TV: THE FROST REPORT

 by Peter Tatchell (copyright 2009)

Many of David Frost’s achievements have been groundbreaking … the satirical That Was The Week That Was, an interviewing style on occasion described as ‘trial by television’, the creation of London Weekend Television and an in-depth examination of a disgraced U.S. President, to name but a few.

In the world of comedy, his greatest success was the mid-1960s television series The Frost Report, no less groundbreaking in bringing together the best writing and performing talents Britain had to offer in a decade regarded by many as the golden age of the medium.

Two seasons of TW3 (November 1962 to December 1963) and a follow-up venture called Not So Much a Programme More a Way of Life (November 1964 to April 1965) paved the way for the B.B.C. to commission a new Frost series of thirteen half hours, each to examine different aspects of the British lifestyle.

It was to be sketch comedy, with occasional musical breaks, but unlike its predecessors this time the host would not take part in the skits. Rather he would provide the linking commentary (or ‘continuous developing monologue’ as it was called) between the routines illustrating that week’s topic. The performing team was headed by three relative unknowns (certainly to television viewers of the time).

Ronnie Barker had worked his way through repertory theatre to the West End stage and by the late 1950s had also become a regular fixture on BBC Radio, appearing in Floggit’s, Variety Playhouse, Frankie Howerd’s Fine Goings On, The Navy Lark, Crowther’s Crowd and Not to Worry. In early 1965 he even had his own series Let’s Face It. His clever character creativity had also made him a semi-regular on several Jimmy Edwards television series and a radio spinoff called So This is Jim.

Ronnie Corbett, on the other hand, was more at home on the variety stage and summer seasons and by the early 1960s was a regular foil to Danny La Rue in his popular London night club. It was there he was spotted by Frost and asked to join his team.

In a further contrast, John Cleese (like Frost himself) was an alumnus of Cambridge University’s celebrated Footlights Club and in 1963, along with Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie, Jo Kendall and David Hatch, had transferred their annual revue to the West End. The show (Cambridge Circus) then travelled to Broadway and to far off New Zealand as well before being adapted to BBC radio as I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again.

Also making regular appearances in lesser roles were Sheila Steafel and Nicky Henson.

It was decided that each programme would include two musical breaks relevant to the topic being examined. Folksinger Julie Felix provided contemporary offerings while legendary U.S. writer/performer Tom Lehrer (whom Frost had encountered writing songs for the American version of That Was The Week That Was a year or so before) was invited to contribute some of his classic compositions.

Though The Frost Report was to be transmitted live (a situation which apparently caused some angst for John Cleese), Tom pre-recorded all his segments at one performance and they were then slotted in at an appropriate part of each show. Though Lehrer was not featured in every edition, at least two of his offerings were songs not included on any of his LPs … a reworking of Noel Coward’s That is the End of the News (with some new lyrics) and a comic explanation of how Britain might adapt to the coming of decimal currency.

On the writing side, Frost and Antony Jay (fifteen years before he and Jonathan Lynn created Yes Minister) would come up with the show’s basic narrative, to which contributions of jokes and sketches by Britain’s top scriptwriters would be added. Those involved included Frank Muir and Denis Norden, Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, John Law, David Nobbs and Peter Tinniswood and future Pythons Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Eric Idle, with Marty Feldman (then writing radio’s Round the Horne) as the show’s script editor.

If nothing else, David Frost had a knack for attracting talent. With such a pedigree, it’s hardly surprising the show was a hit.

The Frost Report premiered on BBC-1 at 9-00pm on Thursday March 12 1966 with an examination of Authority. Highlights that week included the first sketch in which Ronnies Barker and Corbett ever appeared together (a conversation between two policemen running a total of five words), John Cleese’s Headmaster monologue (previously performed on I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again) and Tom Lehrer’s It Makes a Fellow Proud to be a Soldier.

The programme offered a varied selection of jokes, one handers, quickies, silent routines, vocal offerings and even a pre-filmed vox pop with the host quizzing school children about the topic under discussion.

A popular recurring feature saw Cleese, Barker and Corbett representing the different classes of society (with their varying heights adding clever emphasis to the joke) in a routine that would be revived in Frost on Sunday, The Two Ronnies and even as part of a special celebrating the new millennium over thirty years later.

Subjects featured over the thirteen week run ranged from Holidays and Sin to the Law, Medicine and Trends. By the time it ended on the 9th of June, there was no doubt a second season would be required by the B.B.C., but before then it would be a busy time for several of the participants.

Unwilling to be regarded solely as a comedy performer, David Frost signed with commercial television’s Associated-Redifussion to host a weekly series of interviews later that year (thus paving the way for his future career path) and also assuming the mantle of entrepreneur for himself and others.

Inspired by the popularity of his three leading players, Frost decided to back each in separate ventures (also to be aired by Associated-Redifussion). First to appear was the John Cleese vehicle At Last the 1948 Show (February 15 to March 22 1967, with a second season later in the year) followed by Ronnie Corbett’s No – That’s Me over Here! (November 14 to December 19 1967 and two subsequent seasons). Then Barker starred in a series of six playlets called The Ronnie Barker Playhouse (April 3 to May 8 1968).

Meanwhile, Parlophone Records signed Frost and Cleese (assisted by Jean Hart) to recreate some of The Frost Report material, along with items from That Was The Week That Was, for an LP entitled The Frost Report on Britain.

The cast as a whole reassembled for the B.B.C. to perform again some of the show’s classic moments for entry into the annual Montreux television festival. Frost over England (which subsequently aired on BBC-1 on March 27 1967) was successful in being awarded the main prize, the coveted Golden Rose.

Soon after, The Frost Report was back for an eagerly-awaited second season, with the format continuing unchanged (but for the absence of Tom Lehrer, who was no longer involved). New subjects for examination over a further thirteen weeks included the Forces, Advertising, the Countryside, Europe and Show Biz.

By the end of June it was time to move on for Frost and his cohorts (now stars in their own right) though there would be a final hurrah that festive season in the form of a forty minute special titled Frost over Christmas (aired Boxing Day on BBC-1).

Further spinoff merchandising from the series saw Pye Records issue a selection of soundtrack extracts titled The Frost Report on Everything while Frost and Antony Jay compiled a book of the show’s wittier moments called To England with Love.

1968 would be a momentous year for David Frost as he brought together the forces that would be awarded a commercial television licence to broadcast over London’s weekend time period. And one of the company’s first programmes in August 1968 was Frost on Sunday, an hourly variety series reuniting Frost with Corbett and Barker. Not quite a Frost Report, but an enjoyable mix that included jokes and interviews by the host and sketches by the two Ronnies.

The Frost Report was one of the leading B.B.C. sketch comedy series of the 1960s. It had the cream of Britain’s writers and performers creating an extremely popular programme. Unfortunately it didn’t have colour (BBC-1 would have to wait until November 1969 to embrace that technology). As a result it has not enjoyed revival screenings or commercial video or dvd release, despite the participation of such leading names. (In fact the only episode to be repeated has been the Montreux edition).

From 1986 to 1988, segments were included in the various compilation series 20/21/22 Years of the Two Ronnies and in the later Two Ronnies Sketchbook but it took forty years for the programme itself to be granted a noteworthy tribute with the 90 minute special The Frost Report is Back! (BBC-4, April 2008). Then followed another airing of the Montreux award winner.

Apparently, like many other B.B.C. classics of the black-and-white era, a number of episodes have been junked. Happily all the first season programmes are preserved in the archive (along with the series 2 episode about Women). And off-air soundtracks, in broadcast quality, do exist of many others.

What does survive of The Frost Report is surely long overdue for commercial release.

Episode Guide

(with thanks to the recording expertise of Henry Gay and Vaughan Lipscombe, and sketch itemisations by Mark McKay)

series 1

1 March 10 1966  Authority
Arrest *
Judge’s Sentence *
Photograph *
Judge Not (opening extract)
Police Greeting *
Miss Hoskins
Army Training
Prisoner at the Bar
Julie Felix: What Did You Learn in School Today?
I See No Ship
Schoolmaster
The Language of Authority
The Letter of the Law (silent)
Tom Lehrer: It Makes a Fellow Proud to be a Soldier
Police Training School
Funny Voices
(* featured in Just Four Just Men on The Frost Report on Britain LP)

2 March 17 1966  Holidays
Mexican Poverty
Fly-by-night Travel Agent
The Language of Brochures
Paris (silent)
Travel Insurance
Julie Felix: I’ve Travelled All Over This World
Cheap Cosy Tours
Tour Guide
Tom Lehrer: Pollution
Trailer for Trenchmouth-on-sea Home Movie 

3 March 24 1966  Sin
Stop It!
Judge
Do You Want a Bit of Fun?
In the Boudoir
Astronauts
Tom Lehrer: Smut
Let Him who is Without Sin …
Book Descriptions
Film Descriptions
Gluttony (silent)
Souls in Torment Appeal
Julie Felix: The Salvation Army Song
The Other Man

The Garden of Eden

4 March 31 1966  Elections
Canvasser – voting for a known political party
Multi-channel Electoral Broadcast
Canvasser – immigrant
Confident Candidate
Agriculture Comment
All Purpose Political Speech
Re-voiced Politicians
Russian Election Coverage
School Children vox pops
Julie Felix: These Are the Days of Decision
Speech by Losing Candidate
Interchangeable Phrases by the Leaders

5 April 7 1966  Class
The Birth of Class
Lucky Being Working Class
Actor Interview
Newsreading Audition
Pools Winner
Three Men on Class
Lady Godiva
Christopher Columbus
Wedding Day
Julie Felix: You Can’t Scare Me, I’m Stickin’ to the Union
Kids Vox Pops: Class
Public School
Tom Lehrer: National Brotherhood Week
Stiff Upper Lip
Court Accents

6 April 14 1966  The News
News Vendor
TV Critic
Politicians
No News Report
Julie Felix: I Read it in the Daily News
Top People Read The Times
Radio from the Albert Hall
Explorer
Tom Lehrer: Who’s Next?

7 April 21 1966  Education
Kids Vox Pops: Schools
Concerned Parent
Schoolmaster Keeping Up with the Times
Responsible Teachers
Unhappy Student
Reunited after Forty Years
Julie Felix: The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done
Headmaster’s Staff Meeting
The Language of School Reports
Tom Lehrer: Decimals
Borstal Sports Day (silent)

8 April 28 1966  Love
Narcissus
Losing A Daughter
Caxton Hall Registry Office
Kids Vox Pops: Love
The Language of Love
Julie Felix: Old Maid
Attracting Attention (silent)
Mother Love
Tom Lehrer: When You Are Old and Grey
Toast to the Bridge and Groom

9 May 12 1966  The Law
What Have You Got to Say For Yourself?
Sentence Auction
Horse Doping (silent)
Transvestite
Christmas Oath
Kids Vox Pops: Policemen
Julie Felix: Cryderville Jail
Crown Jewels Robbery Trial
Judges’ Playtime (silent)
A Fine Night
Violent Witness
Surprise Witness
Silence in Court

10 May 19 1966  Leisure
Bingo Call
Handyman
Menthol
Julie Felix: Going to the Zoo
Zookeeper (aka Butterling)
Buntings Holiday Camp
Tennis
Stone Watcher
Pedestrian Traffic (silent)

11 May 26  1966  Medicine
Malnutrition
Inefficient Hospital
Schizophrenic and Paranoiac
Getting Prescription Made Up
Tom Lehrer: The End of the News
Second Opinion
Julie Felix: Cod Liver Oil
Buying Poison
Dentist (silent)

12 June 2 1966  Food and Drink
Restaurant Order
Fatherly Waiter
Ham Sandwich
Drinks Order
Ice Cream
Kids Vox Pops: Likes & Dislikes
Cocktail Conversation
The Language of Menus
Philip Harben & Fanny Cradock Musical
Julie Felix: Whisky
Vegetable Noises

13 June 9 1966  Trends
Ferrets
Musical Parliament
Julie Felix: Turn, Turn, Turn
League of Television Decency
Silent Slapstick Commentary

Sp March 27 1967 Frost over England
features new performances of series 1 material

series 2

1 April 6 1967  Money (BELIEVED LOST, though off-air soundtrack survives)
Forgery
Tip
Insurance
Bank Robbery
Window Cleaner
Pirates
Bank Manager
The Language of Money
The Chancellor of the Exchequer
Julie Felix: Gold in the Morning Sun
Chartered Accountant

2 April 13 1967  Women
New Au Pair Girl
Dentist
Annoying Wife
British Hormone Company
Similes
Crocodile Lecture
Honeymoon
Office Romance (silent)
‘My Wife’ Jokes
Co-ed School
Julie Felix: Some Day Soon
Going Out

3 April 20 1967  The Forces (BELIEVED LOST, though off-air soundtrack survives)
Code Name
Psychiatrist
Padre
RAF Toasters
The Guards (silent)
Officer Recruitment Interview
Julie Felix: When 100 Men Went Off To War
D-Day Briefing

4 April 27 1967  Advertising (BELIEVED LOST, though off-air soundtrack survives)
Trendy Shop (silent)
Death of an Ad Man
Sandwich Board
The Language of Advertising
String
Army Recruitment Ad
BBC Product Name-Dropping
Julie Felix: Who Will Buy?
Encyclopaedia Salesman

5 May 4 1967  Parliament (BELIEVED LOST)
(sketch details unknown)

6 May 11 1967  The Countryside (BELIEVED LOST, though off-air soundtrack survives)
Cavemen (silent)
Brother Arthur
Let Us Pray
Teaching Birds to Talk
Kids Vox Pops: The Countryside
Report on the Village Fête
Julie Felix: The Roadmen
Imperial Trust Newsreel

7 May 18 1967  Industry (BELIEVED LOST, though off-air soundtrack survives)
Three Men on Industry
Secretary
Businessman & the Tea Boy
Julie Felix: Keep That Wheel A-Turnin’
Johnson & Son Newsreel
Industrial Espionage

8 May 25 1967  Culture (BELIEVED LOST)
(sketch details unknown)

9 June 1 1967  Transport (BELIEVED LOST)
(sketch details unknown)

10 June 8 1967  Crime (BELIEVED LOST, though off-air soundtrack survives)
Three Men on Crime
Ambush (silent)
Police Address
Anything to Say?
Burglar
Julie Felix: But He Won’t Come Home
Kids Vox Pops: Naughtiness
Detectives

11 June 15 1967  Europe (BELIEVED LOST, though off-air soundtrack survives)
You’re Standing on my Foot
NATO Commander
French Restaurant
Biased Swimming Commentator
Julie Felix: Come On People
The Englishman of Today Newsreel
Old Foes

12 June 22 1967  Youth (BELIEVED LOST, though off-air soundtrack survives)
Girlfriend’s Father
Three Men on Youth
Julie Felix: I’m Gonna Try For The Sun
Holiday in Crete
Unsavoury Court Case
Cowboys (silent)

13 June 29 1967  Show Biz (BELIEVED LOST)
(sketch details unknown)

Sp December 26 1967  Frost Over Christmas (BELIEVED LOST though off-air soundtrack survives)
Bottle Shop
Cash Register Carols
Animal Lover
Presents
Three Men on Christmas
Kids Vox Pops: Christmas Songs
Julie Felix: The New Toy
Government’s Staggered Christmas
Instructional Film
Hendon
Silent Slapstick Commentary (remake of 1/13)
Brotherly Reunion
Redubbed Christmas News

* March 24 2008 The Frost Report is Back! (90 min, plus repeat of Frost over England)
with David Frost, John Cleese, Ronnie Corbett, Julie Felix, Sheila Steafel, Nicky Henson, etc.

 

Discography

The Frost Report on Britain
(Parlophone LP PMC 7005)
Studio recording featuring Frost, Cleese and Jean Hart:
Matter of Taste
Schoolmaster
Just Four Just Men
Internal Combustion
Deck of Cards
Top of the Form
Unknown Soldier
Scrapbook
Adventure
Numbers
Bulletin
Hilton
Zookeeper

Deck of Cards / Zookeeper
(Parlophone single R 5441)

Frost Over Everything
(Pye LP NPL 18199, Janus LP 3005, Astor LP PLP 1243)
BBC soundtrack featuring Frost’s continuous developing monologue, plus the following sketches:
The Chancellor of the Exchequer
Theatre Bar
The Language of Love
Three Men on Class
Narcissus
Brother Arthur
Kids Vox Pops: The Countryside
Report on the Village Fête
Secretary
String
Businessman & the Tea Boy
Three Men on Industry

David Frost in Las Vegas
(United Artists LP UAS 5555)
includes Frost in a live performance of the (John Cleese) Frost Report sketch:
Your Friendly Tour Guide

 

DVD

The Frost Report is Back
Network DVD

Bibliography

To England with Love
by David Frost and Antony Jay
(Hodder and Stoughton / Heinemann, London. 1967) 

 

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