Frances was born in London. She is a former newspaper journalist. In 1975 she joined BBC Radio Birmingham as a news reporter/newsreader/producer. The then editor of The Archers, William Smethurst, was understood to have named a character after Frances (PC James Coverdale) after seeing a report she filed for the national news, about The Archers.
Frances worked on BBC TV’s Midlands Today as a reporter (1977 – 1980), before moving to London as a BBC TV News home reporter (1980 – 1983).
Frances became a BBC TV national newsreader (31st July 1982 – 24th October 1986) – she worked on many of the main news programmes during that time: Nine o’Clock News; Evening News; News after Noon; Six o’Clock News; Weekend News; News Review for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing; News View. She also presented BBC Radio 4’s PM (1987 – 1990). Frances later worked with ARK Associates as a media trainer (freelance).
Paul R. Jackson spoke with Frances in January 2018.
Tell Us How You Got Started in Journalism and Broadcasting
“I didn’t go to university as I was advised that as local newspapers paid reporters according to their age, it would be better to start young! I’d done nearly six years in newspapers before joining the BBC (I trained as a reporter on the Kensington Post in London, and in 1973 joined the Birmingham Evening Mail). At Pebble Mill, the Radio Birmingham newsroom was just down the corridor from Midlands Today (I was never the East Midlands reporter – he was based in Nottingham). While there I was invited to co-present two half-hour TV programmes, so they knew me before I applied for the television job.
“I started at Midlands Today as a news assistant, script writing and occasionally reporting, but was promoted to West Midlands reporter in 1978. It was during that period that I did a piece for the national news about The Archers, after which Bill Smethurst decided to call his new Ambridge policeman PC Jim Coverdale. I wouldn’t say it was in my honour – just that he was looking for a name and he sometimes called characters after people he knew. PC Coverdale was a bit wet, but I was more fortunate than my producer Richard Horrobin – as Archers aficionados will understand! My first film for Midlands Today was from a new council-run sauna in Birmingham, where I did one piece to camera wrapped only in a small towel and another in the shower (the cameraman was very discreet). I doubt a woman would be sent on that assignment now. I had good shorthand, which was useful in court cases. For Midlands Today, I covered every day of the trial of the four men (wrongly) convicted of murdering Carl Bridgewater, the 13-year-old paperboy shot dead when he disturbed a robbery near Stourbridge in 1978.”
Did You Work with Barry Lankester?
“He was working in the Radio Birmingham production office when I was in the newsroom. I first met him before I got the job. I knew someone who worked at the station and he got Barry to listen to me have a go at ‘reading the news’. He was very encouraging, and it probably gave me confidence when it came to the interview.”
How Did You Get the Job in London?
“I’d done a couple of attachments to TV News while working on Midlands Today and as West Midlands reporter had contributed regularly to the national news, so they knew me quite well. I was always on the staff until I joined PM, at which point I had to go freelance. I was told that when there was speculation among the camera crews as to who might get the reporter’s job, the response from a sound recordist to the suggestion that it could be me was ‘oh no, we’ve already got one of those…’ – meaning, a woman!
“The woman in question was Kate Adie, who had been in the job for about a year. Before that, apart from the occasional token woman, the television reporters’ pool was entirely male-dominated. Kate famously went on to become a distinguished war correspondent. I had just one brush with war, in Angola in 1981. When I first joined Television News we were still using film, which had to be processed for 45 minutes before it could be edited and the reporter’s voice track laid to the pictures.
“When I was on an assignment in Angola in 1981, we had to take the film to the airport and persuade a passenger on a flight to London to carry it in their hand luggage (with strict instructions to customs not to open the can and expose the film). Until the advent of ENG (Electronic News Gathering) any outside broadcast had to be from an OB van – TV News had just one. In the early days of ENG I did a routine piece to camera for the lunchtime news and was surprised at the delighted reaction when I returned to the newsroom. It turned out it was the first time we’d broadcast live from a hand-held ENG camera. On national news, I covered the New Cross fire inquest and the trial of Dr Leonard Arthur, a paediatrician accused (and acquitted) of murdering a Down syndrome baby.”
How Did You Make the Move from Reporting to Newsreading? And Did You Enjoy the Studio-Based Role?
“When I joined Television News, people I met outside the BBC would say ‘Do you want to be the next Angela Rippon?’ and my answer was always ‘No’. At that time newsreaders had no editorial input – they just read what was put in front of them (and they did it exceptionally well, I might add).
“That changed when the Nine o’Clock News was relaunched with John Humphrys and (briefly) John Simpson, as the anchors. Both men were highly experienced foreign correspondents, and my attitude to newsreading changed then too. I did sometimes miss being on the road, but News after Noon gave me the opportunity to do lots of interviews, and being the first news programme of the day (there was no 24-hour news then) with nearly half-an-hour to fill, it was always frantic and I was never bored.”
When Did You Start Presenting PM?
“From 1987, after the birth of my daughter, until 1990, shortly before the birth of my son.”
Did You Do Any Other Radio Work?
“I didn’t do any other radio work, but co-presented a TV programme about the Open University for a further year. I decided to take some time out when the children were young and never went back to broadcasting. I’ve done some freelance writing, quite a bit of interview training, and since 1995 have been very involved with fundraising for the children’s hospice charity Shooting Star Chase (formerly just CHASE). I exploit my contacts with ex-BBC News colleagues whenever possible – asking for favours for auction prizes and stories for a little book of anecdotes I put together to raise funds for the charity.
“I am now enjoying retirement and walks with my husband and labradoodle.”
Video Clips on the Internet
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PICTURED: Frances Coverdale. SUPPLIED BY: Frances Coverdale. COPYRIGHT: Frances Coverdale.