Remarkable lives › 1950s › Gillian Reynolds (English, 1954)

Gillian Reynolds was born in 1935 in Liverpool and came up to St Anne’s to read English in 1954. She found her time at St Anne’s hugely formative.

Through the then Principal, Mary Ogilvie, in 1957 Gillian secured a post-graduate place at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, to study part-time for a Master’s and work in the News Bureau (the college’s press and public relations office). In 1960 she returned to the UK with her American husband.  When her mother died in 1962 she took over running her small business, a stall in St. John’s Market, Liverpool. In 1964 she began a parallel career in television and journalism and in 1967 became radio critic of the Guardian. Seven years later she was offered the post of Programme Controller at Radio City in Liverpool, the first woman in such a post in the UK. In 1975 she moved to London to become radio critic of the Daily Telegraph where she remains, combining journalism with an active broadcasting career. She was appointed the first Fellow of the Radio Academy in 1990, elected a Fellow of the Royal Television Society in 1996, received an MBE for services to broadcasting in 1999 and was awarded the Media Society’s Gold Award in 2004.  She has received honours from a number of academic institutions and was made an Honorary Fellow of St. Anne’s in 1996. She has three sons and two grandchildren, names among her pastimes the company of friends and continues to play a significant role in the St Anne’s community at home and abroad.

How do you think your experience at Anne’s prepared and influenced you for later life?

It was a huge turning point in my life, both socially and intellectually. I learnt a lot about me, the world, and the way other people lived. It was a huge thing to go to university, any university at all. I was the first in my family. And for someone from a notorious council estate in Liverpool coming to Oxford was a real eye-opener. I had had no idea of the other tribes of England. If you were from the North-West as I am, it was a fascinating experience to observe those other tribes.

And bear in mind that we’re also talking about the mid-1950s. Times were hard, and it was all a bit Spartan. I’ve never been so cold or so hungry as in my first year.

Your principal can make a huge difference to your time at university. Lady Ogilvie was responsible for my year at Mount Holyoke. I was sitting on the quad under the tree by the principal’s office, and she came out onto the little balcony and said ‘Miss Morton, come up.’ I was with my friends just sitting around laughing and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m in trouble.’ But I went up and she asked if I was interested in going abroad. Well of course I said ‘Yes!’ because I’d applied for everything to go abroad for after I’d finished at Oxford. And she said she had this thing, and could I type. Well I couldn’t, but I said yes. It caught up with me though.

So if Oxbridge and university in general hadn’t really been on the radar for you, what was the motivation? What was expected to come of it?

My mother expected me to go to university from when I started at school. It had always been the expectation. Her intention was Girton [College, Cambridge]. Life didn’t turn out that way, but she wasn’t disappointed.

With regards to the expectation of what a university education would do, my mother’s great theory (which worked out to be true) was that an education was meant to teach you to know yourself, to do what you do best, and to be prepared for anything. It’s not meant for anything specific like, ‘I’m going to be a lawyer, or I’m going to be a teacher.’ It’s to be ready to do anything, and make the best use of what nature has given you. And a good education will always teach you how to learn, and to go on learning all through your life.

So how did you get into radio?

That was pure accident. My husband and I had come back to live in the UK in 1960, to Liverpool, and he was working as TV Critic for the Guardian. I had done some theatre reviews for them, and they knew I could work to time. So they offered me the position of radio critic, and I worked there for seven years. I left to be Programme Controller at Radio City in Liverpool, the first commercial radio station there. I began work with the Telegraph 40 years ago this November. I was 40, so half of my working life has been spent being the Telegraph’s Radio Critic. Which is a surprise to me, but there you are.

But obviously I had listened to the radio. I’d grown up with it. Grown up with it in the war, which was quite significant. And when you’re young, poor and married it’s your best friend. You just listen to it all the time. Although when I was an undergraduate and when I was in America I didn’t have one. I knew one boy at Oxford with a portable radio. A portable radio was an enormous thing, powered by a car battery, and we used to assemble in his rooms at Christ Church and listen to The Goon Show.

Do you worry about the future of radio?

At the moment I’m worried about cuts to the licence fee. Because it’s called the TV licence, everybody assumes that radio just appears out of nowhere. Cuts to the licence fee mean that radio has to try and do much more with so much less money than television. But radio is an absolute seed-bed of talent, in every single genre. The BBC doesn’t value its own radio service enough. But it’s hugely popular and there’s nothing like it in the world. If it’s destroyed now, it will not happen again. You cannot reinvent Radio 3 and 4, and in many ways 2 is the most historic network, and remains an undervalued asset.

You’re very much still in contact with St. Anne’s: you’re an Honorary Fellow, you were involved with the ASM. What’s it like continuing to be involved with college as it has changed over the years?

Well it’s a bit of a surprise to me that I am. I wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t come back for a Gaudy. One of my best friends at Oxford convinced me that we absolutely had to go back. And I was terribly intrigued by it because it was so different. There hadn’t been a hall when I was there. Wolfson and Rayne weren’t there. And one year when Claire Palley was Principal I got involved in a committee and began to understand the college’s dilemmas, steps and developments. And I realised what a fundamental difference it had made to my life. So I got involved, and eventually became ASM President. Working with a terrific committee, we changed the way the ASM looked at things. From my time in America I knew a bit about fundraising. My contact with Mount Holyoke people meant that I was familiar with their constant emphasis on contribution and repayment in all kinds of ways. Then when Ruth Deech was Principal and appointed one part-time development officer, the ASM was able to help. A lot more inter-generational activity arose, and that was very enriching. A rugby dinner was one of the most fun fundraisers I’ve ever done for St. Anne’s. I remember ringing up Boris Johnson and trying to get him to come.

You don’t really realise being part of your college can continue past your degree until mid-life, or approaching it, because you suddenly start looking back and thinking ‘How did I get here?’ And then you realise what a turning-point it was. And you start to think, ‘I wonder if I can help anybody else?’

Could you finish with a fond memory of St Anne’s?

Well I think my proudest St. Anne’s achievement was the little memorial book for Mrs Bednarowska. Ruth Deech pulled a total Ruth on me and managed to get me to organise the memorial. I handwrote all the names on the letters and at the end asked people to include any memories they had about Mrs Bed. The response was incredible, and I thought “we have to make a book.” So we did. Her career spanned so many generations and it was just such an enriching experience to sit down and read all those letters. We sold the book after the memorial service. Ruth came up to me and said, ‘How’s it going?’ It’s a good job I had learnt the old market trick of rolling up banknotes because I just said to her, ‘Feel in my pockets’. So she did and said, ‘We’re home.’