My history hero: Chris Mason chooses Frank Gillard (1908–98)

Chris Mason, host of Radio 4’s Any Questions?, chooses radio innovator Frank Gillard as his history hero

Frank Gillard pictured during a 1944 rehearsal for battle reporting

Frank Gillard: in profile

Frank Gillard was a BBC reporter, executive and radio innovator, who served as a war correspondent in the Second World War. In 1948 he dreamt up Any Questions? which began life on the West of England Home Service. He was later made the BBC’s director of radio, reorganising BBC Radio into four stations, and in 1967 set up the first local BBC radio stations. The annual Frank Gillard awards, which recognise achievement in local BBC radio, were launched in 2000 in his honour.

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When did you first hear about Gillard?

When I was working in BBC local radio years ago, I learnt about the radio awards named after him and was curious to learn more. I discovered that not only had he been a distinguished war correspondent during the Second World War, but that he was also a visionary BBC manager and creator of topical discussion show Any Questions?. He played an important role in creating BBC Radio as we know it today.

What kind of person was he?

He was a man with a great hinterland, which gave him the rare capacity to both report from the ‘coalface’ and manage a complex organisation such as BBC Radio. It’s unusual to find someone who has operated at such a senior level in two very different areas in the broadcasting world.

What made Gillard a hero?

He was a correspondent on the frontline at a time of national crisis for Britain, but he tried to do it in a way that was thoughtful and detached. Gillard also had to battle with the technological challenges of the time: his radio dispatches would appear within 24 hours, which was pretty much instantaneous for the period. Plus, he had the foresight and vision to set up BBC local radio, to reorganise the national network, and to create a programme that was able to move with the times and stay relevant.

What was his finest hour?

It’s got to be inventing Any Questions? – although as its current host, I was bound to say that! But to dream up the format that’s still going strong 70 years later is quite something – and it’s been copied and adapted all over the world, too. When Gillard started the series in the late 1940s, he spoke of wanting to create “a programme that would deal with serious subjects but wasn’t solemn”, and that’s what I try to do today. The language used, and the voices and accents heard, might be different, as are some of the questions: in one old show someone asked a question about the role of spinsters in society! But it hasn’t changed that much, which is part of the reason for its longevity.

Can you see any parallels between Gillard’s life and your own?

Only that, as he did, I’ve spent nearly all of my professional life at the BBC. When I present Any Questions?, I’m very aware that I’m standing on the shoulders of giants such as Gillard.

What do you think he would have made of the show’s new presenter?

I think he would ask: “Who’s this upstart?!”

If you could meet Gillard, what would you ask him?

I’d play him the latest episode of Any Questions? and ask him to give me an honest, unvarnished assessment!

Chris Mason started working at the BBC in 2002, where he has been a political correspondent since 2012. He is also the presenter of Radio 4’s Any Questions?. He was talking to York Membery

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This article was first published in the June 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine