Frank Bough obituary: Unruffled broadcaster combined geniality with professionalism

Grandstand presenter was also avuncular anchor of BBC’s Breakfast Time at its launch

Frank Bough’s professionalism and apparently unflustered charm under stress were appreciated by his employers. Photograph: David Giles/PA Wire

Frank Bough’s professionalism and apparently unflustered charm under stress were appreciated by his employers. Photograph: David Giles/PA Wire

 

Francis Joseph Bough, broadcaster, born January 15th, 1933; died October 21st, 2020.

There was a time when Frank Bough, who has died aged 87, was rarely off BBC television. In the 1970s and 1980s his ubiquity as a presenter saw him fronting a wide range of programmes, from breakfast television to sport, news magazines and holiday programmes, with an unruffled and genial professionalism. He could be presenting the Grand National coverage one day and interviewing the prime minister Edward Heath a few days later.

His was a safe, avuncular presence. He seemed relaxed and unfazed by live TV; was always dressed unthreateningly in neutral suits and ties for serious news programmes and informal sweaters for more leisurely shows. One of his nicknames among colleagues was Uncle Frank and, as Michael Parkinson once described him on Desert Island Discs, he was seen as “the most unassailable performer on British television”.

Assailable he certainly was, however. All changed one day in 1988 when he admitted to the News of the World that he had indeed been snorting cocaine and dressing up in women’s lingerie while attending a sex party in Mayfair. Unfortunately, his decision to tell all to the paper in an attempt to ameliorate its coverage only made things worse. He told the paper: “I am not a wicked man, nor do I mean any harm or evil to people. I’ve made mistakes but everyone is entitled to do that. No one suffered but my wife, my family and myself. It was a brief but appalling period in my life. Don’t condemn my entire career for a brief episode I regret.”

The BBC did not see it that way and sacked him on the spot. Thereafter, his career and reputation never really recovered. Four years later he was caught by another newspaper, the Sunday Mirror this time, attending a bondage session. He said: “I am feeling exceedingly stupid. I bitterly regret many of the things in my life and if only I could undo them I would.”

Contracts fell away, though his wife, Nesta, stood by him. It was useless to point out that his activities had been consensual, with adults. His career was cast into outer darkness.

Sprint champion

Bough was born in a terraced house in Fenton, Stoke-on-Trent, where his father, Austin Bough, was a furniture upholsterer and his mother, Annie, painted pots in a pottery factory and also made curtains and cushions. After losing his job, his father found another one 50 miles away in Oswestry, Shropshire, where Bough and his sister, Mary, grew up. He was educated at the local boys’ high school, acting in school Shakespeare plays and becoming a county sprint champion before winning a place to study history at Merton College, Oxford, on the strength, he insisted, of being asked to write an essay on furniture. At university he won a football blue as a centre-half.

After national service with the royal tank regiment, he joined ICI as a management trainee, but over five years kept badgering the BBC with job applications. In 1962 the corporation relented and gave him a three-month contract reporting on football matches in the Newcastle region. Other programmes followed on radio and television, mainly on sport, interviewing sportspeople such as the golfer Peter Alliss, the runner Chris Brasher and the cricketer Cyril Washbrook, but also presenting the regional news programme Home at Six, later to become Look North and later still subsumed into the Nationwide programme, which he presented from London for 11 years until 1983. He also fronted general election coverage in 1979.

In 1966, still in the northeast, he received a break when sent to cover a World Cup match between Italy and North Korea, which provided the upset of the tournament when the Koreans won 1-0. He covered Olympic Games, grand prix races and other international events and became one of the faces of the corporation’s sports coverage when he was chosen to present its flagship live Saturday afternoon sports programme Grandstand, which he would do for 15 years from 1967.

With Nationwide at the same time, he was presenting live coverage for 12 hours a week throughout the 1970s. The apogee was probably an appearance with other BBC personalities as a sailor in a South Pacific skit on the 1977 Morecambe and Wise Christmas special, which was watched by a record audience of more than 20 million viewers.

Bough’s professionalism and apparently unflustered charm under stress were appreciated by his employers. His questioning of interviewees was courteous and thorough rather than pointed. He told Parkinson on Desert Island Discs in 1987: “I have got a very long fuse. It’s a curious kind of skill really and when the roof starts falling in [on a show] I quite enjoy that. If you have got it, you are very, very lucky.”

Breakfast television

A change of scene came when the BBC chose him – by then the natural choice – to be the first presenter of its breakfast television output in 1983, launched hastily to stymie the planned rival TV-am service. He also took on the Holiday programme and in his spare time was running a company making corporate training videos.

After being sacked by the BBC, Bough went into therapy to address his drug habit and picked up work with the London commercial radio station LBC, with LWT, presenting its Six O’Clock Live show, and with Sky TV, and there was a return to sports broadcasting for ITV’s initial rugby World Cup coverage. That too fell away after the bondage exposure.

Bough felt he was being got at, complaining to the Evening Standard in 1992: “It is a horrendous experience. You are followed day and night. One paper fully admits that they have dogged my footsteps for seven years, waiting for me to trip up. They catch you, they strip you bare and ravish you and then they move on to other people. Everybody in this country has a sex life. Surely they have a right to enjoy that? I have been weak and I have been silly: what can I say?”

In retirement, Bough joined a local choir near his home in Berkshire and largely refused to give interviews or appear in retrospective documentaries. He tended his garden and listened to music. In 2001 he underwent a liver transplant following the discovery of a tumour.

Bough is survived by Nesta (née Howells), whom he married in 1959, and their three sons, David, Stephen and Andrew.

– Guardian