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My daughter Tricia

‘Do you feel that you ever obstructed justice, or were part of a conspiracy to obstruct justice?’ asked David Frost in the first of The Nixon Interviews (BBC1), ‘Well, in answer to that question ...’ Nixon began, and straight away you knew that an answer was the one thing the question would never get.

‘As far as my information is concerned ... Let me say as far as what my motive was concerned ... my motive was not to try to cover up a criminal action ... but to be sure that as far as any slip-over ... or should I say slop-over ... it was that that I certainly wanted to avoid,’ Nixon explained. ‘If a cover-up is for the purpose of covering up criminal activities,’ he went on, ‘it is illegal. If, however ... I didn’t believe we were covering up any criminal activities ... I was trying to contain it politically.’

Since Nixon has always belonged in show-biz rather than politics, Frost is to be commended for giving him this late start in his true career. Apart from the consideration that Frost is much nicer, the two men are remarkably similar: they are both essentially role-players. At a level too deep for speech, they understand each other well. Frost knew that he could talk as toughly as he liked and Nixon would go on sitting there. Nixon knew that he could talk any nonsense that came into his head and Frost would still not call the deal off. Neither man is capable of doubting that an historic occasion should be a performance.

While Frost played Grand Inquisitor, Nixon played the great statesman who had been brought down by his own compassion. He should have been ruthless with his lieutenants. It was largeness of heart, not smallness of mind, that undid him. ‘Could I take my time now to address that question?’ he asked, and straight away you knew that another Checkers speech was on its way around the S-bend towards you. ‘It wasn’t a very easy time ... I think my daughter Tricia ...’

As if he had not yet been overweening enough, Frost abandoned the role of Grand Inquisitor and took on the greatest characterisation of all — God. He called upon Nixon to make a clean breast of it, or else face eternal damnation. ‘Unless you say it, you’re going to be haunted for the rest of your life.’ This was a large assumption, since there are at least three decades of evidence to suggest that Nixon is a hard man to haunt.

As was inevitable, Nixon responded to the ultimate request by accepting the responsibility and refusing the blame. Or it could have been that he accepted the blame and refused the responsibility — it was difficult to tell. What was certain was that while admitting everything he was admitting nothing. ‘I want to say right here and now ... I said things that were not true ... most of them were fundamentally true on the big issues...’ The ground having been prepared, he poured his heart out all over it. ‘Yep, I let the American people down.’ He let them down, you see, by allowing a silly little mistake to deprive them of his services.

It still hasn’t occurred to him that he let them down by running for office in the first place. ‘My political life is over ... maybe I can give a little advice from time to time.’ As the titles came up, the lingering impression was of a man who had been brought low by circumstances. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in ourselves, but in our stars. Therefore let us weep upon the whole world’s shoulder, and collect one million dollars in front, plus 10 per cent of the gate.

So if the first of the Frost-Nixon encounters was a television non-achievement, what is a television achievement? There are as many answers as there are examples — i.e., not all that many. But Vienna: The Mask of Gold (BBC2) was certainly one of them. Written and presented by Michael Frayn as a companion piece to his excellent programme on Berlin, it evinced all the same virtues plus the additional one conferred by the sheer richness of Vienna’s intellectual and creative life.

Once again Frayn was analysing a city through its culture, but whereas Berlin’s culture had been mainly provincial, Vienna’s was of international class in every field. At ease with the great names, Frayn paced out the dimensions of the propinquitous village they all inhabited: Schoenberg, Karl Kraus, Freud, Mahler, Klimt, Schiele, Wittgenstein. ‘It’s a small world. Or rather, it’s just the right size.’ Mahler, Klimt and Kokoschka had had more than just talent in common. They had had Alma Mahler. Sexuality, Frayn made clear, was the factor that made the whole scene throb.

As proof of this thesis, a gallery of Klimt lovelies filled the screen — high-born ladies whose lustrous eyes and moist mouths suggested that the life which had given them everything had been empty until they met Klimt. Somewhere else in the picture, death looked on. In Schiele’s pictures death ate the women up from inside. Trotting around the Ringstrasse in a fiacre, gumshoeing discreetly through Freud’s house in the Berggasse, Frayn talked of a ‘nagging sense of discrepancy between appearance and reality’. He has the rare gift of anchoring propositions to facts.

8 May, 1977

[ The original unedited version of this piece can be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]