The lost Frost reports

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Sorting through a much-loved parent’s belongings after their death is bittersweet, to say the least. For all the wonderful memories that are ignited like flares in the darkness, there are the attendant stabs of loss.

As Wilfred Frost puts it, in the early days, ‘anything you come across makes you cry’. 

So imagine the Herculean task when the parent in question was not only a hoarder but legendary broadcaster Sir David Frost, who died of a heart attack in 2013 aged 74.

‘Dad never liked to let things go,’ says Wilfred, 35. ‘He had storage depots in London, New Jersey and two in Los Angeles. And so after his death I started to sift through it all.

The unaired behind-the-scenes footage will contain Sir David Frost's interviews with the former US president Richard Nixon

The unaired behind-the-scenes footage will contain Sir David Frost’s interviews with the former US president Richard Nixon 

‘There was a huge amount of junk — piles of press clippings and files, some garish Sixties furniture covered in dust . . .’

Then there were the tapes. Hundreds of two-inch reels in large canisters that contained priceless footage of Sir David interviewing towering political figures through the ages.

Most were so old and damaged they were unwatchable, literally, but they would trigger an incredible labour of love. 

Over the following seven years — during which he also tragically lost his eldest brother Miles at the age of 31, to an undiagnosed heart condition, and his mother Carina battled advanced melanoma —Wilfred painstakingly collated and restored his father’s historic recordings.

He explains: ‘They had to be taken to a special lab and treated, baked in an oven and digitally restored to be able to be viewed again. It’s been fairly exhausting and, at times, emotionally draining but incredibly rewarding.’

Then he adds, poignantly: ‘Essentially in the last few years I’ve spent hundreds of hours with my dad again.’

The result is a new podcast series, The Frost Tapes, featuring interviews with the most ‘compelling, controversial and confounding individuals’ of the Sixties and Seventies — a time of political polarisation that has many parallels today.

There’s unaired behind-the-scenes footage from Frost’s famous 28 hours of interviews with former U.S. president Richard Nixon, passages from Senator Bobby Kennedy’s last open, long-form interview just weeks before his assassination and selections from an intimate three-hour conversation with then-Senator Joe Biden during his first presidential campaign in 1987.

The series is hosted by Wilfred, who ended up following in his father’s footsteps and now lives and works in New York as a news anchor for CNBC. It’s both a tribute and an education for him.

Sir David with wife Lady Carina Frost and their sons Miles, Wilfred and George outside their home in Chelsea, London

Sir David with wife Lady Carina Frost and their sons Miles, Wilfred and George outside their home in Chelsea, London

‘Dad never saw me do anything that was actually broadcast, which is a regret,’ he says. ‘The other regret, which is probably bigger and in a weird way this project is a way to rectify it, but I never even asked him, ‘How do you do an interview?’ Or ‘What’s the key thing?’ When your dad’s the greatest interviewer in the world, it’s a shame.

‘I think it was because I thought I’ve got to do this for myself and partly because I thought I had all the time in the world with my dad …’

There’s no doubt Wilfred has been shaken by more than his fair share of tragedies in the past decade.

‘We lost the best possible dad and the best possible older brother,’ says Wilfred. ‘There’s no competition between which was worse but I think you probably subconsciously expect to lose your dad at some point. You don’t expect to lose your brother. But both were utterly brutal.

‘My mum, younger brother George and I have always said that the grief is the price you pay for love. It doesn’t help in the short term but if you can focus on that down the line . . . there’s so much pain because there was so much love that preceded it.

‘I still have one of the two best parents in the world and I still have one of the two best brothers in the world. And in that sense, I’m very lucky . . .’

His voice trails off as emotion engulfs him for a moment, his eyes suddenly glassy. Composing himself, he says: ‘Gosh, I haven’t got emotional for a long time . . . I’m genuinely, really surprised. I’m usually quite good . . . There’s probably been a lot building up about doing this project.’

He says the really difficult part is not so much watching hour after hour of his late father’s work (the most upsetting clips were of David as interviewee proudly talking of his family) but ‘it was sort of a pressure, I felt, from wanting to do Dad’s legacy justice.’

He reels off his father’s achievements: he interviewed eight sitting British prime ministers, seven consecutive U.S. presidents, world leaders from Nelson Mandela to Vladimir Putin, as well as thousands of celebrities.

He recorded well over 10,000 interviews — the most famous of which was in 1977, when he coaxed an apology from President Nixon three years after the Watergate scandal. 

It achieved the highest audience for a political interview and was later immortalised in the 2008 Hollywood movie Frost/Nixon. (‘By the way,’ he adds, ‘I’ve newfound respect for Michael Sheen’s voice for Dad in the movie; we used to think it was a bit nasal, for Dad in that period, I now realise it was pretty spot on’)

Wilfred is well aware some consider it bold — foolish even — to attempt to emulate his father’s career. ‘Some people say you can never be as good as him. But I say to that: ‘Well, absolutely. Of course I can’t.’

In fact it’s his father’s achievements that propel him on — as well as a keen awareness of life’s brevity.

After reading PPE at Oxford, he went into finance before realising he wanted to try television. ‘I did get to tell Dad: I remember showing him a couple of clips of some of the stuff I was working on and his face lit up.

I think he was definitely over the moon that I was trying it. That’s obviously a very important memory for me.’

Wilfred acknowledges that having grown up surrounded by the great and the good may have helped him feel at ease interviewing everyone from Boris Johnson to Usain Bolt; it’s no big deal.

‘Well don’t tell them it’s no big deal,’ he jokes. ‘I’m really not exaggerating when I say when Margaret Thatcher came for Sunday lunch it was not dissimilar for a five-year-old to when my aunt came for lunch. Yes, sure, Thatcher arrived by helicopter but Dad didn’t make it feel odd.’

There are other reports of growing up playing football with Princes William and Harry (Diana was a close friend of his mother’s and his younger brother George’s godmother) and having prime ministers and presidents to stay.

‘These people were such genuine and affectionate friends that it was normal,’ he says. ‘I remember saying after Dad died that obviously we’ve been given extraordinary opportunity in life. 

We had wonderful homes and holidays and an amazing education but honestly, none of that is anywhere near as important as the ultimate gift our parents gave us — immense love and support in the sense of family.

‘And that’s why it was so painful when we went from such a strong unit of five to three in a couple of years.’

The Frosts married in 1983 and went on to have their three sons in quick succession: Miles in June 1984, Wilfred in August 1985 and George in April 1987. 

Following David’s fatal heart attack on board the Queen Elizabeth cruise liner, where he was to give a speech, the brothers pulled together more than ever.

‘My brothers and I were such a trio. We had this brothers’ WhatsApp group. You’d never text just one — even if I was on holiday and they were meeting in the pub in London, that conversation would still be done via the group, so you were always aware of everything that was going on.

‘It’s such a stupid example really but I remember having to delete the brothers WhatsApp group and just being like, ‘Oh! There’s no longer that three-way conversation . . .’

Wistfully he recalls the time after their dad’s death when the three brothers moved into the Kensington offices of Paradine Productions, the television production company their father had founded in 1966.

‘I was leaving the financial sector at the time and I hadn’t quite got my role at CNBC. Miles had started his own investment business and George had started his own rum company and the Paradine lease still had about 18 months on it. Thank God it didn’t have longer because it was expensive.

‘Miles, George and I moved in and had an office each. For our adult life our workplaces were miles apart so it was like being kids again and we joked around a lot. Miles was on a health drive at that point. George and I used to buy chocolate and snacks and put them on his desk to make him crack.’

The trio had loved visiting the office as children: ‘It was just cool, stuff everywhere from Emmys to Baftas to photos with anyone and everyone… Elton, the Beatles etc.’

They began sorting their father’s belongings together. Then came the sledgehammer blow of Miles’s death in July 2015. 

It was George who found his brother collapsed on the driveway of their Oxfordshire home, having been for a run. Wilf was flying back from Stockholm and his mother and George met him at Heathrow airport to break the news: ‘It’s still completely brutal when you pause to think about it.’

It was made all the harder by the discovery that Miles had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a genetic condition in which the muscular wall of the heart becomes thickened and stiff. 

This can cause sudden cardiac arrest in some with the condition, even if they have shown no symptoms, and affects 1 in 500 of the UK population (about 120,000 people).

The family later found that the post-mortem report on Sir David had found he had the condition. It wasn’t the cause of his death and wasn’t flagged up by doctors. ‘When we understood that Dad had it and therefore Miles’s [death] could have been prevented, that was the lowest of the low.’

Wilfred and George were subsequently tested and found not to have the condition.

They set up the Miles Frost Fund in partnership with the British Heart Foundation and raised £1.5 million to make genetic testing available nationwide.

Wilfred’s current project is another way to honour those he loved and lost: ‘Of course the main focus is on the guests and the answers Dad elicited from them but if, as a by-product, people are reminded or introduced to what an extraordinary man my dad was then that would be a lovely conclusion, too.’

A second series of David’s interviews with entertainers is on the cards and after that perhaps television: ‘I was joking with George that what you miss out on with podcasts is the extraordinary shirt, tie and suit combos that Dad rocked back in those days. My personal favourite is, brown on brown on brown. Unbelievable!’

For years he doggedly archived the recordings, waiting for the right time to release them. He feels 2020 is that time. 

It’s a year that started on a high note, personally, when his mother was given the all-clear from cancer. 

‘Mum has literally had the most unbelievable run of things. She is now a fully recovered alcoholic of 12 years. I think that’s perhaps even more impressive than getting over what followed — losing her husband and then two years later her son.

‘Two years after that, she learned she had advanced melanoma in her back, liver and lung — it would have been a case of ‘You’ve got six to 12 months and you can try chemo which might or might not work’ had it not been for the immunotherapy drugs she took.

‘She’s been crucial to George and me. Without her strength, we would have struggled.

‘But I haven’t been back to the UK all year because of the rules and I miss her terribly.’

What brings Carina great joy is the fact her sons are both now in happy, settled relationships.

Wilfred met his girlfriend Kaley, 35, who works in fashion as a strategic account manager, two years ago: ‘She’s from Colorado and we met through a friend. She’s very, very special.’

George, now 33, got engaged to TV magician Katherine Mills in the summer.

‘What’s made Mum happier in the last couple of years, more than George and I have been able to do, is Katherine and Kaley. She adores both of them.’

As Covid has cancelled any chance of a launch party for his podcast, Wilfred plans a Zoom call with his mum, brother, Kaley and Katherine: ‘We’ll all get to raise a glass to Dad and remember how wonderful he was.’

The Frost Tapes is an iHeartRadio original podcast.

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