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Friday 14 March 2014, 14:51
The sun shone warmly over Westminster Abbey on the day of David Frost's celebration service. The fog had disappeared by the time the congregation walked past the photographers outside and took to their seats inside. If there is such a thing as the perfect weather to celebrate a life, this was it. Spring had most definitely arrived.
The celebration service at Westminster Abbey for Sir David Frost OBE was a noteworthy affair. Stephen Fry said as much in his tweet after the event. But, the event wasn’t special just because many stars of TV, radio and news joined together in remembering the broadcaster's life and considerable work. It was also special because here was a moment in time when the artifice that broadcasting itself often depends on in order for it work, was for an hour or so put on hold.
This came to my attention when I walked down the aisle towards my seat at the back of the Abbey. I've never been inside Westminster Abbey before and inevitably the need to look up towards the ceiling and marvel at the sight of the Choir screen had to be met. As my gaze dropped back down towards the route in front of me that was when I began to notice familiar yet unknown faces. I've never been in the vicinity of quite so many familiar yet totally unknown faces.
First Joan Bakewell, then Terry Wogan. Joanna Lumley. News people I recognise, but can't quite place. Michael Parkinson. David Owen. People I read about in broadcasting history. People who form part of a considerable broadcasting family tree. Suddenly taken out of their usual head and shoulders 16x9 context, I found myself in the middle of the biggest collection of famous faces I ever imagined I’d be amongst. And equally unexpectedly and quite reassuredly, I felt totally non-plussed about it at the same time. In that moment they weren’t ‘celebrities’, TV personalities, producers or the like. They had been normalised: they were all friends and associates of one man joining together to celebrate.
In his address former Director-General Greg Dyke pointed out how the gathering could have just as easily have been one of 'Frostie's' famous summer parties, "only, without the alcohol." (Rory Bremner provided some insight into those gatherings in a BBC News interview outside the Abbey after the event.) What was undeniable - and at times quite emotional even to an impartial observer - was the overwhelming sense of joy which emanated from the congregation. Personal reflection, collective celebration and a sharp sunny spring day is a potent combination.
I read a quote written about David Frost, by the journalist and broadcaster Michael Parkinson OBE in the order of service: "He did it all with the minimum amount of ego." A notion at odds with the scale of the event all present participated in to pay tribute to the great man. But, the quote annotates what the photographs of Frost tantalisingly hint at. There is a steely look in his eyes; a sense of mischief; and, at the same time, the promise of a steady hand on an exhilerating ride; and, without doubt, a never-ending supply of energy and enthusiasm. I imagine him as the perfect mentor. Above all, there is an irresistible warmth in those eyes.Sir David Frost OBE in 1982 The personal anecdotes of the assembled guests corrobate my view. Smiles are exchanged amongst the guests during The Bidding. Laughs ripple around the Abbey when we get to the question "Do you pray together Prime Minster?" asked of Tony Blair included in the video montage. And we all smile broadly when we see him clapping his hands together excitedly with Paul McCartney. This is a man we connect with as audience members. Still. He just ‘has it’.
And yet there’s a sudden gear shift in the clip sequence played out in the Abbey: the famous interview with insurance fraudster Savundra. A young fearless Frost, pointing his finger, standing resolute in the face of his prevaricating interviewee remains a compelling piece of television. Frost is on our side and we are behind him, but implicit in the deal we the audience have with him is a promise that we're there to defend him if it all gets out of control. There is a palpable sense of vulnerability weaved into the tightly controlled anger in that interview. And it cuts through still to this day. A piercing moment in TV history which – in the full version – is rounded off by a shout from the audience: “Well done Frosty!”
The video montage played out during the service (BBC News carries a sequence from his time presenting Breakfast with Frost) is as we the audience know the broadcaster best. But Greg Dyke's address helps remind us of the detail, contextualising Frost's early career (he had graduated from Cambridge only two years before That Was The Week That Was began in 1964) and demonstrating how the man continued to evolve as time went on. Comedian, writer, journalist and producer, later an entrepeneur creating commerical television stations. Those who find the pull of the media world are often warned off it on the basis that it is a highly competitive world. Here was a man who had achieved greatness not just in one field of the media, but across the Atlantic, on-screen and behind the cameras. Little wonder Greg Dyke described him as a legend. (See pictures from Frost's other interview encounters on the Archive at the BBC Flickr account). Lord Hall gave a reading at the celebration service for Sir David Frost - Dean & Chapter of Westminster/Picture Partnership Against this backdrop, his memorial stone – a light grey sandstone called Dunhouse Blue – sets out a special place in the Abbey for the man. Byron, Ted Hughes and CS Lewis are now joined by another titan of broadcasting (the other memorial to a broadcaster in the Abbey remembers Richard Dimbleby). The stone isn't just a mark of his remarkable achievements but emphasises the place broadcasting occupies in this country's psyche. When Frost was born the word ‘broadcasting’ was a relatively new word, 75 years later and there’s a stone memorialising one of its greatest professionals.
And it’s from here – the dedication of the memorial stone - that the service pulls us back into 'the family David' via the touching words of a poem written by his son George and a 'Sonnet of Sorts For A Star' written by Joanna Lumley and Richard Stilgoe and read by Joanna from the Sacrarium Steps. A celebratory summary of David Frost’s considerable biography written by friends for friends. It is this which confirms that the David Frost the audience knew on-camera was exactly the David Frost his friends, family and colleagues loved. One and the same man. The ultimate broadcaster.
A SONNET OF SORTS FOR A STAR
Shall I compare thee to Sir Robin Day?
Thou wert more lovely and more temperate.
Earth has not anything to show more fair,
Hello, good evening, welcome, Frosty's there.
When you considered how our weeks were spent -
Those were the weeks that were; they came, and went.
The quips, the japes, the hasty hymn to Kennedy
And now your turn, as we composer your threnody.
For many a glorious morning I have seen
David, bright-eyed, be-sofa'd on the screen,
Or Through the Keyhole, or on Concorde's wing,
Bob Hope, a Pope, a President - and Bing.
You've known them all, nor lost the common touchm
Clerics and Thatchers, Screaming like Lord Such.
Prince of all broadcasters and the friend of princes,
Loved by the young, adored by the Blue Rinses.
The world's your stage, from Norfolk Broad to tundra,
You skewered Doctor Petro and Savundra.
Colossus in your field, ahead of trends,
Most generous of hosts and best of friends.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Said Richard Nixon; then, as David planned,
Disarmed and charmed by his insistent guest
Nixon let his guard down, and confessed.
No more TV-am, no Al Jazaeera-
We end not a career, but end an era;
For now he's gone, ascended into orbit,
And 'I look up to him' (quoth Ronnie Corbett).
In Heaven, and awaiting David's call,
Is the greatest interviewee of them all:
'With Frost tonight, on Paradise TV
"Hello, God-Evening! Welcome!"'. We shall see...
Much have you travelled, with your Rose of Gold,
And left too soon, thus never growing old,
For you were young and sweet in heart and mind,
When Frost has gone, can spring be far behind?
Joanna Lumley (b 1946)
Richard Stilgoe (b 1943)
Jon Jacob is Editor, About the BBC Blog and website.