Wednesday 29 November 2017

Radio Lives - Frank Gillard

In the closing months of the Second World War Frank Gillard found himself at the centre of history in the making when General Montgomery insisted that he be present in his tent to witness the unconditional surrender of the German armies in Europe. As one of the BBC's war correspondents Gillard would broadcast on the nightly War Report mapping the progress of the liberating Allied Armies in north-west Europe. After the hostilities had ended he enjoyed a long career both on-air and behind the scenes at the Corporation where he oversaw events that would help reshape the broadcasting landscape of the post-war radio service. He espoused the principles of public participation in broadcasting and respected regional loyalties, a combination of views that led him to champion the cause of local radio.

Born in Devon in 1908 and educated in Somerset and Exeter Frank Gillard drifted into sound broadcasting quite by chance. He'd become a school master in his native Devon but by the late 1930s was making occasional broadcasts in the West Region. In 1941 he was asked to join the BBC full time though he was initially reluctant to do so until he was told that the government could direct people to join the BBC as part of the war effort. He was appointed as a Talks Assistant and then a War Correspondent (Southern Command) based in Bristol.  

Gillard had an eventful war witnessing the raid on Dieppe, following the Eighth Army as they moved northwards across the Mediterranean where he built up a friendship with General Bernard Montgomery, at one point even having to procure a puppy for Monty, which he named Hitler! Frank tried on several occasions to reclaim the £25 cost of buying the dog on his BBC expenses and only finally succeeded when he told the accountant that it was a payment in lieu of all the broadcasts that Monty had made on the BBC for which he'd not been paid.

He was on the front line with the Fifth Army for the invasion of Italy and spent six months covering the Italian campaign. In 1944 Gillard covered the Normandy landings and the momentous entry into Berlin. In May 1945 he covered the signing of the German surrender.

It had been in May 1943 that the BBC's front-line unit, of which Gillard was a member, was christened the War Reporting Unit and later that year took part in the full-scale invasion practice, Operation Pirate, and special training courses held at Wood Norton in March 1944. Before D-Day plans were already in motion to implement War Report with BBC engineers perfecting the new midget-recorder weighing 40 pounds and carrying twelve double-sided discs.

War Report was broadcast nightly between 6 June 1944 and 5 May 1945 and provided a rapt audience with first-hand accounts of events during the final year of the war. The team also included Chester Wilmott, Howard Marshall, Stanley Maxted, Guy Byram, Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and Richard Dimbleby. The broadcasts still make fascinating listening and in 1985 Frank Gillard revisited France and recalled the War Report programmes in two documentaries broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

After the war Frank Gillard returned to Bristol where he would soon become the Head of Programmes for the West Region. One of the first issues facing him was the threat of a merger of the West and Midland regions, a recommendation in the 1946 White Paper on Broadcasting Policy and tied into a post-war shortage of wavelengths. The then West region director Gerald Beadle and his staff set about mobilising public and political support. Eventually after a brief but vociferous outcry a compromise was reached involving the re-use of an ex-German wavelength by the BBC's German Service. Beadle, backed by Gillard, congratulated West of England people in the way they had "served their own broadcasting service"   

At Bristol Gillard would oversee one of the BBC's most popular and long-running programmes, Any Questions? Gillard's policy was to "get away from the artificial atmosphere of the studio as much as possible and take the microphone among the people." He first set out to achieve this with the touring programme Speak Your Mind in which chairman Gordon McMurtrie put a number of questions (sent in by listeners) to a representative audience in whatever town it was visiting. Audience members were encouraged to express their views openly and spontaneously at the microphone.

Any Questions?, first heard in the West Region on 12 October 1948 - the panel included John Arlott-  was seen as complementary to Speak Your Mind and was a kind of Brains Trust, except one that broke free of the studio and toured the vast West Region, stretching as it did from Land's End to Brighton. The programme was eventually heard nationwide from June 1950 when it was carried across the whole of the Home Service, though it remained rooted in the west for its venues for the best part of two decades. It gained an even bigger audience of sixteen million from September 1950 when it was moved to the Light Programme with a Home Service repeat. Frank continued to oversee the programme, which was initially produced by Nicholas Crocker and then Michael Bowen, for the first seven or eight years, helping to select panellists and venues and even sitting on the main stage during the broadcasts. When he was appointed to a management post in London he was not averse to popping down to Bristol to sort out any problems such as the time in December 1955 when there was some criticism on the programme about what the Archbishop of Canterbury had or hadn't said about Communism and the use of the H-bomb.

Whilst heading up the West Region Gillard was still heard on air. He introduced Country Mixture billed as "the a programme of facts and fancies, legends, stories, and songs from the Counties of the West." He also covered major state occasions such as the 1947 Royal Tour of South Africa, the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip later that year, the Commonwealth tour of 1952 which ended abruptly with the news of the death of King George V and the Coronation in 1953.

In July 1955 Frank moved to London as Chief Assistant to the Director of Sound Broadcasting. Already he was considering what was beyond the horizon. In 1954 he'd been able to tour the United States and Canada to look at their radio operations and what he saw - detailed in his management report Radio in the USA: A Visitor's View - spurred his interest in promoting local radio. In February 1955 he wrote a report on The Extension of Regional Broadcasting that recognised that the coming of VHF transmissions would make it technically possible for the BBC to have as many channels as it required. Meanwhile, following his appointment as Chief Assistant he was asked to chair the new Sound Co-ordinating Committee to look at the future of the existing radio services as well as considering any response to the large audiences that Radio Luxembourg enjoyed. Gillard was also part of a BBC delegation that travelled to Moscow to look at the Russian radio and TV operation. Discussions on future co-operation foundering when the subject of Soviet jamming of BBC programmes came up but they did secure the names of two Russian broadcasters who spoke excellent English and would take part in radio hook-up discussions of current affairs.  

In 1956 Frank Gillard was back in Bristol as Controller, West Region when Gerald Beadle was promoted to become Director of Television in London. He took an executive role in the closed circuit local radio trials in 1961 and 1962 and was key in persuading the Pilkington Committee on Broadcasting of the value of local radio.  By 1963 he was back in London as Director of Sound Broadcasting.

The 1960s saw a massive increase in the influence of television at the expense of radio audiences and Gillard was instrumental in steering through many of the changes that sound broadcasting needed to make.

The BBC's Features Department had been responsible for some remarkable radio productions since its formation in July 1945. It had been the home of creative types such as Dylan Thomas, Louis MacNeice, D.G. Bridson, Charles Parker and Douglas Cleverdon producing pure radio art forms such as the award-winning radio ballads. However by 1964 it was thought that the department had lost its way and was proving expensive to run. "The reasons for closing the department", said Gillard, "lay in the direction of good organization and the achievement of high professional standards." He thought them "amateurish" and undisciplined" and as "taking the BBC for a ride". The Features Department was closed in March 1965.

A Children's Hour favourite was Toytown
Causing even more of a ruckus was the ending of Children's Hour in 1964. In fact the die had already been cast in April 1961 when the title Children's Hour was dropped in favour of Junior Time, and later as For the Young. The reason? Kids would rather watch Blue Peter on BBC TV or ITV's Five O'Clock Club.  Children's Hour listening figures had dropped to a mere 25,000, and many of those were adults. Gillard's, albeit reluctant, decision to finally pull the plug in 1964 lead to a furore in the press, Slamming the Door on Wonderland headlined the Daily Herald for an article by Dennis Potter. And there were questions in Parliament: "Is the Postmaster-General aware that considerable public dismay has been expressed about the BBC's decision to discontinue the broadcasting of Children's Hour?"

During Gillard's tenure BBC radio was able to extend the hours for the Light Programme - something it had to get permission to do by going cap in hand to the government - and introducing the Music Programme, a daytime service of classical music using the Third Programme's unused wavelengths. But of course the biggest change facing BBC radio was one that was foist upon it.

It's possible that the corporation may have chosen to operate a popular music service even if the offshore pirates hadn't come along but a full head of political steam set the pace and by 1967 Gillard was publicising the introduction of Radio 1 and the re-numbering of the existing Light, Third and Home as Radios 2 to 4; something that was his idea by all accounts. (see Radio 1 at 50 - The New Popular Music Service). 

Around the same time as the national changes Gillard was putting the final touches to the new BBC local radio stations that would launch that year. Whilst he'd managed to sway the Pilkington Committee to see the benefits of local services it would take a few more years of behind the scenes persuasion and negotiation, led by Gillard, to obtain agreement in a 1966 White Paper for an experimental roll-out and to get local authorities onboard to secure funding. (see The People's Radio).

The Gillard Awards inaugurated by the BBC in 2000
Gillard retired from the BBC in 1969, having successfully seen the local radio experiment get the go-ahead to expand, though he continued to work for the Beeb for the rest of his life. His skills were sought by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in the States and he also advised the Australian Broadcasting Commission. But for the BBC he made a number of broadcasts, often to recall his wartime experience but more importantly he persuaded the management to commit resources to an oral history project. The project sought to record the views and experiences of all the key players in the BBC's history, especially as many from the early years were starting to die off. These audio and visual testimonies have proved invaluable to historians and documentary makers alike and some will be made available online as part of the 100 Voices that Made the BBC - Radio Reinvented project.  

In 1997, as part of the BBC's 75th anniversary celebrations, David Dimbleby introduced an appreciation of Frank's career in Frank Gillard's BBC. This programme was heard on Radio 2 on 19 October 1997.

Almost a year after this broadcast Frank Gillard passed away aged 89. Two years later the BBC inaugurated the annual Gillard Awards for those working in local radio that would recognise the achievements and encourage excellence in programming. They are a fitting tribute to a man who did so much for local broadcasting. 

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