Frayn was born to a deaf asbestos salesman in Mill Hill, a suburb of London, grew up in Ewell, Surrey, and was educated at Kingston Grammar School. Following two years of National Service, during which he learned Russian at the Joint Services School for Linguists, Frayn read Moral Sciences (Philosophy) at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, graduating in 1957. He then worked as a reporter and columnist for The Guardian and The Observer, where he established a reputation as a satirist and comic writer, and began publishing his plays and novels.
The play Copenhagen deals with a historical event, a 1941 meeting between the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his protégé, the German Werner Heisenberg, when Denmark is under German occupation, and Heisenberg is—maybe?—working on the development of an atomic bomb. Frayn was attracted to the topic because it seemed to 'encapsulate something about the difficulty of knowing why people do what they do and there is a parallel between that and the impossibility that Heisenberg established in physics, about ever knowing everything about the behaviour of physical objects'. The play explores various possibilities.
Frayn's more recent play Democracy ran successfully in London (the National Theatre, 2003-4 and West End transfer), Copenhagen and on Broadway (Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 2004-5); it dramatised the story of the German chancellor Willy Brandt and his personal assistant, the East German spy Günter Guillaume. Five years later, again at the National Theatre, it was followed by Afterlife, a biographical drama of the life of the great Austrian impresario Max Reinhardt, director of the Salzburg Festival, which opened at the Lyttelton Theatre in June 2008, starring Roger Allam as Reinhardt.
His other original plays include two evenings of short plays, The Two of Us and Alarms and Excursions, the philosophical comedies Alphabetical Order, Benefactors, Clouds, Make and Break and Here, and the farces Donkeys' Years, Balmoral (also known as Liberty Hall), and Noises Off, which critic Frank Rich in his book The Hot Seat claimed "is, was, and probably always will be the funniest play written in my lifetime."
His novels include Headlong (shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize), The Tin Men (won the 1966 Somerset Maugham Award), The Russian Interpreter (1967, Hawthornden Prize) Towards the End of the Morning, Sweet Dreams, A Landing on the Sun, A Very Private Life, Now You Know and Skios. His novel, Spies, won the Whitbread Prize for Fiction in 2002. He has also written a book about philosophy, Constructions, and a book of his own philosophy, The Human Touch.
His columns for The Guardian and The Observer (collected in The Day of the Dog, The Book of Fub and On the Outskirts) are models of the comic essay; in the 1980s a number of them were adapted and performed for BBC Radio 4 by Martin Jarvis.
He has also written screenplays for the films Clockwise, starring John Cleese, First and Last starring Tom Wilkinson, Birthday, Jamie on a Flying Visit, and the TV series Making Faces, starring Eleanor Bron.
He is now considered to be Britain's finest translator of Anton Chekhov (The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard) as well as an early untitled work, which he titled Wild Honey (other translations of the work have called it Platonov or Don Juan in the Russian Manner) and a number of Chekhov's smaller plays for an evening called The Sneeze (originally performed on the West End by Rowan Atkinson).
He also translated Yuri Trifonov's play Exchange, Leo Tolstoy's The Fruits of Enlightenment, and Jean Anouilh's Number One.
In 1980, he presented the Australian journey of the BBC television series Great Railway Journeys of the World. His journey took him from Sydney to Perth on the Indian Pacific with side visits to the Lithgow Zig Zag and a journey on The Ghan's old route from Marree to Alice Springs shortly before the opening of the new line from Tarcoola to Alice Springs.
Frayn's wife, Claire Tomalin, is a biographer and literary journalist.1966: Somerset Maugham Award for The Tin Men
1975: London Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy, for Alphabetical Order
1976: Laurence Olivier Award for Best Comedy, for Donkeys' Years*
1980: London Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy for Make and Break
1982: London Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy, for Noises Off
1982: Laurence Olivier Award for Best Comedy, for Noises Off
1984: London Evening Standard Award for Best Play, for Benefactors
1986: New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Foreign Play of the 1985-86 Season for Benefactors
1990: International Emmy Award for First and Last
1991: Sunday Express Book of the Year, for A Landing on the Sun
1998: Critics' Circle Theatre Awards for Best New Play, for Copenhagen
1998: London Evening Standard Award for Best Play, for Copenhagen
2000: Tony Award for Best Play (USA) for Copenhagen
2000: New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Foreign Play of the 1999-2000 Season for Copenhagen
2002: Whitbread Best Novel Award for Spies (the overall Whitbread Prize went to his wife, Claire Tomalin)
2003: Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Eurasia Region) for Spies
2003: London Evening Standard Award for Best Play, for Democracy
2003: Golden PEN Award for "a Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature".
2005 Honorary DLitt from the University of Birmingham
2006: St. Louis Literary Award from the Saint Louis University Library Associates