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Years of oblivion beckoned

Chris Wearmouth on Nixon versus Frost and what might have been without the Bobby Kennedy assassination.

It was a look that spelt the end: a realisation that a longed-for rehabilitation was not going to be forthcoming, that the 'easy' interview offered by a British chat show host had turned out to be far from that expectation and years of oblivion beckoned; the look on a boxer who has just suffered a career-ending beating.

Those with memories of one of 1977's biggest television events - indeed the most-watched public affairs programme in history - will recognise the description of Richard Nixon's face following the pounding he'd just received from David Frost.

Three years after his resignation Nixon was still a man on a mission. Allowed by his pardon to pursue a restoration of his legacy (Nixon had withdrawn the United States from Vietnam and extended an olive branch to China after all) the former president was eager to stimulate a new career in public life.

'Frost/Nixon', recently transferred to Broadway after supremely successful runs at the Donmar and Gielgud, is a study not just of Nixon but of Frost's attempt to recapture his place as the head of the political interviewing pantheon. Michael Sheen's "Hello, good evening and welcome" is our introduction to the satirist who had interviewed Evonne Goolagong on the same day as Nixon's resignation.

Sheen, now familiar to a world-wide audience as Tony Blair in 'The Queen', is a perfect Frost, capturing the charm and angst of a man who'd risked his career for a defining interview. His sparring partner Frank Langella, while carrying the world a little too heavily on his shoulders, is also perfectly cast.

The one extravagance in a sparse production is a big screen as the stage backdrop, used to show the interviews as filmed on the stage. Their use becomes clear at the end of the final electrifying sequence when Langella's capturing of Nixon's expression of defeat is frozen and slowly faded out as the set changes.

But ''Frost/Nixon' represents more than the end of the man. That final freeze-frame symbolises the end of a 14-year odyssey in the US begun by the assassination of JFK. The deflation of the bubble of innocence was accelerated by the Vietnam War and Watergate and by 1977 the road to the partisan politics of today - described in Bob Woodward's 2000 book 'Shadow' - was a highway with no exit.

There was another shattering event not mentioned thus far - the assassination of Bobby Kennedy on June 5th 1968, an evening brought to the big screen by Emilio Estevez. His star-studded 'Bobby' imagines the lives of 22 individuals being intertwined by their presence in the Ambassador Hotel when the Senator was shot.

The assassination happened in a corridor, away from the cameras if not witnesses. But not even Alastair Cooke, waiting in a back room for Kennedy and whose subsequent 'Letter from America' remains a poignant reminder of the final nails in the coffin of youthful optimism, saw exactly what went on.

In his notes to ''Frost/Nixon', the play's author Peter Morgan acknowledged that no one had a definitive memory of what transpired during the year-long saga he has portrayed; perhaps surprising given the public domain of the end product but nevertheless making the employment of dramatic license understandable.

'Bobby' on the other hand suffers from the fictional storylines that surround the factual shooting. While their presence is understandable given the traumatic nature of the memories of those present, they nonetheless distract from the question that could, maybe should have been posed - what would the world have been like had Bobby Kennedy not been killed?

Kennedy was far from being a shoo-in as the Democrats' presidential candidate, lagging as he was behind eventual nominee Hubert Humphrey at the time of the California primary. However he had the momentum and would probably have expected to receive Eugene McCarthy's votes and leapfrog Humphrey by the time of the Convention.

Then the US would have been treated to Nixon versus Kennedy II, a political battle which might have mirrored the partisan battles of more recent years, especially given the 'rat fucking' campaign of Republican undermining of Democrat candidates which came to light during Woodward and Bernstein's post-Watergate investigation.

But this is now moving into a hypothetical world more suited to the documentary, not a drama. Nevertheless, despite the magnificence of one and the deficiencies of the other, the reality-based 'Frost/Nixon' and fictional 'Bobby' are inextricably linked.

For had Bobby Kennedy not been assassinated it is highly possible that the American public could not only have been spared Watergate but also the acerbic relationship between the White House and its press corps, the three decades of increasing recrimination (prominent members of the current administration worked in the White House in the scandal's aftermath) and a television spectacle that set a benchmark for political interviewing that will rarely be reached again.