‘Hello, good evening, and welcome…’
Thus the familiar greeting that David Frost never actually said. Such was his hold on British television during the 60s that Frost proved a popular subject with imitators. He was one of the of great team of satirists to emerge in that decade, alongside Peter Cook, Private Eye and the Pythons. After the huge success of shows such as That Was The Week That Was, he became a chat-show host across the Atlantic even whilst jetting back to the UK for the weekends for shows such as Frost On Sunday.
Conceived as a light-entertainment show for ITV, Frost’s trademark quips, a blend of smugness and wit, reflect on the week’s events and are interspersed with sketches, interviews and musical numbers, all recorded live. In fact, the first programme ever recorded, one of the few from that first series from 1968 that still survives, is fascinating not because of the appearance of the familiar faces such as Ronnie Corbett, Ronnie Barker, Michael Palin and Kenneth Williams, but because it was recorded during a technical strike with no credits for guidance. It adds a raw immediacy that is often missing from today’s slickly-produced programmes. These three discs give a flavour of the swinging satirical Sixties and the confident growth of live television.
As with later programmes such as Not The Nine O’clock News, Spitting Image and Rory Bremner, the comedy depends on knowledge of current affairs and personalities, which – some 40 years on – lose their sting. But then this has been crafted into a broader entertainment format. Throughout the programmes from the second series , the successful formula appears with regular features including the Sayings of The Week which start each show, and a musical turn by Sam Costa and Richard Murdoch which pays tributes to their Much Binding In The Marsh radio days.
As such, they provide a quaint echo of simpler times. However, The Two Ronnies, Barker and Corbett, dominate all the shows with their finely tuned sketches which are a template for their own series (including the classic ‘Ministry of Mispronunciation’ sketch), proving why they have been such a formidable double act.
They still retain some great moments of comedy with the added help from regular Josephine Tewson, a familiar face from British sitcom-land (Shelley, Keeping Up Appearances et al), and various guest stars including Michael Palin and Vincent Price.
Perhaps nor surprisingly the list of writers includes those stalwarts of the comic’s pen Barry Cryer, Neil Shand, Reggie Perrin’s creator David Nobbs, and Esmonde and Larby, who went on to write The Good Life. Vintage wine that can make you merry with the mellow taste of mirth.
This is a celebration of the old-style variety format, with that mix of home-grown talent and international guests which was a favourite formula for weekend programming on both BBC and ITV right into the 1980s.
Frost’s musical guests are nothing short of eclectic, ranging from Julie Auger (‘Wheels On Fire’), The Rockin Berries and Rolf Harris to Julie Felix, Matt Monro, Catarina Valente and the Four Tops. His chat-show credentials surface too; in conversation with Frost are Kenneth Williams and Ted Ray.
One of the more intriguing programmes is the live show from the Palladium interspersing the various acts around the presentation of the British Film and Television Awards from March 1970. A parade of stars that both dazzles but look laughably old-fashioned when compared to the slicker panache of today’s BAFTA ceremonies. Petula Clark performs alongside the cast of ‘Please Sir!’ whilst significant winners included Morecambe and Wise, and Midnight Cowboy.
With the very nature of satire finding its strengths from the contemporary issues of the day, many of Frost On Sunday‘s political or cultural references are lost to time, even if Harold Wilson still looms larger than life as an iconic figure of that era.
However, retrospectively, it turns much of the comedy into harmless fun, a satirical beast that has lost its bite, now just gumming you with a toothless smile. That doesn’t lessen the star-quality of the guests though. Nor does is diminish the presence of Frost himself, who remains like a mischievous ringmaster at the centre of each programme. This is the reputation that made Nixon smirk when presented with the possibility of being interviewed by a seeming light entertainer. The rest of course is broadcasting history.
The Best Of Frost On Sunday is distributed by Network (rrp £29.99) and out now.