On Saturday BBC2 devoted the evening to the historical encounter. Sir David Frost being interviewed by the ageless Joan Bakewell was followed by 90 minutes of the final interview with Richard Nixon and then came the movie, starring Micheal Sheen. It’s great cinema but not a patch on the absorbing, compelling real thing. Two gladiators pitching body and soul, Frost to re-vitalise his career and Nixon to rescue his reputation.
Of course, there was no formal pitch just 29 hours of interview, of question and answer. Frost earned his reputation as one of the truly great tv interviewers. Ferociously well prepared, openly and effectively referring to copious notes, he was skilful in posing apparently open questions that encouraged response, patient in staying silent and receptive rather than leaping in to challenge. His highly focussed listening seemed to disarm his opponent.
Nixon was also ferociously well prepared, relying on memory allied to a formidable lawer’s brain. For someone who had suffered for his lack of telegenic appeal, notably in the Kennedy debate, he handled himself well. Good eye contact and body language, he answered the question as asked and if he did deviate he acknowledged this. The coherence of his replies, as he skirted the very large ditch, was impressive. (Compare the way Murdoch et al skirted their particular ditch! Questions and ‘appropriate’ answers!)
Overall the judgement remains that Frost triumphed while Nixon was defiant but defeated. However, viewed today 30 years later, when the emotional impact of events is distant, the performances seemed more closely matched. Nixon’s famous admission that “I let the American people down” seemed considered rather than a pressured response to forensic questionning.