Who is the greatest TV interviewer of all time?
Actually, let’s bring it down a little. Doubtless there are some greats from the USA, Johnny Carson for a start. Held a place at the heart of the American consciousness for generations. Jack Paar, maybe? Out of the current crop, perhaps Keith Olbermann for his self righteous anger, and total fearlessness – or Jon Stewart for his relentless skewering of people too stupid to spot that he’s working in character and there’s actually a piercing brain behind that façade? Unfortunately, I’m not qualified to judge since I haven’t seen enough of them.
So. The greatest British TV interviewer.
Lots of possibles of course. Paxman? He’s certainly a great interviewer. His interview with George Galloway would be worth seeing again. And his demolition of Michael “Threaten to overrule” Howard is a great TV moment.
But the greatest? I don’t think so. There’s too much of a “showman” element there, almost like he’s destroying peoples’ arguments for fun. Wonderful as he is, there’s someone out there who – on his day – could take on the best (or worst) and win.
No, to illustrate my first choice, we have to look at a moment where an interviewer was so astonished by the bare-faced cheek of his subject that it threatened to boil over. For real.
Emil Savundra is now pretty much forgotten by the world. In the 1960s he was VERY well-known – notoriously so – as a swindler. He formed an insurance company, raked in the money from the public because the premiums were so low. By the time the claims started coming in he had quit the company, with a rather large sum of money in his back pocket. This rather large sum was of course the money that was expected to pay the claimants. He claimed that he had no moral or legal obligation to the people who had lost out as he was no longer involved with the company.
Fast forward to an episode of The Frost Programme. This was an odd concoction – one third variety, one third silly jokes, and one third incisive interview with topical figures. David Frost makes a comment about Savundra in an episode. Savundra promptly phones the production office to complain. While he’s on the phone David Frost tells the person taking the call to ask him to appear the next week. Rather amazingly, Savundra agrees.
And so the scene is set for one of the greatest moments in television I have ever seen.
Frost is masterful here. He lays out the facts for the viewers and audience. He shares a mild joke or two with Savundra, putting him at ease. For more or less the first seven minutes, absolutely nothing happens, except Frost delivering what we need to know in a controlled monotone, interspersed with shots of Savundra looking smug. And then, by degrees, Frost starts to heat things up.
I’m of the opinion that Savundra had no idea what he was letting himself in for. He obviously thinks that he can win this argument easily, and it’s his arrogance that destroys him. By labelling the audience “peasants” (“I came here to match swords with the best swordsman in England”) he gives Frost the motive to go to town on him. That’s pretty much the first moment that Frost shows his teeth – “I’m afraid these people are not peasants, they’re the ones who gave you your money”, he mutters, without looking up from his notes. He gets a round of applause for that one.
Savundra begins to realise that this is not going to go his way. He makes a few feeble jokes, labelling the Sunday Times as “The Sunday Swines”, in reference to the fact that they had been harbouring dark suspicions about him before Frost ever got at him. Frost swats that aside like it was a fly, at all times his eyes flicking between Savundra and the audience. Reading Savundra, reading the audience, gauging the moment to pull his masterstroke. There’s some banter about Savundra’s suspected and oh-so-very-convenient heart attack which got him out of a court appearance not long before that, and a very pointed comment about legal action. Frost parries with a rather marvellous “that’s the thing that worries me about you. It’s all fun to you, isn’t it?” So rarely do you see someone being so personal in a one-to-one interview.
You can see the rage building in Frost. And you can see how wonderful an interviewer he can be. He channels that rage, and uses it to his advantage. When the moment comes, he takes Savundra from the interview area and leads him over to a harshly lit spot right in front of the audience. Which just happens to be full of people whose money he’s trousered. Savundra perches on a stool, desperately uncomfortable, with a look in his face that says “how the hell do I get out of this?”
And here’s the thing – Frost lets the people do the work for him. They tell their stories (one woman in particular is heartbreaking, her voice trembling on the verge of losing composure as she recounts the tale of losing her husband, nearly dying herself and getting a bounced check when what she needed was the support to pick herself up and carry on). Frost listens. Savundra continues to deny all responsibility, legally or morally, and gets into a swamp of argument regarding the fact that it’s all the fault of someone he hired to run the company.
Bang. That’s the moment Frost’s been waiting for – he brings up ultimate responsibility. “How can you not been aware of the actions of an employee of your company? You have either got to be stupid, or dishonest. Which is it?” Savundra tries exactly the same tactic that Michael Howard would twenty years later, but Frost’s having none of it. He’s right into his victim’s face, repeating “Which? Which? Which?” There’s a look of cold fury about Frost. Hatred, even. At one point he lets Savundra off the leash for about a minute and just stands there, staring as if he’s looking at something he’s scraped off his shoe. I swear if given the chance, he’d flatten him. He’s that close to losing control. Somewhere around here, there’s a cut to the audience, including a delighted looking Eric Idle – as part of the writing team, he was around anyway. He’s watching one of the monitors with a look on his face that says he knows what he’s watching is one-in-a-million.
Savundra loses control, his voice raising higher and higher as he ticks off a list of points which he thinks absolve him of all guilt. And in a masterful moment, we see that Frost isn’t actually giving him his full attention. Or at least he is, but he’s not letting Savundra see that. What he’s actually doing is watching his floor manager, who’s telling him how long there is to the end of the show. He gives an almost imperceptible acknowledgment, then it’s in for the kill.
Somehow, Frost manoeuvres the conversation round again. He leads Savundra up to a point where he claims absolutely no moral responsibility to anyone, then turns to the camera.
“Well, ladies and gentlemen – it’s not really the way to end the series, but it’s the end of the series. Thank you and goodnight.”
He then stalks off camera right, leaving Savundra high and dry, gaping in mid sentence. There’s a single, very British cry of “Well done, Frostie!” from the audience, taken up by several others, and a swell of applause over the end credits. Applause? They should have carried him through the streets.
Twenty three minutes is all it takes to get a total bastard from a point of utter complacency to admitting pretty much everything. Savundra remains unrepentant, but he’s been damned by his own words. It took Frost considerably longer to get Tricky Dicky to the same point, and after that, he became a sort of cuddly establishment teddy bear. Remember him this way.