Frost/Wells: when David Frost quizzed me on drugs*

1 Sep

ImageR.I.P. David Frost, one of the true giants of British broadcasting, who died of a heart attack last night on the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship, where he was to have given a speech. He was the Paxman of his day, but without the beard.

Starting as a satirist in That Was The Week That Was, he moved on to more “serious” interview programmes, and was a co-founder of London Weekend Television in 1968, and of TV-AM in 1983. How many news presenters have had Michael Sheen playing them in a Hollywood movie? (Frost/Nixon, 2008)

Slightly less earth-shatteringly than Nixon, I, too, was one of Frost’s interviewees. It was in 1994, and for the first time I had just devoted a whole issue of Time Out magazine to a single topic: drugs. I ran a four-page news investigation by Tony Thompson; a readers’ survey (86% had smoked dope, and about half had taken ecstasy, LSD and cocaine); a consumer guide to the different drugs, listing both beneficial and harmful effects (put together by Andrew Tuck, now editor of Monocle, and Susannah Frankel, who became The Independent’s fashion editor); and, most illuminatingly, I got five journalists to keep a diary of their experiences while actually under the effect of five different drugs.

This wasn’t done in a cavalier fashion. I had had enough friends lose their minds or their lives. And yet the prevailing political attitude was “all drugs are bad”, symbolised by Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” campaign. If the rhetoric held cannabis to be as harmful as heroin, it’s not surprising young people stopped believing the official line, and started necking anything they could get their hands on. They needed a voice they could trust, to tell them exactly which drugs did what – what, in short, the highs and the lows were. That voice, I thought, should be Time Out’s.

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David Frost in 2005, conducting an interview with Donald Rumsfeld

It won me the first of four BSME Editor of the Year awards, and also landed me on ITV’s The Frost Programme, an audience-based news show a bit like Question Time. An unexpectedly articulate Rat Scabies of punk group The Damned was seated next to me. Rat, or “Mr. Scabies”, as Frost kept calling him, was on the pro-drugs side; some Tory MP supplied the anti; I was the moderating influence in between.

Two things stand out in my mind, 19 years on. One was being asked outright by David Frost if I had ever taken drugs myself. This was not something public figures admitted to in those days; it would be years still before Bill Clinton’s typically evasive, lawyer’s answer that he had smoked dope but “didn’t inhale”. These days Obama can ‘fess up to it whole-heartedly with scarcely a dent in his ratings. My candour brought a round of applause.

The other was that I interrupted the Tory MP in mid-flow. He was holding forth pompously about the perils of drug-use, reciting a pre-prepared list: “Side-effects include nausea, dizziness, euphoria, short-term memory loss…”

“Excuse me,” I butted in, “but it seems to me only a Tory politician could describe ‘euphoria’ as a harmful side-effect.”

It got a laugh, and the Tory MP struggled to regain any authority. Good times.

* Quizzed me about drugs, that is. Frost himself was not on drugs at the time. Or not that I know of.

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