Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

TV star Gordon Burns on rows with prime ministers, the day he thought he was going to be shot... and his famous pop star relative

The broadcaster who began his journalistic career at the Belfast Telegraph tells Linda Stewart how he only hosted The Krypton Factor as a favour for a friend and being let down by George Best

Gordon Burnsrelaxing at the Crawfordsburn Inn as he is back home visiting friends. Photo by Peter Morrison
Gordon Burnsrelaxing at the Crawfordsburn Inn as he is back home visiting friends. Photo by Peter Morrison
Gordon Burns enjoying a return visit to Northern Ireland
Gordon Burns as a child (on left) aged four with brother Deric in the garden during the winter of 1947
Gordon Burns on The Krypton Factor
Gordon Burns as a young TV presenter

By Linda Stewart

Mention Gordon Burns and everyone will instantly go 'The Krypton Factor'! The Belfast-born broadcaster admits that as a serious journalist, he was a reluctant recruit to the iconic ITV game show, planning to sign up only for a year to help out a pal. But he ended up helming the hugely successful show for an 18-year run from 1977 until 1995.

However, in Manchester, where the 77-year-old broadcaster now lives, he is synonymous with the BBC news programme North West Tonight, which he presented from 1997 to 2011.

And, in Northern Ireland, many still remember him as the presenter of the nightly news programme UTV Reports, documenting the dark early days of the Troubles as the region descended into violence.

His Wikipedia page offers up yet another claim to fame as the second cousin of singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran - "he's a young but a very distant cousin".

They've met a few times - Ed appeared on Gordon's radio show and they chatted over a pint of Guinness at the funeral of Gordon's grandfather.

"He's a lovely guy, a very, very nice fellow and a very talented musician and singer," Gordon tells me in a chat at the Old Inn at Crawfordsburn as he visits Northern Ireland for the ITV 60th anniversary celebrations.

But his proudest claim to fame is his status as one of a select few who have interviewed no fewer than eight successive UK prime ministers over the course of a long and distinguished career.

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Of those eight, he admits three lost their tempers in the course of the interview and an angry outburst by Ted Heath made headlines across the UK.

Gordon Burns as a young TV presenter

It happened in the early days of the Troubles when Gordon was fronting UTV Reports and the House of Commons was holding a two-day debate on a White Paper proposing a new power-sharing Assembly. Gordon was tasked to 10 Downing Street to interview Prime Minister Ted Heath, a major coup for a regional outlet at the time.

"He was probably one of the nastiest, coldest, most distant men I've met," he comments.

When Gordon pointed out to Heath that loyalists in Northern Ireland had vowed to oppose the power-sharing assembly, the PM erupted, shouting: "Loyalists? There are no more disloyal people in the whole of the UK than the people who do not accept the sovereign decisions of the Government."

Gordon pressed the Prime Minister on whether he was calling people like Ian Paisley and William Craig disloyal and the next day headlines saying that Heath had branded loyalists 'disloyal' were all over the national newspapers.

"Paisley went bananas in the House of Commons, demanding an apology, and wrote a letter of protest to the Queen," Gordon says.

As for the other prime ministers, he describes Jim Callaghan as "unpleasant and arrogant", while Margaret Thatcher "got bolshy with me and metaphorically handbagged me".

"After her was Tony Blair - he was all right - and after Blair was Gordon Brown who was the nicest of all the prime ministers I interviewed," he says.

"Cameron got very annoyed and unhappy with me at the end of his interview. And John Major lost his temper at the end of the interview, and said 'you are a paid-up member of the Labour Party and a friend of Peter Mandelson' - not true. I had a go at him about the state of the NHS after 17 years of Conservative rule. His wife tutted all the way through the interview and they gave me the dirtiest look when they left."

Now retired, Gordon lives in Manchester with his wife Sheelagh to whom he has been married for nearly 48 years. He has two granddaughters aged 21 and 25 through his son Tris (52) and two grandchildren aged three and seven through his daughter Anna (41) who lives near Philadelphia.

Gordon himself was born at Wellington Park in Belfast, but when he was a child his family moved to Kent where he attended the local primary school and then went to the prestigious Dulwich College.

Gordon Burns as a child (on left) aged four with brother Deric in the garden during the winter of 1947

There's certainly nothing lacking in his media pedigree, with four generations of journalists in the family tree - his dad was editor of the Lisburn Standard and his mum's father wrote for the rival Lisburn Herald.

In recent years he and his brother Deric (80) were invited to the 150th anniversary of the Newry Reporter, originally founded by their great grandfather James Burns.

When Gordon was a child, his dad had begun working at Stormont for Hansard, and in 1948 took a job at Hansard in London. But when Gordon was in upper fourth the family returned to Belfast, settled in the Belmont Road and he began attending Campbell College.

Gordon had little interest in journalism himself until a fateful incident at the east Belfast school - and it was all due to his passion for the beautiful game.

"I couldn't stand rugby because I was a total and utter football fanatic," he admits.

"My dream was the belief that one day I would pull on the green jersey of Northern Ireland and play alongside Danny Blanchflower and Jimmy McIlroy, who were my absolute heroes. I used to nip out of school to see the internationals at Windsor Park.

"Because I wanted to play football, not rugby, I formed a rebel seven-a-side soccer league called the Belmont League. We began to lose track of who won or lost and who was top of the league, so I decided to keep a little newspaper to keep track.

"I used to hand-write them at home and give them to my dad, he took them to his secretary at Stormont and in the early days she typed them up and printed copies on carbon paper. I stapled them together in the evenings and took them to school and sold them for 3p."

But disaster struck when he was called into the headmaster's study and confronted with his work.

"I thought I was in for some praise for my ingenuity and hard work, but he said 'have you a licence to sell this in school?'

"I panicked and said I didn't know I needed a licence. And he said 'this is banned and I never, ever want to see this in this school again' and he dropped it into the bin. I was shattered.

"But I've got a bit of a rebel streak in me so I produced the next edition and sold it five yards outside the gates, which was legal, and being a banned magazine, it sold like hot cakes!"

It was then that Gordon was contacted by the late Belfast Telegraph journalist Eddie McIlwaine who wanted to cover the story and asked him to come to the newsroom.

"There were six or seven other desks with reporters and they were all typing away for the late edition - they only wrote one paragraph at a time and then the reporter would shout 'Boy!' and a boy would run down to the end of the corridor to the subs and gave it to the sub who was building the page," Gordon reminisces.

"There were all these typewriters clickety clacking and down in the basement of the Tele the machinery was thundering away, getting the edition out. And all through the building was a slight smell of ink and it was just so exciting and so exhilarating. I loved writing my own little magazine, but at that one moment with Eddie, I thought this was what I wanted to be, a journalist."

In September 1960, Gordon started his first job at the Belfast Telegraph, sitting next to Eddie McIlwaine - "And the b****** played several tricks on me that I'll never forget!" he adds ruefully.

One was when Gordon was finally given responsibility for doing the hourly ring-round of hospitals and emergency services to find out if anything had happened. Eddie told him he needed to phone the Royal Victoria maternity unit.

Gordon quickly got on the phone to the matron at the maternity unit to ask about any emergencies during the night, only to be told 'I think somebody may be pulling your leg!'

"I looked over my shoulder and they were all in hysterics in the office," he laughs.

"They also lit a bonfire under my chair once. They were creased up laughing at the smoke coming from under my chair."

Later, Gordon worked at the Larne Times, then owned by the Belfast Telegraph, and reported on the Carrickfergus news. One of his proudest moments was persuading the residents of Eden village to march on the council and demand a zebra crossing, which is still in place.

After a few years he successfully applied to be a sports news assistant in BBC Radio in London and enjoyed a few exciting years in the London of the Rolling Stones, Beatlemania and Mary Quant. Then in 1967, he returned to Northern Ireland for a sports presenter role at UTV, later moving up to presenter of UTV Reports when he was standing in for frontman David Mahlowe.

"I was hardly in the job for six months when the Troubles started… and suddenly I was in the thick of this story that was growing and growing. I did the first four years of the Troubles and I was threatened every night by one side or the other," Gordon says.

One morning UTV got a call saying 'we're just letting you know that Gordon Burns is on the list'.

"It was well known that there were assassination lists at the time on both sides and the police said I had to take this seriously. I got scary calls from the police telling me how to behave, to go to work at a different time and by a different route every morning, telling me how to look under the car and what to look for, and how to examine any parcels that arrived."

Three days later, things escalated. Gordon and Sheelagh were living with their son Tris in a flat in the Belmont Road area and he was leaving to bring Tris to school.

"Quite close behind me, a car pulled up across the gateway - a Ford Cortina, which was the car they always used - and there were two guys in the front. It had just came after the warning and I didn't know what to do," he says.

"I walked out and put Tris on my inside, turned left on Belmont Road and left again, and they came with me, driving at exactly my speed up the road with me.

"I was aware of the guy in the passenger side next to me winding the window down, and I thought about diving into the hedge with Tris first so that if they shot me they wouldn't get through to him. I was just about to dive into the hedge when they revved off and I was just shaking. I didn't tell my wife for eight years.

"I thought I had imagined it. But the next morning the same thing happened - they pulled up, but this time I took their number."

After Gordon reported the incident to the RUC, they came back to say the threat had been traced to east Belfast.

He adds: "They said 'right it won't happen again'. I asked what was it about, but they just said 'Gordon, listen carefully, it won't happen again, leave it'."

It never did happen again and Gordon says he never heard any more about it.

In 1973, another move was on the cards.

"I'd done enough of the same story with the Troubles, interviewing the same people every night - Paisley, Fitt, Hume - and I moved to England," he says.

"I landed a job anchoring the evening news with Granada, same as I was doing in Belfast only without the Troubles. During that time I got to work for the prestigious award-winning World in Action programme."

The next big leap was The Krypton Factor which began in 1977. At the time Gordon was very much a politics and current affairs journalist and a friend told him about the game show he had piloted with someone else in the presenting role.

"The other guy decided not to do it, but the pilot had got through and it was going to be networked. It was getting closer to production and my pal used to ask me every night who will I get to present it," Gordon says.

"Then after a couple of weeks he said 'I've found the guy I want to do it' and I asked who and he said 'You'. And I said 'Don't be silly, I'm a serious journalist'. And I said I would only do it for a year to help him out."

But that year was to turn into 18, with the show running at 7pm on Monday nights and winning huge audiences. Contestants from across the UK and Ireland were pitted against each other in a series of rounds that tested their physical stamina and mental agility.

Gordon Burns on The Krypton Factor

But The Krypton Factor wasn't without its flipside.

Gordon admits: "It was good in many ways for me, but you get pigeonholed on TV - and the politics and current affairs faded away.

"Suddenly I ended up doing things like Surprise Surprise with Cilla Black - I appeared in one show and ended up doing five series. I set up my own production company and began to devise quiz-type shows."

He laughs about bringing Page 3 star Linda Lusardi to Northern Ireland to do his Password show. "She was staying at the Culloden and she was able to drink most people under the table with whiskies and brandies," he says.

Password featured celebrities teaming up with members of the public to guess words based on clues given by their teammates, which resulted in a hilarious exchange when Danny La Rue was rehearsing with a lady from mid Ulster.

"Danny was given this word to describe and the word was 'sale'," Gordon says.

"So he looked at the word and in his big expansive way he said to her 'BAH-gain'. She screwed her eyes up, and he said even louder 'BAH-gain!' She said 'Is the word 'dirty'?'

"We asked her, 'Where did you get that from?' and she goes 'Oh my God, I thought he said BOGGIN'!"

He also talks of securing a TV interview with Beatles legend Paul McCartney by racing over to the radio studio where he was chatting with Mark Radcliffe and collaring him outside the loo. "He was lovely, couldn't have been more helpful," he recalls.

And then there were the times he was supposed to interview George Best, such as when George was home to see his parents in Cregagh and was slated to do an afternoon kids programme.

"He said 'I'll meet you there at 3pm, send a taxi' and I said no, because I knew George's reputation, I'll come and pick you up. So I was outside his home at Burren Way and there were about a million girls outside all screaming

"His mum Anne said he was still in bed, then next thing he appears at the bedroom window, opened it and all the girls were screaming, so I pointed at my watch and he eventually got in the car and came with me.

"He probably let me down about five times and did about three interviews. He just didn't turn up - that's the way he was.

"But every time he met up with me again, those amazing blue eyes he had and that lovely voice - he would win you over within seconds. He just had natural charm and ability - he was the greatest footballer I ever knew."

For the last 15 years of his working life, Gordon presented BBC North West Tonight. His interviewee wishlist for his final week before retirement included Sir Alex Ferguson and comedian Peter Kay, culminating in Peter giving the Burns family a lift to his own sell-out show at the Manchester Arena afterwards.

But it wasn't the end of Gordon's media involvement. After retirement he joined forces with former Manchester Evening News editor Paul Horrocks to set up media training company The Gordon Burns Partnership, offering advice to companies on communications, reputation management, leadership and media training, including setting up mock studio interviews, down-the-line and press conferences.

"It keeps us ticking over - it's like giving something back," Gordon says.

"A lot of media training companies teach people how to avoid questions - we'll never do that. You answer the questions. If you've done something wrong, you apologise. If you've accepted the interview, you've got to be honest - the minute you avoid the question everybody knows what it is.

"The minute you start avoiding the questions there is a reason why. If you avoid it or you cover it up, they'll find you out, because journalists never give up and they'll get you eventually.

"If you say we got this wrong, we've taken a good hard look and put processes in place and it shouldn't happen again, they've had the wind taken out of their sails. Honesty is the best policy."

As we wrap up, there's one last story - the Channel 4 interview he did with Gerry Adams in the upstairs bedroom of a west Belfast terrace.

Gordon describes Adams telling him he should never have left Northern Ireland and then adding: ''Mind you, I liked that Krypton Factor programme. I really liked the assault course. I keep myself fairly fit - I think I'd be quite good at that."

Gordon recounts his response: "I said 'you wouldn't have got past the third obstacle' and he looked quite upset.

"So I said 'I'll go further, you wouldn't get past the first obstacle. You're forgetting one thing, our assault course is filmed at a British Army base in England and there are British Army soldiers standing at every obstacle'."

The room went silent, he says.

"And then he burst out laughing and everybody else joined in."

To find out more about the Gordon Burns Partnership, visit www.gordonburns

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