Weekend editor Aine Toner tracks down one of the presenters whose shows made her childhood. Prepare to step back into the wonder of 1980s and 1990s children’s TV programming
In the two days before I meet Gordon Burns in Belfast — where he was celebrating his 80th birthday with lunch in The Crown and a visit to his grandmother’s former house — at least four or five people had come up to him to say, ‘Krypton Factor.’
It’s the reason we got in touch with the broadcaster, who, prior to visiting Belfast, spent time with his cousin in Wexford, but there’s more to Gordon’s career than the legendary show.
The young ‘football fanatic’ had ambitions to play for Northern Ireland but this sporting interest developed thanks to the outcome of an entrepreneurial endeavour.
“I was in love with the entire team,” he says over cups of coffee at the Wellington Park Hotel.
“The great Danny Blanchflower, skipper for Northern Ireland, who played for Tottenham Hotspur.
“He was my hero along with Jimmy McIlroy, who played for Burnley.
“I would have crawled from Bangor to Belfast, over broken glass, to even stand within a foot of one of them.
“My dream was to pull on the jersey of Northern Ireland and play but I didn’t recognise it at the time, but I was never anywhere near good enough.”
The young Gordon formed ‘a rebel soccer league’ while at the rugby playing Campbell College and it developed enough to cause him to write — and produce — the Belmont Rovers Gazette.
“We played each other in the holidays or sometimes after school. We began to chronicle the goal scorers and then I began to write this magazine with a pal of mine. The team was the Belmont Rovers, so I decided to call it the Belmont Rovers Gazette.
“I had an editorial page where I could have a go at everybody, and then a letters page, which was a response from the guys at school that wanted to criticise what I had just written, and then I had a response to that — I had full control.”
He gave the handwritten magazine to his father, the editor of Hansard in the Stormont Parliament, whose secretary typed it up on stencils and ran off copies, which Gordon clipped together.
“I sold them for thruppence. And the money went to pay for our kit and trolley bus trips to our away matches and all that sort of stuff.”
That was until Campbell College’s headmaster asked Gordon to see him in his study, where he held a copy aloft and queried, ‘Are you responsible for this rag?’
The Gazette was swiftly banned from appearing within the school grounds, leaving Gordon no choice but to sell it outside the building’s gates.
“Because it was a banned magazine, it sold like hotcakes,” laughs Gordon.
The Belfast Telegraph’s Eddie McIlwaine heard of Gordon’s Gazette and asked him to visit the paper’s iconic Royal Avenue address so he could interview him.
“I liked writing this magazine and I could see myself as the next [sports editor] Malcolm Brodie who I got to know quite well. I thought I could be the sports editor within a few years,” says Gordon.
“It was exciting, and I can remember the thundering sound of the machinery in the basement of the Telegraph. The building slightly shook.
“There was ink in those days and the smell pervaded the building and I thought it was great, it was exciting.
“It’s that very moment I sat there and said, ‘This is for me’. This is what I decided to do, I’m going to replace Malcolm Brodie within two years or something.”
So keen was Gordon that he asked then editor Jack Sayers several times for a newspaper job. Eventually, he was brought in for an interview.
“He asked, ‘What are your ambitions, Gordon?’ I said, ‘Well, I want to replace Malcolm Brodie within two years as a sports editor’. He roared with laughter. He said start on September 18.”
During his time, he also worked on the Ballymena Weekly and Larne Times, working in Carrickfergus then Larne.
“There were three young ‘uns and an ageing editor who spent most of his time on the golf course but was the loveliest man,” remembers Gordon of life in Larne.
“We had to put the entire paper out, the three of us, weekly.
“It was the most fantastic training ground, and I wouldn’t change any of it for the world. It was the best platform I could set off to other things in. We had the time of our lives in Larne. We were so young; learning to chase girls, learning to drink, living in digs together.
“The landlady put the three of us in one small bedroom, beds chucked together, and she made us put a copy of the paper on the floor beside the bed every time we went to bed at night because we’d have been in the King’s Arms [Hotel].
“Two lagers and lime, disgusting, but did it for me. I was away with it then. She was worried we were going to be sick on the carpet.”
The broadcaster describes his life and career ‘as a series of flukes’ and when starting out, had his sights set on London along with fellow journalism friends Tony Eames and Ian Sanderson.
“We were desperate to go to London. This is where it was at, London. I’d grown up from the age of five to 13 in England.
“It had just started with the Beatles, Rolling Stones, pop culture, everything was America before that. Now we were beginning to take over the world.
“The first coffee bar came to Larne during that time, and we used to sit there, the first cappuccino we’d ever drunk, talking about how we’d get to London, the Beatles always playing on the jukebox.”
His dream job, sports news assistant on radio programme BBC Sports Report was advertised — ‘I never missed this programme, I lived for it’ — though he decided it wasn’t for him when he read the application form.
However, after a night of imbibing, he ‘was in no fit state’ to do what he did: complete the application, with an additional two-and-a-half sides of A4 on his suitability — ‘I have no idea what I did or said but it was all about how much you’d need me’.
Two weeks later, he received a letter telling him he’d gotten a board at the BBC.
“I wasn’t in the [final interviews] 12, or the first 100, or even the first 200. But one of them said something along the lines of, it’s going be a long, hard day, why don’t we get that guy from Ireland over here who wrote all that garbage? He could give us some light relief. I was meant to be the joke, no chance of a job.”
A chance meeting with Angus Mackay, one of the interviewees and co-editor of a sports book on Sports Report, which was gathering dust in the Larne library sport section until Gordon fortunately discovered it, and two weeks after his interview, Gordon was offered the job.
“Life has been like that all the way through,” says Gordon, now a motivational speaker and co-owner of media training company The Gordon Burns Partnership.
Decades of journalism work on air were to follow. He returned to Northern Ireland to work on Ulster Television, fronting news programme UTV Reports during the first four years of the Troubles.
He was even given his own chat show, The Gordon Burns Hour.
He had returned to England and was working in news and current affairs for Granada Television when The Krypton Factor came up in 1977.
“I’d done the first four years of the Troubles, probably the most violent years, anchoring that programme in the evening, threats left right and centre, evacuations happened all the time,” he says of the show.
“I even got to interview Ted Heath in Downing Street as the Prime Minister during my UTV days, which was a big coup and a very important interview as it turned out.”
His friend, Jeremy Fox, had devised The Krypton Factor and while it was commissioned, its presenter pulled out.
It got very close to the first episode and while Gordon had offered suggestions, Jeremy knew who he wanted: Gordon.
“I’m a serious journalist, I’m not doing a quiz show though I liked the idea of it,” he says of his reaction in 1977.
“He said it’s only for one year, so it won’t affect the current affairs or politics. And I relented, I’d do it for one year. Eighteen years later…” he smiles.
And what a success: at its peak it had over 18 million viewers and sat as number two in the ratings behind Coronation Street.
Contestants competed in a series of rounds that tested their physical stamina and mental attributes. Rounds included Mental Agility, Intelligence, Observation and Response.
“The set was ahead of its time,” says Gordon on its popularity.
“The set was stunning. When you saw it, you were drawn in immediately.
“It wasn’t a presenter’s show. I was anonymous to the general public, and a political man, which is why they wanted somebody serious to present.
“I was never to smile from beginning to end. Clive James, the TV critic, when he wrote the first review, described as a very average show along with an anonymous looking presenter.
“Jeremy left it after one or two years, the new guy took over said it needed more warmth so I was to smile and be happy at the beginning and the end but [look] heavy when I’m doing the questioning. That changed its image.
“It’s difficult to know why things click and why they don’t. But there were challenges, like Mental Agility,” he continues.
“They were fascinated by it in the same way you can’t answer a single question in University Challenge or for most of Mastermind. But you could with this.”
The assault course [Physical Ability] was something ‘everyone fancied a go at’ says Gordon. “We built it at an army base and the army had to approve it all because their men were going to use it as well.
“We introduced an aircraft simulator round where you had to land a jumbo jet at Heathrow. It was phenomenal when you were in the cockpit of the simulator. It was real; you believed it.”
It was peak evening viewing for the whole family: “We had mums and dads who said their kids wouldn’t go to bed at age six, or whatever until they’d seen The Krypton Factor.”
The Intelligence round tested participants’ spatial awareness and could take up to 40 minutes to record.
“You had to have a puzzle that was visually interesting and challenge the contestants but if they’re going to do it two minutes would have to be quite easy,” says Gordon. “We filmed it until the third person finished because you needed the 10, six, four and two scores.
“Sometimes you’d get one finished and were waiting for the other three. Occasionally if they were as bad as each other, we’d pause the recording and the guy would come in and give them one clue together, though very rarely.”
There was also the ‘iconic’ final General Knowledge round.
“The director worked out to get all four faces of the contestants in together, he worked out how to remove them from their main seats — nobody ever knew that happened — and put them together on separate seats,” says Gordon.
“Then we recorded the last round and he had spotlights on each of their faces.
“Only their faces were lit up, and the first one to press cut out the other three lights dramatically.
“It never got a good review ever in its run and also the snotty papers said it tried to be intellectual. It wasn’t trying to be anything of the sort. Nowadays it is always referred to as the iconic, legendary show, all these things we never got at the time, but we knew the public liked it.”
Being local meant Gordon, despite living in the UK, was no stranger to working back at home.
This included working on World in Action, ‘an iconic, magnificent programme, award winning, brilliant investigative journalism programme’ which he describes as an honour to do.
The series wanted a segment on the Ulster Workers’ Council strike of 1974, which Gordon was to report on. He was to drive the team’s car also, given his knowledge of the locality.
“They wanted to film about 8am on the lower Newtownards Road which was always jam packed, with people going to work or the shipyards at the bottom of it,” he explains.
“We drove to it and set up in the middle of a street.
“George Jesse Turner — he was the most magnificent cameraman — got the camera out with his tripod with the soundman and producer as George filmed it.”
Close to filming was a large pub where many were congregating — and they were unhappy with what was happening.
“They all started to run towards us,” says Gordon. “I said to George Jesse Turner, ‘Right we have to go.’
“He said, ‘Just a few seconds more,’ and they were getting closer and closer.
“He just collapsed the tripod into one bit, whipped the camera off it and got in.
“The guys were almost on us when he pulled the door.
“From my Northern Ireland training, the first thing I said to them was, ‘Lock your doors now’. They locked the doors just as they got to us, and I drove off down there and up a side street I knew. But some of them were trying to get the doors open as we drove off.”
Fifty years on, Gordon maintains it was a great thing as a young journalist to cover the Troubles.
“When I look back on how scary it was and all the threats and ‘we’re going to get you’ after you’ve done a hard Paisley interview or a hard John Hume interview or one side or the other.
“If you can interview Irish politicians and keep them in order, you can do anything. I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.”
Politics was always close to his heart, having interviewed eight successive Prime Ministers through his career.
He says he was pigeonholed and moved from politics for a time to a ‘slight excursion in entertainment’ — such as when Cilla Black asked him to be involved in one episode of Surprise, Surprise and he was still there five years later.
“I was missing journalism and out of the blue came this offer to present the regional programme in the northwest of England, BBC North West Tonight.
“I did it for 15 years and to anchor a live programme every night where you don’t know what’s going to happen is exciting.”
News included the case of Dr Harold Shipman, the second runway at Manchester Airport and the Louise Woodward trial and the show received numerous Royal Television Society awards.
“I got six individually in my time there and the programme got seven or eight,” says Gordon.
“I can actually look you in the eye and say in all my 50 years plus as a journalist and a worker in the media, there’s never been a single day ever where I haven’t looked forward going into work.
“If you can do it through your life, it’s horrible to retire, but I’ve been paid well for it. Not a fortune as most people think but paid well and loved it all.”
Follow Gordon on twitter @mrgordonburns. For more information on the Gordon Burns Partnership, see www.gordonburnspartnership.co.uk