Mic Wright’s Remotely Furious: David Frost Is Dead And Peter Cook Won’t Save Leigh Francis From Drowning
“PETER never had any regrets in his life…the only regret he regularly voiced was that, at the house we all shared in Fairfield, Connecticut in 1963, he’d saved David Frost from drowning…”
– Alan Bennett in Some Interesting Facts About Peter Cook.
Peter Cook did David Frost no favours. Their rivalry was as bitter as vinegar but the potency mostly came from Cook’s side. He despised Sir David for his buddying up to the establishment and for what he perceived as Frost’s piggybacking on the talents of he and his Beyond The Fringe colleague’s work. Beyond The… made satire bite again but it was Frost who sold the concept to the commercial side of television, steering That Was The Week That Was to the centre of the nation’s heart. His story was at the heart of the best documentary on television last week, Sir David Frost: That Was The Life That Was.
After his early triumphs, Frost became a bona fide star – flying back and forth from America on Concorde and dominating both US and UK networks – but despite the gloss, the Colgate ping of his smile and his ingratiating manner there was depth to him, a river of molten steel running through it all. He got the Nixon interview when no one else could and built his own TV network to make the broadcast work when the traditional companies turned out to be too pussy to put the disgraced ex-President under the gun. Frost was an incredible interviewer, capable of setting a man trap and hiding the sharp teeth with a layer of velvet.
For anyone who loves television there was an anti-snobbiness about Frost’s work despite his time with popes and potentates, despite having interviewed every US president of his adult life time. Frost was also the brains behind Through The Keyhole, a devilishly simple and effective idea that grew up in an age before the hegemony of Heat, Hello and OK! made it easy to know not just what was inside a celebrity’s home but also their sex lives, their eating habits and practically whether they just had a bowel movement.
The resurrection of Through The Keyhole as a shambling, rambling wreck of its former self is sad and sadly inevitable. Like the movie industry that finds succour in sequels and remakes, television is running short of ideas and instinctively lunging for the past in the vain hope of rebottling the lightning. What he should really do is take a risk on new stars. Act to find the next David Frost, the next Kate Adie, the next Brian Hanrahan (“I counted them all out and I counted them all back in again…” – as the son of a Falklands veteran those are 13 words that can actually bring tears to my eyes).
Consider the man who has stepped into Frost’s shoes in the Through The Keyhole reboot – Keith Lemon aka Avid Merrion aka Leigh Francis. Francis is an incredible talent, as maddening as that may be for some people to hear. With Bo Selecta! he punched a streak of punk into the cosy world of impressionism and celebrity satire. He was profane and occasionally profound, subverting celebrity with the creepy but oddly cute Avid Merrion in the same way Paul Kaye once did with Dennis Pennis and Frost did before them with TWTWTW. The unifying quality was a distaste for forelock tugging.
But Francis has prostituted his talents in an increasingly quick descent into dross. Keith Lemon, the character he has thoroughly inhabited for the past few years, is over-used by ITV. Thrown at pretty much any project that executives can’t quite make work, the Lemon character is utterly awful. Francis can and has done better. When his agent backed the truck full of money up to his house to persuade him to take Through The Keyhole, he should have just laughed and turned back to writing a worthy successor to Bo Selecta! This tripe is – honestly – beneath him.
It is the talk of defeatists and dickheads to believe that television cannot have great stars any more. It can. We are not cursed to an endless future of vacuous auto-c*nts like Fearne Cotton, Vernon Kay and the identikit trendies who spilled out of the terminally awful T4 teen strand that infected Channel 4’s Sunday schedule like a genetically-strengthened strain of herpes for almost 15 years.
Frost’s legacy should be this: TV can be highbrow, TV can be powerful, TV can be anything you want it to be. TV does not have to be banal or bend over backwards to appeal to everyone, shuffling desperately in the direction of the lowest common denominator. We were lucky to have David Frost, we should do better to honour his complicated memory.