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“Go on then, try and get us Elton John.”

The request from Paul Franks was partly in jest, as he sat in the BBC WM studio presenting the station’s Saturday afternoon sports coverage.

The pop legend was then chairman of Watford, and had just seen his team hit the top of the First Division table after beating West Bromwich Albion.

So yes, partly in jest, but, when it comes to football media, you just never ever know.

Tony Stephens, then a WM reporter who has since gone on to work as an agent for footballers such as David Beckham, Michael Owen and Alan Shearer, was at the other end of the line.

And, he duly delivered.

“I was in the studio, and, all of a sudden, the producer on the other side of the glass stood up and said, ‘Tony’s got Elton’,” Franks recalls.

“Elton used to wear the big platform boots in those days, and wouldn’t be able to walk from the Directors Box to the press box and our ISDN line, so Tony had to carry him, lifting him over all the seats.

“Then, all of a sudden, he was on air, and we were having a chat on BBC WM about Watford being top of the table.”

That is one of many stories and anecdotes which have deliciously infiltrated Franks’ 44-year career at the BBC.   A career which, of his own volition, only has one more week to run.

Sports fans, and particularly those of Aston Villa, Wolves, West Bromwich Albion, Birmingham City and Walsall in the world of football, will remember his dulcet tones bringing them news of triumph and despair during almost four-and-a-half decades of reporting, commentating and presenting.

But his duties were also equally shared across news and current affairs with considerable time spent presenting WM’s Breakfast Show and then, for the last 21 years, accompanying many a journey home from work on Drive Time.

So, whilst that Elton John interview took place in the football arena, Franks has crossed swords, pleasantly or otherwise, with many other seismic figures from public life.

There was an interview with Rod Stewart at the Dorchester hotel – “I’ve never seen carpets so thick” – another with film legend Michael Caine, whilst he has also covered several general elections and verbally sparred with several Prime Ministers.

“With some Prime Ministers they had charisma and you could see how they reached that position – with others I’m not so sure,” he reflects.

Mention no names.  He is still at the politically neutral BBC after all.  But, on reflection, his extensive brushes with the celebrity world were largely positive.

“A lot of the big rock and pop stars I have been fortunate to interview have all been very intelligent and actually quite normal and humble,” he reflects.

“Often, the more famous they are, the nicer they are, and are really good company to talk to and interview.”

The generally easygoing and conversational interview technique developed by Franks – coupled with the ability to drop in the difficult questions when necessary – has all been either self-taught or learnt with experience.

He has never received any formal training, and baulks at the suggestion that should be called a ‘journalist’.

And that’s perhaps due not just to entry routes into the profession now being very different from the early 1980s, but also the fact Franks landed his first role within BBC WM – by winning a competition!

Picture courtesy BBC

The Birmingham Mail newspaper invited prospective broadcasters in to commentate on a re-run of the Nottingham Forest/Malmo 1979 European Cup Final, a memory made even more touching following this week’s sad passing of matchwinner Trevor Francis.

Franks, born in Sutton Coldfield and brought up in Erdington, won the competition for the Over-18 age group, whilst the Under-18s honours went to Rob Hawthorne, who has since progressed to the top end of television commentary with Sky Sports.

“The competition was perfect for me, because I’d always been interested in football, and, as a kid, would sit in front of the television and commentate into my own tape recorder,” says Franks.

“It was always my dream and ambition to get into radio, and then it happened.”

It was a fairly lively first few years as a WM commentator, starting with Birmingham City clinching promotion to the First Division in 1979/80, Wolves winning the League Cup, Aston Villa the league and then the European Cup, the latter of which saw the young Franks presenting from the studio with David Wigley on the microphone in Rotterdam.

“To be presenting on the night a West Midlands club won the European Cup – which I’m not sure will ever happen again – was something else,” Franks recalls.

During his early years with the station Franks lived a dual existence, dovetailing evening sports show presenting and weekend commentaries with what his parents termed a ‘proper job’, working ‘9 to 5’ in the corporate motor trade for the likes of Peugeot, Ford and Renault.

It was in 1996 that WM’s Station Manager David Robey decided that Franks’ role needed extending to become full-time hours, and the aspiring broadcaster needed little encouragement to ‘throw my hat into the ring with radio’ at the expense of a more ‘conventional career’ elsewhere.

It certainly proved an astute decision, on both sides.

And that was especially true during the years before the internet and Sky Sports, when football and sports fans who weren’t at a match were reliant on updates via terrestrial television, goal alerts on Ceefax or Teletext, or local and national radio.

Franks fronted WM’s matchday coverage when pretty much all games were played on a Saturday afternoon, and it became essential listening across the Midlands with fans glued to their transistors to follow their team’s fortunes.

That included the iconic goal horn, first introduced by Radio Birmingham presenter Stuart Roper in the 1970s, a sound still going today which signals a goal alert and, within seconds, inspires such joy – or despair – among the partisan audience.

Coverage was fast-paced and frenetic, Franks metaphorically darting effortlessly around the country to check in with reporters for updates, and always displaying a calm and composed hand – albeit sometimes excitable – at the tiller.

“It was like what people know now as Soccer Saturday, but for radio,” is his description.

“And all at a time when local radio was absolutely at its peak in terms of audience numbers.

“When you are presenting a show like that, you have to have your wits about you.

“When you are commentating, it is about painting a picture to the people who are not there, but I also think you have to inject a bit of humour into it, and that’s the same with presenting.

“But I have also been in the studio when the Bradford fire happened in 1985, and the Hillsborough disaster in 1989.

“Those were occasions when we were seeing the pictures but couldn’t really take it all in – we just knew there were major problems.

“Especially with Hillsborough, whilst we were on air nobody appreciated just how horrific it was going to be, but you still have to try and find the right words to convey what you are watching in front of you to a radio audience.”

There were many brighter moments during Franks’ four decades in sport, despite the multitude of ups and downs enjoyed and endured by local teams.

Those incredible Villa successes, and later, being offered and given a lift by European Cup winning manager Tony Barton.  Commentating on Villa’s 3-0 defeat to Inter Milan in the San Siro when the jumping motion of the fans prompted masonry to rain down from the roof.

A feeling of awe at commentating alongside Wolves and England legend Billy Wright for the 1988 Sherpa Van Trophy success at Wembley.  Rock legend and Wolves fan Robert Plant coming up and introducing himself whilst Franks was compèreing at the Davis Cup in Birmingham.  As such a keen music fan, that was a particular ‘moment’.  

There was a similar sense of appreciation in building such positive working relationships and friendships with former players such as Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown and Garry Thompson, as well as documenting the successes of managers he enjoyed working with like Dave Jones, Dean Smith and Steve Bruce.

Then there was ‘Big Ron’ Atkinson, whose life he claims to have saved after managing to swerve to avoid a crash on the M6, and whom he also introduced to the Tube network in London.

“Big Ron had never been on the Tube before, and called it the Oxo cube,” says Franks.

“Everywhere we went the punters would say ‘you look like Ron Atkinson’, and we were once in a traffic jam on the motorway in a branded WM car and a limousine pulled up alongside.

“Suddenly all the windows came down and a woman popped her head out of the roof on what was clearly a hen do – ‘I know you, you’re Ron Atkinson,’ she screamed.

“Calm as you like, Ron wound his window down, looked at her and replied: ‘Do you think the real Ron Atkinson would travel in a car like this’?!

“He was always great company.”

David ‘Ned’ Kelly is another favourite, and not just because after his hat trick fired Walsall to play-off success against Bristol City, he ran straight off the pitch and into the commentary box to give everyone a hug!

Oh yes, and then there was the time Franks found Doug Ellis a little hot to handle during a conversation at Pebble Mill, but it was nothing to do with the subject matter of their interview.

“We were on either side of a round table which was covered by a cloth top, but it wasn’t smooth,” Franks explains.

“Someone brought in a couple of cups of coffee and put them on the table, and as Doug started pulling the cup towards him, I just knew what was going to happen.

“The whole thing fell into his lap and I was like ‘my god’ – there was literally steam coming out of Doug’s lap.

“We were in the middle of an advert trail at the time and I asked if he wanted me to play a tape but fair play, Doug was happy to just carry on the conversation with steam rising from his trousers.”

There, in a nutshell, comes the reminder that live radio never quite runs completely smoothly.

How about the time when Villa travelled to the Czech Republic to face Banik Ostrava and a booking misunderstanding left only one phone line for commentary available for WM and BBC Radio 2?

‘Panik in Banik’, and, after a few choice discussions, a potential diplomatic BBC incident was averted when it was agreed to split the reporters so Franks ultimately commentated with Mike Ingham with Jimmy Armfield summarising, and trusted WM colleague Tim Beech, after starting on commentary, presented at half and full time.

There was almost a diplomatic incident of a different kind when Franks once let out a frustrated expletive at the end of an interview with a politician which would normally be edited out.  Only this time, it wasn’t.

“I dropped the ‘f’ bomb, but somehow I survived,” he explains.

“It should have been edited out but it wasn’t, and yet the listeners seemed to love it and were texting in saying it was the funniest thing they had ever heard.

“Part of live radio is that there are always going to be mistakes and occasional faux-pas.  People seemed to enjoy those, maybe I should have made more!”

So many stories. So much to discuss. And these merely scratch the surface.  Because remember too, the thousands of post-match and evening phone-ins, which regularly prove just as entertaining as the football.

In that situation, hosts like Franks can become both judge and jury, agony Uncle, diplomat, referee – all rolled into one.

“Of course, it was ‘Butler’ who was the King of the phone-ins,” says Franks, in due and respectful deference to the legendary Tony Butler who sadly passed away around the time of our interview.

“It is poignant to even be talking about it, but Tony was the originator, and phone-ins have been done by a whole lot of people ever since.

“For me, I always wanted to make it about more than just football, trying to attract an audience of people driving home who weren’t necessarily fans.

“Again, it was about having some fun, both with the calls and the pundits and guests that came in, introducing things onto the show that got people interacting.”

On one occasion, one person who felt moved to interact was Colin Lee, the then Wolves manager actually phoning in because he wanted to voice his opinion on something that had been said by the club’s CEO, Jez Moxey.

The next day Lee lost his job, although Franks is convinced he knew that was coming, hence deciding to make the call to voice his opinion.

Talking of managers losing their jobs, how about the now legendary, ‘he’s gorra gew Franksy’?  That catchy slogan was certainly an enduring moment of entertainment during the phone-ins, started by ‘Lee the Baggies fan’ and repeated by many a supporter feeling downbeat and disgruntled at their team’s misfortunes.  

And, when it comes to fun and entertainment, no conversation with Paul Franks can ever be complete without mention of the mankini at Molineux.

‘Stale, who?’ were the words uttered by Franks when he heard that Norwegian Stale Solbakken was being linked with the managerial position at Wolves.

‘If he gets the Wolves job, I’ll run around Molineux naked,’ was the immortal follow-up.

And then Solbakken was appointed.  Which left Franks with something of a barely concealed predicament.

“The BBC management were understandably a bit concerned with what I had agreed to, both on whether it was allowed and the fact I might frighten the public,” he recalls.

“But I had said it, so I had to do it, and the mankini was a compromise, as well as adding a charity element by fundraising for Cure Leukaemia.

“I also had a flag draped over my backside to protect my modesty, but it was a quite windy night, so the flag kept blowing up.

“I’m not sure anyone will remember what I have done with WM for 44 years – but they will always remember the mankini at Molineux.”

A hearty laugh follows. It was a memorable Molineux mankini moment, for sure. But there will always be far more to remember than just that.

And in truth, how on earth do you sum up 44 years of such varied and often fast-moving work into an hour’s conversation and one long-read feature?  

Put simply, it’s not possible.  As conversation flows, there are so many more stories and anecdotes it would need a book to chronicle their entirety.

A book actually forms part of Franks’ ambitions heading into retirement. But it won’t be about sport or his experiences.

Instead, he will always linger on the memories, and not just of matches, interviews and experiences, but also colleagues, with whom he has so enjoyed working across both news and sport.

We are chatting at Becketts Farm in Wythall, a reminder to Franks of the pre-pandemic days when he and fellow WM commentator Mark Regan – aka Rego – would meet on a Saturday morning for breakfast before departing for an unsuspecting footballing outpost somewhere in the country.

The two formed an excellent working partnership – they once even got up on stage and sang ‘Bring Me Sunshine’ at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall as the warm-up for Tony Christie. Quite a duet. But no one asked them to give up the day jobs.

Together, they formed part of an overall BBC WM sports team with an excellent reputation which has rarely changed in personnel down the years and has always been hugely respected for the quality of their output.

Picture courtesy Steve Hermon

“I have heard a lot of local radio over the years, and I may be slightly biased, but I think the WM sports team are as good as it gets,” says Franks.

“Everyone has their own methods and does it in different ways, and it’s not an easy job.

“Rego is less on stats, more on generating excitement, others are more studious, but everybody in their own way is brilliant at what they do.”

Now though, in his mid-Sixties, Franks has decided it is time to hang up the microphone once and for all.

During the pandemic, he lost his father to Covid, and wife Mandy both of her parents to non-Covid related illness, which understandably hit hard, and prompted a necessary change in perspective.

Family time became more precious – Franks hasn’t been to a football match since before the first lockdown – and, given he wasn’t staying in such close touch, decided to hand over the phone-in to the excellent Daz Hale.

The time was right to step back and concentrate purely on Drive Time.

“I had a knee replacement just before the lockdown and went through six weeks of rehab and by the time I came back, everything was different with the football with access restricted and it was all going to be studio-based,” he explains.

“Within three months during the pandemic Mandy and I lost three of our parents, and at that point I felt I needed to take time out and spend more time with my wife.

“I remember I missed the start of her 50th birthday celebrations because I’d been to cover Walsall at Barnet which was one of the worst games I have ever seen in my life!

“Maybe I should have done all this a bit sooner, but when you love what you do it is difficult to prioritise and Mandy has always been very supportive over the years.

“I really have loved it, and to have survived for so long, and through so many different station managers, is probably my biggest achievement!

“The media has changed over the years, it’s all become more online and digital and I am a bit of an old dinosaur really – I still love radio and I still love reading newspapers.

“I’ve never been into social media, I know it’s part of the job now and it has its good points but it can also be poisonous.

“And everything changes, you can only do a certain thing for a certain amount of time, and for me it’s time to say, ‘thank you very much’, pass it all on to someone else and enjoy the next stage of my life.

“When you think back, it’s amazing what has followed from entering that competition all those years ago and going into Pebble Mill to do that test commentary.

“It changed my life because it gave me the opportunity to get into something I always wanted to do, and I’ve had so much fun with managers, players and the fans as a result.

“It’s that well-known phrase, isn’t it? Find a job you love, and you will never work a day in your life.”

Indeed so.  And what a journey it has been, as fascinating as it has been fulfilling. Operating during the true peak and prime of radio, taking football fans through such key and milestone moments of their club’s inexorable rollercoaster rides.  Describing events and experiences and painting pictures which people will never ever forget.

Now though, Franks is looking forward to enjoying a more relaxed lifestyle, of family time, playing golf, going back to watch football, rugby, cricket, and, if any potential work projects or opportunities should arise in the future, he can decide whether or not he wants to dip back into the industry.

He has a son Stuart in America, and daughter Chloe in Wales, so the temptation to travel, another of his favoured pastimes, is strong.

The finale is near.  A week from today, at around 6pm, Franks will deliver his last ever link, and he is confident he won’t be emotional. He has loved his time, and will surely miss so much of it, but it will be business as usual.  And, spoiler alert, he probably still won’t answer an age-old question and tell the Midlands footballing public which team he supports, even though he admits he has grown fond of all of those on the patch as well as ‘the one’ which he has followed from birth.  

Then, well, that will be that. The end of an era.  You’ve ‘gorra gew Franksy’.  And you can take your mankini with you.