Obituary: Frank Gillard

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The Independent Culture
FRANK GILLARD seemed to possess the secret of eternal youth. Into his eighties he retained the appearance of a man 20 years younger: spare, handsome and energetic. His broadcasting career had achieved distinction in four different fields: at the microphone, in the BBC corridors of power, as a consultant to broadcasting organisations world-wide and in the creation of a unique archive.

Gillard was a dedicated West Countryman. Born in Devon in 1908, educated at Wellington School, Somerset, and St Luke's College, Exeter, from where he obtained a London University BSc, he taught in various schools before the war and also frequently broadcast talks in the West Region. In October 1941 he joined the BBC staff at Bristol as a talks assistant, soon switching to become a war correspondent with the Southern Command. He was the only BBC correspondent to cover the ill-fated Dieppe Raid in 1942 and later that year was sent out to the Eighth Army.

It was a uniquely vulnerable task. As Gillard himself explained, newspaper correspondents were protected by the fact that it took six weeks before their despatches were seen by the men whose exploits they chronicled. An over-optimistic press report overtaken by subsequent events was dismissed with a wry smile by the time it got back to the Army.

For the broadcaster, however, it was a very different story. It then took all of 24 hours for his despatch, recorded on the spot, to be sent back overland to Cairo, pass through the censors, be beamed back to London and then finally be heard on shortwave throughout the Desert Army. If in those intervening 24 hours the fortunes had been reversed, dispirited fighting men, with little understanding of the technical problems involved, tended to find an outlet for their dejection in blaming the unhappy radio reporter.

Richard Dimbleby, the first BBC war correspondent in the Middle East during the pre-Alamein reverses, suffered particularly from this odium. It fell to Gillard, one of his successors in the Middle Eastern theatre, to complete the success story of the Montgomery era. He reported the campaign through to the day of final victory in North Africa, gaining the respect of the prickly commander himself, and indeed his friendship.

Gillard remained with the Eighth Army covering the landings in Sicily and Salerno and in 1944 he was one of the chief members of the new War Report team which broadcast nightly on the progress of the liberating Allied armies in North West Europe. The Director of the War Reporting Unit, Howard Marshall, a famous pre-war BBC sports commentator, had swept into Paris with the victorious armies. Marshall found a transmitter alleged to be in touch with London and broadcast a despatch which he neglected to submit to censorship. This cost Marshall his accreditation and he had to spend the rest of the war in London. His deputy suffered a nervous breakdown soon after D-Day and when the War Reporting Unit found itself without an effective Director or Deputy Director, Gillard, as the senior man on the spot, took charge in Normandy.

After the war he returned to BBC Bristol and shortly became the West Regional Director of Programmes, but he also stayed close to the microphone, giving commentaries on major events. In 1947 he accompanied the Royal family on their tour of South Africa and was later the radio commentator at Princess Elizabeth's wedding. The next year at Buckingham Palace he described the Silver Wedding celebrations of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and he was one of three BBC commentators travelling with Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh on their 1952 Commonwealth tour which ended abruptly in Kenya with the sudden news of the death of the King. Gillard was a radio commentator at the Coronation the following year.

At Bristol Gillard was responsible for establishing many programmes which contributed with distinction to network broadcasting, such as Any Questions and the output of the Natural History Unit, and in July 1955 he was moved to London as Chief Assistant to the Director of Sound Broadcasting, as radio was then described.

At Easter 1956, following the denunciation of Stalin and a slight thaw in what was still a very cold war, Khrushchev and Bulganin paid an official visit to Sir Anthony Eden, the Prime Minister. The idea of cultural exchanges was mooted, and the Russians were persuaded to invite a small BBC delegation to inspect radio and television in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. The BBC immediately accepted it and Gillard and I straightaway flew to the Soviet Union as the representatives of radio and television programmes respectively, along with two engineers, two men from the BBC's External Services and one from News. Until then Moscow Radio and the BBC had had none of the international dealings normal between broadcasters.

We arrived just in time to see the May Day parade in Red Square. When we moved on to Kiev Gillard remembered it was Easter again, according to the Russian Calendar. To the slight discomfiture of our hosts he insisted that we Christians would all have to go to church on Easter Day, essentially because he wanted the chance to observe an Orthodox service in Kiev cathedral. It was crowded out, especially with young parents carrying infants on their shoulders and very old women.

Our discussions with the Russians in that pre-glasnost time sought ways of opening up normal broadcasting relationships without the sacrifice of our principles on matters such as censorship, or the obligation to carry Soviet propaganda. They tended to founder when we brought up the question of jamming. But Gillard and I did return with one positive achievement. We got the names of two broadcasters who spoke excellent English and were prepared to take part in radio hookup discussions of current affairs, subject to official permission. We also acquired their personal telephone numbers and soon found that the telephone pierced the Iron Curtain fairly easily.

Shortly after our return Gillard was appointed Controller, West Region, one of the plum jobs in the BBC. It was a large region, stretching from Brighton to Land's End, and under Gillard it was a well-run, harmonious production centre, which contributed substantially to network programmes in both radio and television, as well as showing the region to itself.

After seven happy years in Bristol Gillard returned to London in 1963 to take charge of all domestic radio programmes and become a member of the BBC Board of Management. It was a time of considerable professional changes in radio.

Formally scripted talks were increasingly yielding to unscripted recorded discussions. The World at One started and so did the first correspondence column of the air, Listening Post, and I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again. Woman's Hour was broadcast from Moscow, a by- product of our Russian visit.

Gillard felt that the structure of programme departments in Broadcasting House had long required radical revision. He grasped these nettles courageously. The old Features Department, once the flagship of broadcasting, had ceased to produce sustained programmes of quality and was living on its past reputation. Gillard abolished it in 1964, not without an outcry, along with Children's Hour, the familiar programme with which many of us had grown up. Its daily listening audience had dropped down to a mere 25,000. That action resulted in a critical motion signed by 60 MPs.

The Third Network expanded its daytime hours and the Music Programme was gradually introduced. In 1967 Gillard brought about a major change with the start of "generic broadcasting". Radio 1 filled the pop music gap left when an Act of Parliament effectively pulled the rug from under the new pirate radio stations by making advertising on them illegal. Radio 2 took over from the old Light Programme. Radio 3 incorporated the Third Programme, adding an early evening "study session" and a sports service on Saturdays. Home Service became Radio 4.

Another of Gillard's brainchildren born in 1967 was BBC local radio, with the start of experimental stations at Leicester, Sheffield and Merseyside. It was his dream to see them in every city, not as "amplified juke boxes" but offering modern radio-journalism geared to the interests of the local community.

When he retired from the BBC at the end of 1969 with the title of Managing Director Radio, Gillard's expert advice was immediately sought by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in the United States, which made him a Distinguished Fellow. Over several years he contributed greatly to the establishment of public service broadcasting in America. He also gave much useful counsel to the Australian Broadcasting Commission, as it was then called.

In 1971, as he was leaving a memorial service for a BBC colleague, Gillard suddenly realised that the generation which had founded broadcasting in Great Britain was rapidly fading away. He persuaded the authorities to finance a large-scale oral history project whereby those who had played a significant role in the BBC's development were interviewed, either by himself or by a few others of us, and encouraged to record their experiences on to audiocassettes, as indiscreetly as they wished, with the assurance that the material would remain totally confidential until those directly concerned had died.

Later he organised a similar operation with film cameras to prepare material for some future producer to quarry in 2022 AD, the centenary of the BBC's first broadcast, assuming the Corporation still exists and its passion for celebrating anniversaries has not abated. He was always a stickler for accuracy, and would have been horrified that BBC News managed to get his age wrong in their announcement of his death.

Leonard Miall

Francis George Gillard, broadcaster: born Tiverton, Devon 1 December 1908; BBC war correspondent, North Africa, Italy, Normandy, Berlin 1941- 45, head of BBC West Regional Programmes 1945-55, Controller, West Region 1956-63, Director and later Managing Director, Radio 1963-70; OBE 1946, CBE 1961; died London 20 October 1998.

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