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date: 07 December 2019

Gillard, Francis George [Frank]free

(1908–1998)
  • Philip Purser

Gillard, Francis George [Frank] (1908–1998), broadcaster and war correspondent, was born on 1 December 1908 at 20 Silver Street, Tiverton, Devon, the elder child and only son of Francis Henry Gillard (c.1880–1953), master butcher, and his wife, Emily Jane, née Burridge (1882–1958). A west countryman by birth, upbringing, and conviction, he contrived to pursue a career which took him to the summit of his profession while never having to uproot himself. For all but a dozen of his ninety years his home was in Devon, Somerset, or Bristol. He was educated at Wellington School, Somerset, and St Luke's College, Exeter, whose students took London University external degrees, in his case a BSc. He became a schoolmaster, but from 1936 began to contribute items to the BBC's west region, and in 1941 was taken on to the staff. From its headquarters in Bristol, west region then covered an area stretching along the channel coast as far as Brighton. One of its responsibilities was to assign a war correspondent to the army's southern command. Gillard was nominated, and thereby became the only radio reporter to accompany the Dieppe raid, launched from southern command. In later years he regretted that he had not been franker, and more critical of what was generally regarded as a disaster, though survivors of the raid who subsequently took part in the Normandy landings were certain that the lessons so painfully learned in 1942 paid off in 1944.

Meanwhile, Gillard's instinctive grasp of the nature of battle had been noted and in December 1942 he was sent to north Africa to join Godfrey Talbot on the final stages of the Eighth Army's epic advance from El Alamein to Tripoli. He struck up a friendly relationship with General Montgomery and went on to cover the landings in Sicily and Italy. But after Montgomery had departed to prepare for the invasion of northern Europe, he fell foul of General Alexander, the allied supreme commander, who accused him of slipping uncleared information past the censors. The BBC sent its newly appointed editor-in-chief, William Haley, out to Italy to investigate. Gillard was exonerated. Alexander apologized and suggested Gillard might like to show Haley around the battlefront while the latter awaited a flight home. This he did, and it can hardly have been unhelpful to Gillard's subsequent BBC career to have spent ten days in the company of someone soon to become its director-general. Gillard himself returned to London in time to join the war report team which would cover the D-day landings and subsequent campaign. His friendship with Montgomery thrived again, and one of his most celebrated broadcasts came from an open-air church service in Normandy at which the general read the lesson, pausing when fighters roared overhead. At the end the bells of the church rang out to celebrate the village's liberation.

The war over, Gillard went back to west region as head of programmes and into battle again, now as a combatant. Within the BBC the whole future of regional broadcasting was being questioned. Until 1939 there had been only regional services plus the National Programme. During the war the regions retained their identity but put out a shared programme called the Home Service, while the National Programme became the Forces Programme. This arrangement still held, except for the designation ‘Light’ instead of ‘Forces’. Regional items were broadcast on the local Home Service wavelength as variants on, or ‘opt-outs’ from, the central dispensation. Now there was a proposal to add a third, highbrow, national programme. Would there still be a need for regional broadcasting? Gillard argued forcefully and successfully so, not only because it served particular communities but also because it favoured the kind of radio he liked, and which war reporting had fostered. 'Our policy in Bristol,' he declared, 'will be to get away from the artificial atmosphere of the studio … and take the microphone among the people' (Briggs, 97). In the first full year of peace he increased locally originated programming from twelve hours a week to nineteen.

Already, though, a fresh threat had arisen. Because the low-frequency emissions then in use interfered with each other unless they were carefully spaced apart, European countries were restricted to a few wavelengths each. If the BBC was to launch its promised Third Programme, it had to find a wavelength from its existing allotment. The proposal was to do this by merging west region with the midland region. It was fought at political level as well as professional, and in the end was resolved by filching a British forces' frequency from occupied Germany instead. Gillard continued to strengthen west region's identity by getting its programmes on to the national services, most enduringly in the case of Any Questions? He also kept himself in the public ear by acting as a radio commentator on state occasions or royal tours abroad. He even suggested that he might stand in for the BBC's wayward American correspondent Alistair Cooke when Cooke was due three months' home leave. Cooke smartly quashed such a threat, as he saw it.

In 1955 Gillard was transferred briefly (as it turned out) to London, as chief assistant to the director of sound broadcasting, with the rank of controller. Next year the controllership of west region fell vacant, and Gillard was recalled to Bristol to fill the post. Unlike some old radio hands, he took a keen interest in the fast-growing medium of television, and was soon promoting the region's contribution to the television service as assiduously as he had steered Any Questions? on to the Light Programme. He held a competition for new television plays, won by Peter Nichols, gave the future film director John Boorman his first chance to strike out, and encouraged the specialist departments which were to endow Bristol with a virtual monopoly in BBC wildlife and antiques programmes. He was made a CBE in 1961.

Gillard was by now a confirmed bachelor whose name, as far as his relations knew, had been linked with a woman's only once, and that when he went off to war. His sister, Doreen, had married an Exford farmer, William Bawden. In 1956 they acquired Poole Farm in Taunton Vale, near Wellington, where Gillard helped with the purchase, was a partner in the farm, and regularly stayed. Their daughter Gillian and son Peter became, in a sense, his family too. 'He was like a third parent', Gillian later said (private information). Seven years passed happily until in 1963 he was appointed to the top job of director of sound broadcasting—or managing director, radio, as it became.

This was another spell of seven years, and Gillard's longest exile from his beloved west country. On routine visits to London he had always stayed at the Farmers' Club; required now to be in his office in Broadcasting House most days, he took a flat in Langham Place, close by. His major task as director was in a way a sequel to the reorganization campaigns he had fought on behalf of Bristol, except that he had now to be the instigator. The advent of frequency modulation (FM) broadcasting had largely removed the old wavelength shortage. The BBC was free to add a fourth nationwide service. Meanwhile the post-war trio of Home, Light, and Third seemed hopelessly unfocused in name, if not in fact. The Reithian ideal that every programme should be addressed to every listener was crumbling, and the title of a popular programme surviving from wartime, Music while you Work, was a tacit admission that not everyone listened in reverent silence; for many, radio was an adjunct to other activities. It was necessary to cater for audiences of different brow heights and varying levels of attention, but without condescension. Gillard's prescription was brilliantly simple—radios 1, 2, 3, and 4. Listeners might privately think of them as radios Pop, Cosy, Highbrow, and Everything Else, but they didn't have to feel inferior if they chose a low number.

Also made possible by FM were local radio stations serving individual towns and counties. It had been assumed that these would be commercial stations drawing their revenue from local advertisers. Gillard made the bold decision to set up BBC local stations as well. Though they nibbled into his already precarious budget—radio reception no longer required a licence and BBC radio was dependent on a grace-and-favour share of the television licence revenue—he believed it was important to keep a BBC presence in all strata of broadcasting. His two most unpopular deeds were to axe Children's Hour and wind up the talks and features department, which had gained much lustre over the years. The first of these was in fact sensible. Children had switched to teatime television; the old radio equivalent mourned by elderly critics was now attracting a mere 25,000 listeners. The other was so resented within Broadcasting House that when, under BBC age rules, Gillard retired in 1970 his leave-taking was not entirely cordial. In the opinion, however, of Gerard Mansell, first controller of Radio 4 and later deputy director-general, Gillard was the most creative and positive radio chieftain with whom he worked.

Gillard settled in his last and best-loved home, Trevor House, only a short walk from Poole Farm. He had his main meals with the family, looked after himself otherwise, was house-proud, and loved tending his garden. But he had not quite finished with broadcasting. Almost immediately he was lured to the United States to act as a 'distinguished fellow' (that is, consultant) to the nascent public broadcast system. It was Gillard who suggested, after they had successfully shown the BBC's version of The Forsyte Saga, that they might now raid the backlog of British classic serials. Under the title of Masterpiece Theatre, and introduced by Alistair Cooke, this became an institution.

In Britain, Gillard picked up a new career as the unseen narrator of a number of outstanding television documentaries. Some of these, such as two series of The Commanders devoted to the likes of Rommel, MacArthur, and Yamamoto, arose naturally from his own Second World War experiences, but his warm and trusty voice also enhanced Hospital 1922, the near perfect account of everyday routine in the old Charing Cross Hospital as reconstructed (by Peter Goodchild and Brian Gibson) fifty years later. His last, self-ordained project was to record, either on audio tape or film, the memoirs of his fellow grandees of the BBC. These, he made clear, were for use only when all were dead, or otherwise on the BBC's centenary in 2022.

Back on the farm Peter Bawden was now sharing the management with his father, and Gillian helped. After their mother died in 1983, and then their father in 1994, the farm was divided. Peter moved with his wife and children to another house. Gillian and her husband, Ian Cubitt, and their children, born in the 1980s, took over as Gillard's surrogate family. As before, he took his lunch and tea with them every day when at home. In London he stayed again at the Farmers' Club in Whitehall Court, amused to learn that during the war it had been part-requisitioned as accommodation for senior officers. Room 23 had been reserved for his friend Montgomery and Room 24 for the commander who trusted him less, Alexander. Gillard often entertained distinguished latter-day guests in the club, always immaculate in evening dress. At other times he held court in the bar. He was respected, popular, and loved good company. It was at the club that he died of a heart attack, in his sleep, on 21 October 1998. He was cremated at Taunton crematorium eight days later and his ashes were scattered over Poole Farm.

Sources

  • L. Miall, Inside the BBC (1994)
  • A. Briggs, The history of broadcasting in the United Kingdom, 4 (1979)
  • N. Clarke, Alistair Cooke: the biography (1999)
  • D. Hawkins and D. Boyd, eds., War report (1946)
  • Sunday Telegraph (7 Oct 1973)
  • Daily Telegraph (23 Oct 1998)
  • The Times (23 Oct 1998)
  • The Guardian (23 Oct 1998)
  • The Independent (23 Oct 1998)
  • private information (2004)
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

Film

  • BBC Television Archive

Sound

  • BBC Sound Archive

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1944, repro. in The Independent
  • photograph, 1945, repro. in Daily Telegraph
  • photograph, repro. in The Guardian

Wealth at Death

£602,424—gross; £598,103—net: probate, 7 May 1999, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

(1920–)