In professional terms, Frank Bough will be remembered for his measured temperament and comfortable sweaters. For 30 years, he presented British sports and current affairs television programmes and, while others flapped, his calm was a reassurance that all, pretty much, would work out well. To the millions who watched sports on Grandstand every weekend, Bough’s soothing voice was the soundtrack to many a rainy Saturday afternoon.
In his own life, though, things did not always not work out that way. And the broadcaster, who has died at the age of 87, is more likely to be remembered for the sex, bondage and drug scandals that appeared in the press in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They ended his career and were all the more shocking for the fact that Bough seemed one of the most unlikely people to be involved in them.
A consummate BBC frontman, Bough was an orchestrator of the great sporting commentators of the time: John Arlott in cricket, Peter O’Sullevan in horseracing, Dan Maskell in tennis. The voice of the studio presenter who handed the commentary from Lord’s to Newmarket or Wimbledon, was often his.
Born in Stoke-on-Trent, his accent couldn’t easily be tied to any part of the country or social background. His father, an upholsterer, lost his job in the 1930s and moved the family to Oswestry in Shropshire, where Bough went to grammar school. He gained a scholarship to Oxford’s Merton College, studied history and, as centre half, played football for the university. During national service with the army, he did some forces broadcasting, and subsequently abandoned a management trainee job with the industrial giant ICI to become a TV presenter in Newcastle.
He caught the national eye in 1964 as frontman for the weekly feature programme, Sportsview. His relaxed presence replaced the chop-chop persona and plummy tones of Peter Dimmock. Bough engaged his audience rather than mimicking the old 1950s style of seeming like he was about to snap an order.
The fates worked for him during the 1966 football World Cup in England. He was sent to cover Italy versus North Korea in Middlesbrough, a game thought initially of little interest and which the Italians, among the favourites to top the tournament, were expected to win easily. But North Korea triumphed 1-0, with Bough providing commentary to the famous sporting upset.
He went on to present Grandstand, a live programme that chugged through the hours of Saturday afternoons. When it threatened to stall between events — with often little to wait for but the next horse race that was half an hour away — Bough was left to hone one of his greatest talents, improvisation.
This was put to good use during his decade from 1972 on Nationwide, a live news and features exercise broadcast in often-obscure locations from which vision and sound were apt to go down. Bough was rarely fazed, once going off on a long tangent to talk about his garden and cabbages. But he was also the person for the serious moment. With BBC colleague David Coleman, he covered the unfolding tragedy of the Black September attacks at the 1972 Munich Olympics. And it was Bough who reported on election night when Margaret Thatcher won power in 1979.
In 1983, when the BBC decided to take on ITV with the launch of breakfast TV, it was the easy side of Bough’s manner that did much to give the BBC an early, if unsustainable, edge over its commercial and far wealthier rival. His comb-over hair suggested he was not much fussed about style, while his comfortable cardigans spoke of someone who you felt could only be friendly and reasonable.
He tried bringing these facets of his character into play when scandal hit. In 1988, the News of the World tabloid tapped into its audience’s sense of glee and guilt about sex. As a tale of prostitutes, cocaine-use and cross-dressing at a Mayfair sex party unfolded, it left the impression that if someone — to use a term popular in his younger days — as “square” as Bough could succumb to such vices, maybe anyone could.
Trusting to reason, Bough sought to explain in a newspaper interview. Everyone had their problems, he said, couldn’t they be left to sort them out quietly? It only fanned the flames and more reports appeared four years later.
He confessed he had been stupid. The BBC sacked him, but his wife, Nesta — they had married in 1959 and had three sons — stayed with him. In later years, he tended to shun interviews, though, as he told the BBC radio show 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 I quite enjoy that.”