There are two types of academic pundits- those who make simple things complicated and those who make complicated things simple.Professor Peter Frank,who died on Thursday 14th November,was one of the best of the latter. He became a familar face to British viewers and listeners because of his ability to explain and predict the extraordinary changes in the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
Peter’s base was the Department of Government at Essex University but after work he had an equally familar perch in the Channel Four Newsroom at ITN in London monitoring satellite feeds of the Vremya TV news programmme for any coded clues of new developments in Moscow.
As the editor of a programme that couldn’t afford its own Moscow correspondent I found his train fares from Essex and a modest appearance fee the best ‘foreign’ desk investment we ever made. Peter also appeared on other ITN programmes and on BBC radio.
In a tribute Ian Budge of Essex University said ‘With the Cold War in full swing, Russian studies was a progressive and very relevant subject to develop. Peter was their presiding spirit both in the University and in wider spheres. He was a strong believer in having personal and hands-on contact with the Soviet Union and followed on this by travelling there extensively, making many friends and contacts. Peter’s expertise was nationally recognised when he became the Soviet specialist for Channel 4 News’.
Professor Budge says Peter Frank was a provincial working class lad who worked as a bicycle mechanic after leaving school, was conscripted into the Army at 18 and on the basis of his O-levels was offered a chance to study Russian and interpret radio communications. He managed to pass the course ,was demobbed with a command of Russian, trained as a teacher and then went on to University.
From what he learned and taught at Essex,from those clues gleaned from Soviet TV and from his briefings with his contacts,Peter Frank consistently called it right as President Gorbachev struggled to reform the unreformable .As an example,take the events of 15 March 1989 where the ITN archive database chronicles the output of that night’s C4N as:
President Mikhail Gorbachev urges the Central Committee to accept new reforms which will overhaul Soviet agriculture and address the problem of food supplies. The proceedings are shown on state TV. Peter Frank of Essex University believes that the risk of failure is fairly high since the entrenched interests of bureaucrats are at stake.
Peter’s humble background stood him in wonderfully good stead as a communicator.He was an expert but one with a common sense touch that viewers warmed to.On Channel Four News we were pleased for his growing reputation and he for ours.A proud academic he was also a good friend to journalism and journalists and we will remember him with great affection.
A note from Essex University: Professor Frank’s funeral takes place on Monday 2 December at 2.45pm at Colchester Crematorium. The family have asked that there should be family flowers only but donations may be made to British Lung Foundation for research into pulmonary fibrosis, c/o Hunnaball of Colchester, York House, 41 Mersea Road, Colchester CO2 7QT.