, you know, he just better spout what he's been told to say" and all that, which was not true at all.

And at one point, for instance, I said, a question he could never have anticipated, because I hadn't either, and I said, "A lot of people say that you feel so strongly about the war on terror that you'd rather lose to a Democrat than to the terrorists." And he said, quickly, "Well, I'd rather not lose to either."

Now, that was very quick. I mean, it's not William Shakespeare, indeed, but it was a very quick, ad libbed reply that he was perfectly capable of authoring on the spot himself.

Tony Blair is, of course, a very, very articulate speaker and arguer and he's capable of making decisions on the air.

I mean, there was one occasion in an interview with me where he suddenly vowed that he was going to lift the spending on health in the NHS in this country to the level in Europe, which meant a huge increase, and that's not what Gordon Brown had expected, and, apparently, Gordon Brown reportedly said to him, "You've just stolen by budget."

SWEENEY: My thunder. Speaking of those interviews you did with George W. Bush and Tony Blair on Iraq, as we survey the world now, it looks as though Iran is very much at the top of the international community's agenda.

What is your take on the world at the moment, your world view?

FROST: Well, I think, I mean, we're talking of a really large country. I mean, I remember when I was in Iran doing a series on the crossroads of civilization, about the Iranian plateau, and interviewing the then shah, that there were 42 million Iranians and now I think there's 73. So there's a massive population now.

SWEENEY: And a huge population that's...

FROST: And young.

SWEENEY: ... actually very young age, under 25.

FROST: Yes, very, very young. And, obviously, the size of Iran is such that while we hope that there will be no war or whatever and we could be, I think, pretty sure there'll be no invasion of Iran, because, I mean, our troops and America's troops are sufficiently stretched as it is.

So that it comes down to a bombing alternative and, hopefully, that won't be necessary, but I think one can certainly be pretty confident there won't be an invasion.

SWEENEY: Getting back to you, is there anybody you haven't interviewed that you'd like to?

FROST: Well, actually, General Danobe (ph) promised to give me an interview on the third morning when he rose again, but he never turned up, not a sight of him.

And I haven't interviewed, and I guess I never will, Ariel Sharon, but he's an interesting figure.

SWEENEY: Had you tried to interview him?

FROST: Yes. We were getting quite close, before he had his stroke. And then there are ones like Fidel Castro, I look forward to doing an interview with Fidel Castro. I've tried on and off for about 30 years. He's one who's proved quite illusive, but I would like to interview Fidel Castro.

SWEENEY: You left the BBC now after an illustrious career and you're about to go to "al Jazeera," which has yet to launch and looks as though it's going to miss its self-imposed deadline again and launch later in the year.

Why is it missing its launch date, do you think?

FROST: That's what I'm going to be doing, a weekly showing and doing an interview show and so on. And I haven't left the BBC in the sense I've just finished a series (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and I do specials for the BBC, as well. So I believe in always presenting a moving target.

But it's the builders, it's the builders. I mean, I think the opening will be slightly delayed until mid-summer or whatever. But the problem is that they're building four broadcast centers, apart from Doha, London, Washington, and Kuala Lumpur. And everyone knows who's had building done on their house or anything, the builders don't always deliver on time. So that's the reason for the slight delay.

And, of course, the other thing, as with a house, of course, is when one builder is two- thirds of the way through, you can't throw him out and get someone else in, because you have to start all over again.

So that's the deadline problem.

SWEENEY: David Frost, thank you very much, indeed, for taking the time out.

FROST: Fionnuala, I loved it. I loved it.

SWEENEY: Thank you.

And that is all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS.

Tune in again next time for another look at how the media are handling the big issues.

I'm Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us.



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