Recording: Gordon Burns 1
Interview done by Stephen Kelly on January 22.
0:36 Tell me how you came to join Granada and where you had been just before.
Before Granada, I was at Ulster Television in Belfast because I come from Northern Ireland, I’m Belfast-born, half Belfast-bred – I moved to England when I was five, and back when I was 13, to Northern Ireland, hence the lack of Northern Ireland accent! But I had worked on local newspapers, then I’d gone on the BBC Sport in London, on radio, and then I landed the job on Ulster Television, which was largely on sport, but in the end I became a presenter of the evening news programme, the nightly news programme for Ulster Television, just as the Troubles broke. So for four years, I covered the Troubles in Northern Ireland, battled with all the politicians, Ian Paisley and John Hughes, and ministers, and even the British prime minister, Ted Heath.
After six years at Ulster Television – and four years covering the Troubles – I wanted to move to England to try myself in a bigger pond, if you like, so I left without actually a job to go to. So I went off to England, and I got a call out of the blue from a guy called Chris Pye (corr), who had just been appointed head of local programmes there, he was in charge of the brand new, just about to be launched, Granada Reports, which was taking over from whatever its predecessor was, and I got a call out of the blue saying would I be interested. Well, at the same time I had a phone call from whatever the equivalent of Newsnight – I think it was Midweek in those days – and I went to see Midweek, who offered me work on a short-term basis “to see how it went”, whereas I went to see Granada, and they then offered me the job as one of the presenters on the new Granada Reports on a longer term basis, so still on a contract, and in the end I decided that, as I needed to buy houses and [get]mortgages, that I would take the Granada offer. And so, when Granada Reports was launched in, I think, September 1973, I was one of the three presenters. They only had two presenters a night, so they permed two from three, but I was one of the new brigade, and I presented alongside the established favourite at Granada, Bob Greaves, and a guy called Brian Truman, and we were the presenters. Note: not women. There was… in those days, it wasn’t that fashionable at all to have a woman presenter, and the producer of the programme – in fact virtually all the days I was there – the producers were all male, and the head of the region was male, although there were a sprinkling of females in the research team, and going on in the end to be producers and directors. So that’s how I started in 1973.
3:51 That’s interesting. I can’t recall a Granada presenter prior to Shelley Rohde.
Yes. From the launch of an afternoon programme, which Nick Turnbull did at the start, I think Shelley Rohde probably became the first one that I can remember, somebody might well pop up and say, “You’ve forgotten this.” But we had a number of regional programmes, sort of late night programmes and politics programmes and Granada Reports, it was great. In those days, there was quite a lot of regional programmes, which was fantastic – but I can’t remember any female presenters there. But I do remember on the research team, not I think in ’73, but joined shortly after that – ’74 or ’75 – was one called Anna Ford, who of course then went on to be of course the first female news network presenter for ITN. But it was largely a male-orientated area.
5:09 So you’re working on Granada Reports. Did you work on any of the other Granada programmes?
Well, it was just Granada Reports when I started – and I was astonished. I’d come from little Ulster television, Belfast – and although we had a major international story on our doorstep night after night, so there was that huge programme, with big interviews to be done, and a very challenging situation, we had (Toms? 5:42) going off all over the place, people being killed, pubs being blown up, we were all being threatened almost every day over there on the phone etc., so it was a very different environment. But it was a small group and there were no such things as researchers at Ulster Television, you did everything yourself – in fact, I did a sports programme which I produced, presented and did everything for. There was no researcher; I was out there filming during the week and all that sort of thing, so it was a huge change for me when I came to Granada and saw this new Granada Reports programme, saw their newsroom, which was massive. I mean, I can’t been think how many people there were, but there must have been eight or nine if not 10 researchers, a number of directors… if you went out to make a short film for the programme, a three-minute film, sometimes four minutes if you were lucky, somebody, one of these thrusting young people who had been a researcher – and they were all desperate to make it in television, so there was a great energy there, and great competition – and they fought to become producers and directors, and had to go through a very heavy board system where, if there was a director’s job going, most of the researchers would apply for it, then a number of them would be interviewed, and if they got through that interview they went to the higher level interview, which was with the controller of programmes, David Plowright and Sir Denis Forman and people like that at Granada, which were very heavy sort of state of the world type interviews, which I never thought was the best way of getting the best producer or director, because it was the people who could handle, intellectually, those interviews that tended to get the jobs, rather than the people who had proved themselves good at making programmes as researchers. But anyway, that’s how it worked.
So they were all thrusting young people, so you always went out with a director to make your little films for the programme, and I was just astonished at the budget for all these people – if you went to make a film, you would never take your own car, you called on the secretary to the programme to say, “Get me a hire car for nine o’clock tomorrow morning,” so it would arrive the night before, you’d take it home, you’d do your job the next day, deliver it back the day after, never any question – you were always delivered a hire car to the office. So it was all things like that. It was astonishing! But what I would say is that there was all that high energy of young people wanting to make a career in television, wanting to shine or wanting to become, if they were researchers, wanting to become producer or director, or indeed a presenter. And that actually gave the programme… it might have had is naivety, but it also was very creative; you got some wonderful films made by these youngsters trying to shine, and that’s what I thought made it stand out. It had energy, it had creativity and it had quality. Because the big thing about Granada, why I loved working for Granada Television at that time, in those days, and I think we were all lucky to be there in those days, is that they cared desperately about quality.
So from Sir Denis Forman and David Plowright down, they wanted the very best; they wanted high quality and they wouldn’t tolerate anything beneath that. And whatever style it as, whether it was in drama with Brideshead Revisited and Jewel in the Crown, both massive plunges by Granada Television, if you like, with huge budgets etc., but high quality, if you went from there, even if you went to the soap – Coronation Street – it had to be a high quality soap. If you came down even into quiz areas, they wouldn’t do most quizzes. When they did Krypton Factor it was because it was up market – and that shone through everything you did. It had to be quality, the pressure was on you to produce quality, which is why the programmes were so good in those days, and that’s why I love working for Granada – because I just enjoyed that belief that it had to be top quality.
But I only did Granada Reports, it was about a year and a half when they changed it, they changed every year – they changed the producer, they changed the music, they changed the set – as new guys, thrusting new guys came in to take over, and they decided to go with a single presenter in a strange cockpit situation, where they had a cockpit in the centre with a presenter set, then they had a snake-like desk behind it where the various reporters – or co-presenters, if you like, who didn’t actually present – sat, doing their own special things, and in fact it was recreated in the movie of Tony Wilson’s 24 Hour Party People, that whole set was actually recreated, as Tony Wilson worked for us in those days.
I don’t know what you know about Tony, he was… he became a very close mate of mine at the time, and my family, but he was a brilliant film-maker, and I think they lost a bit of a trick with Tony personally. Tony was obsessed with being a presenter, but his actual forte was making films, and he was the sort of main reporter on Granada Reports when I joined, this new young lad, full of ideas, completely of the wall at times, so much energy, very intellectual – I think he was a Cambridge first – but quite mad as well, he had to be channelled carefully, and I think Granada were a bit worried about giving him presenting roles in politics and things, because they didn’t totally trust what he might say and do. But every night he went out, every night it was the news reporting, e went out and he made a film, and when he came back nobody had a clue what he was doing with it, because he had it in his head, so he used to come back, get the film developed –in those days, down the road, you had to get it developed and back again – and into film editing with an editor, with Tony just barking instructions at him: “Cut this out, take that out, put this out, hang up all these bits… right, put A and C together…” and he just directed the whole thing and left the gaps for commentary, and then nobody… he was always late to the studio, he came flying down to the studio with his piece in place, the director got some basic script with blanks in it, and sort of timings when it would be, but Tony would say, “Don’t worry about any of that, I’ll give you cues.”
And he would sit in his seat in the studio, they would run the film, and he would do all his voiceovers live in the gaps he’d left by waving a finger so they knew he was going to speak, then he would do it until it came out, and then back into the film for something, then to his voiceover, he would throw his finger up in the air again so they knew he was going to speak, and it was just the most car-crash television, but it worked – and his films were brilliant, every single one of them had a great idea of how to present a boring story and make it interesting. And he was phenomenally good, and I always felt that they should have, in the end, seen that in him and pulled him out and said, “You are a modern Alan Whicker – go and make half-hour films.” And I think he would have been absolutely brilliant at that – and obviously he did brilliantly anyway with what he did choose to do. He was a lovely guy, and, well, lost too soon. I think I did the last ever interview with him when I was presenting North West Tonight, and he came in, it was just eight weeks when he died, and it was just very moving and very sad. But a lovely guy, and a great asset to Granada.
13:30 You talk very fondly there about Granada Television. Was it a company that cared for its employees?
Well, care for its employees, that’s a good question. I think as much as companies do, yes – I think it did. We tended to get whatever we needed to make programmes, so they were fairly liberal with the budget, and you never felt… well, you always felt that people like David Plowright and Sir Denis Forman cared about the programmes, and therefore cared about the people who made them, and they wouldn’t suffer fools lightly, and if you didn’t believe in quality and strive to get it – and indeed, achieve it – I think you wouldn’t have lasted very long; there were some people who moved away quite quickly. But yes, I would have said that they did care about the people that were there, I had many a nice comment sent down to me by David Plowright that I never would have expected, and it’s a huge boost if the top man sends you a note about something you’ve done on television. So yes, I appreciated that, but then that was the time when the unions were growing in power, and I think that did lead to a change in situation when the unions were challenging the whole time, and strike action was not necessarily infrequent, but there was one major strike action, and in fact the unions, in my view, got far too powerful because they could take ITV off the air at a stroke. And because they were all separate companies, Granada and Thames Television and Tyne Tees and so on, if Granada had a dispute and the electricians pulled the plug and took me off the air, it was immediately – this was a time when ITV were making money, a licence to print money – and so all the other companies would put huge pressure on Granada to sort it out now because all of the other electrician’s unions supporting Granada could take the network off – so there was always that pressure, and I think life changed a bit under that because it then became management v the unions, and everybody had to be in a union, so it probably changed a bit in that way.
15:52 Let’s maybe come back to the unions.
15:57 People have talked to me about it being a paternalistic company, a bit like the traditional – Cadbury’s, Rowntree’s – and there was a doctor on site, a nurse… did you feel it was paternalistic?
It may well have been. I never felt that particularly, unless you think of a paternal system as a… you know, your dad or your parents, looking after you and making sure you’re going everything right etc. No, I just didn’t find it. I mean, I found… certainly in those early days, I found people like the Bernsteins, who regularly arrived in the building, which caused great consternation all round. When we were told that one of the Bernsteins was touring the building… now, because I’m getting old and I can’t remember individual… I remember there was Alex Bernstein, but it wasn’t Alex…
16:56 Cecil? Sidney?
Sidney. Sidney Bernstein. I remember quite vividly, every so often he used to set off round the building, and he had marching in his wake, an assistant who had a clipboard with paper on it, and Sidney Bernstein would head into an office and so on, and bark out things like, “Wall needs painting!” or whatever, and the assistant would be writing all these things down. Of course everyone who’d heard he was coming was a bit edgy and so on – the great Lord Bernstein is touring the building! – so an absolute tidy up, tidy up the office, make sure everything was neat and in place and so on.
17:39 There were supposed to be no posters n the walls, is that…?
17:45 Apart from Barnum.
Well, I could imagine that was the case, because he was quite demanding in what he wanted, and clean offices and everything clean and tidy and so on. I don’t actually remember a ban there, and in the end I put up pictures of the programmes around the walls, and nobody ever told me to take them down, because otherwise it was a bit bare on the walls. But I could sort of see that being the case, and in fact being the Bernsteins and so on, so Denis, they only wanted top quality paintings and things on the walls, I mean, this amazing art around the walls of Granada Television. I think that was more their thing than posters and bits and pieces. But it was always fascinating, this man walking around, barking out orders, “That bulb’s gone!” and the assistant behind, writing it down furiously – and it would all be done. So I remember that. But paternalistic? I don’t remember it that way at all. The only pressure was to deliver, and to give it 100%, and to be professional, and to deliver quality – it had to be quality.
19:00 You had a stint on football programmes. You did some football commentating, didn’t you?
Well, I think that’s an exaggeration that I did some football commentating! What happened was, I wanted… because I had moved away from Granada Reports, I was given this late evening programme called Reports Extra, which was basically pop psychology. We had an audience in the studio, and we did all sorts of things, like we examined one of the senses each week, smell, touch and so on, and we would have some expert in the studio, maybe from a university or something, an we would carry out experiments with the audience about smell one week and about taste the other week, and about food. And I could tell you a story about food, which you will probably cut out of this immediately, but I’ll tell it to you and you can decide. So we were doing this story based on two learned university people who had worked out that our diets were now so good that when we released our waste, if I can put it like that, in the excrement, it was high in protein, and so they decided that if human waste was processed properly and boiled to some amazing temperature to make sure the bugs were killed off, there was enough protein in it to feed animals – animal feed – and they could survive perfectly well on this. So we invited the two gentlemen, and one in particular, to come to the studio, and they asked if we would like them (us? 21:00) to bring a sample with us that they would feed to the animals. And we said… I actually said to him, (??21:06), I mean, could a human eat it? He said, “Of course a human could eat it. If you’d like me to, I will do that on television,” which seemed to be an amazing live moment on television. So he said that what he would do is spread it on a sort of biscuit, flapjack, I think, he would spread it on that like a bit of icing on the top, if you like, and that’s what happened – he ate it to prove that it was perfectly safe. Now, we were booking him for two weeks hence, but the programme the following week suddenly collapsed, and we rang him up and said, “Look, we want to do your programme tomorrow – is that alright? Can you do it?” and he said, “Yes, we’re free, but there is a problem.” I said, “What’s the problem?” and he said, “Well, I’ve been to the toilet already today so I wouldn’t be able to prepare what I promised I would bring.” I said, “Oh, that was going to be an interesting moment.” And he said, “Hang on, don’t sorry – I’ll nip down to the chemist and get some syrup of figs.” So he goes to get himself some syrup of figs, duly did the task, then he had to boil it up at the right temperature to kill off the bugs, which they normally did at some big oven thing at the university, but that was either out of action or they couldn’t use it, so he used his oven at home to do this, much to the horror of his wife, who discovered later! So anyway, they came in the next day, and that evening we had an audience, and I was talking to them about this human waste that you could feed to animals, and I then said to him, “Are all the bugs gone? Could a human eat it?” knowing he was going to do that. So he picked up the flapjack, which had a brown substance smeared on the top, and he took a bite out of it and the audience went, “Urgh!” etc., and then he looked at me and said, “Now your turn,” which I was not expecting! But there’s a strange thing happens to presenters when cameras are pointing at them and so on, and of course the audience were encouraging me to do it, so in the end I thought, “I’m going to have to.” So I also took a bite of the flapjack with the covering on the top, and people always say what did it taste like, and the answer is bland – I tasted more of the flapjack then anything else, and I wasn’t ill afterwards – but I must be the only television presenter ever to have eaten – I’ve herd plenty of it, but I’m the only one to have eaten crap, excrement, call it what you like, on television. The amusing story about that was that his wife had been so furious that he had done what he had done in the oven at home, and she came in to watch the programme, and we had a green room afterwards where we all gathered and we played the programme back to them, and to pacify her, we gave her a big box of chocolates to say we were sorry for any pressure we had put on her husband, and please accept these, and of course when she went home – this was a very hot summer’s evening – and opened the box of chocolates, it resembled very much what had been smeared on the top of the flapjacks, which upset her even more1 But anyway, that was my aside.
But while I was on this, we were doing lots of these programmes, and then because I was actually making them, but I wasn’t a producer, so I wasn’t allowed a credit, but somebody else’s credit, who was a producer, was put on the end who actually had nothing to do with the programme, which annoyed me intensely. I demanded to be a producer, and they said no. “You’re a presenter, and we don’t have producer/presenters.” At this stage, Mike Scott (corr), I think, was the controller, and he had been a producer/presenter, so I pointed that out to him, but he put to me, “No, I was an executive producer and presenter,” and I’m not quite sure, but I think that makes it worse. But anyway, he said, “How can you be critical of yourself if you are a producer as well as a presenter?”
Then they came to me a bit later because they were stuck on sport and said, look Gordon, the weekend football, where you cover the big game…” – Manchester v whoever they were playing, Tottenham – the north west commentator was Gerald Sinstadt, and then you picked two other north west teams that were playing in other areas, and you rang Tyne Tees to get them to send you highlights of the Blackburn Rovers v Newcastle game, and you rang LWT and asked for the Bolton Wanderers v Arsenal game or whatever, and they would send you clips, and you would edit all Saturday night and Sunday morning, and it went out at lunch time in the afternoon, the Kick Off Match.
And they said to me, “We will make you a producer if you agree to produce Kick Off Match for a year at least, as well as doing everything else you do,” so I was going to work a seven-day week, which did not go down well with my wife! But football is my passion anyway, and I thought a) it gets me to be a producer, and b) I won’t exactly not like it, because it’s football. You are at the match live on the Saturday, sitting in the scanner making notes, then you’re editing Saturday night and Sunday, so that’s actually how I became a producer, and I produced the football, Kick Off Match, certainly for a year, it might have been longer, I can’t remember. But that then allowed me to produce my other programmes I was doing as well as presenting them, which at that stage was Reports Extra.
We examined all sorts of things, not only did we examine the senses – in a very pop psychology way, but that was almost the fashion in those days on television – but I also did a series about the paranormal, which I have no time for personally, so I set out to disprove it as often as I could, and we did the whole series of programmes on the paranormal, which included people like… I remember a guy called Matthew Manning, who claimed that dead artists took over his arm, and he could paint in the style of Van Gogh one day, and he could do a Rembrandt the next day, and sure enough, his pictures did seem to be in those styles and seemed, to the untrained eye, fantastic. So we did a programme on him where he explained how his arm was taken over, and how he knew who it was, and then painted etc., but we also brought on an art expert who also taught in a university as well, I think, who then said, “Every one of my students, if I asked them to paint in the style of Rembrandt, Van Gogh and so on, could do exactly what he’s done, if not better.” So he was sort of more or less dismissed.
I had another guy called (name 28:17), who was a 15-year-old lad from Tokyo who claimed he could think pictures onto a camera. So if you remember the old Polaroids, were you took a picture and then you waited for 30 seconds, and then you pulled out, and then the negative bit and the other bit sort of merged together, and then you saw the picture develop in front of your eyes? He could do it on one of those, and he had done it live on American television, and we saw the clip from American television, which was very impressive – there was an ad break in the middle of it, which was suspicious to me, but we flew him in. We took him to London and he said he needed four days to get over jet lag, so we put him up in a hotel, and we looked after him, and he had a professor with him from a Japanese university who was really being his manager now, taking him around the world, doing all these programmes and things. And in the end, we did the programme properly, it came the moment where we brought him in to do his picture into the Polaroid, and we brought a man from Polaroid along with three Polaroid cameras, still all in their wrappers, unused, and they were seen on camera to betaken out and the films seen to be put in that was handed then to the boy, who would then hold the lens to his forehead and think, and then go WHOAR! And hand it over. And we waited excitedly for the 30 seconds, pulled out the film, and on it was… precisely nothing. We tried it a few more times when he tried to claim it was his jet lag, then a bit later when he still couldn’t do it he said it was because we had no faith or belief in him and he had no ‘feeling’ for us.
So we took him to the cinema that night and wined hi and dined him so he could feel part of us, and he still couldn’t do it – and then one day they asked us if we could leave the camera with him over lunch time so that he could get just a feel for the camera and himself, and after lunch we went to do it again – WHOAR! – pulled it out… bloody Trafalgar Square! Nelson’s Column! A bit fuzzy, but there it was. But they had kept the camera over lunch time, which was fishy – he couldn’t do it when we wanted him to do it, but when we left the camera with him… but he said that’s because he could feel “at one” with the camera, by having it in his possession for a while. So we weren’t sure where we were going with this, and then our director – a lovely lad called Colin Richards, who sadly died very early in his life through stomach cancer – he said could he take one of the cameras home one night, so we said yes. He said, “I just want to look at it.” So he took it home, and the next day he brought it in, and (name 31:09) tried again to do his WHOAR! But nothing happened, as usual, and then he blamed everything but himself. And then Colin, our director, said, “Do you mind if I have a go?” We said, “What are you doing?” and he said, “No, I’d like to have a go!” So he picked up the camera, the one he had taken home, and he held it to his head and made a sort of sound as well, and we waited for 30 seconds, laughing and scoffing, and we opened it up, and there it was – a beautiful picture of a clock on a mantelpiece. And we were astonished – and (name 32:02) and the professor’s mouths dropped open. And then he said, “I’ll tell you what I did last night – I went to my mantelpiece where there is a clock, I exposed the negative to it and put it back together again, so it wasn’t developed until you pulled it out, and you’ve pulled it out, and there it is. And they stormed off. And it was never shown.
But what was shown was one I did with Uri Geller who had astonished the nation with his spoon-bending, and I wanted to see if he really could bend spoons, and whether he really had telepathy, because he claimed if you thought of a picture, he could probably draw it. So I invited him along and had lunch with him in the old film exchange up the road, a very popular haunt for Granada people, now sadly gone – it had barrels hanging from chains on the wall, and was quite dark, a very pleasant experience, a nice little restaurant bit at the back – so I took him for lunch so we got to know each other, and we actually got on really well. And I was asking him if he could really bend spoons and things, and he did the usual: : “It doesn’t always work, but I’ll try…” and blah, blah… and we asked him to try a couple while we were having lunch, but nothing happened when he did try. And then, when we were distracted by something else, he suddenly shouted, “Look, look!” and we looked, and the spoon was bent, but we didn’t actually see it happen.
But then he came on the programme when we got him to try and do all these things, so the first thing he did was to try and do a picture, so he asked somebody to think of something in their head, and then to draw it and keep it out of his sight, then he would say, “Think about it, think about it… I’m trying to get a picture… I’m not getting anything, I’m not getting anything, try harder… I think I’m getting something, it may not be right…” and he always did that bit, “It may not be right,” and then he drew a house, I think. And the other person had drawn a square with a squiggle, so he claimed there were real similarities between the two, but I’m told by psychologists that basically you tend to draw a house, a sailing boat or something else when you have to draw something quickly – so it was inconclusive.
And then I got him to try and bend spoons, and he didn’t actually bend one on the programme, because we had cameras tight on him, I was sitting there, leaning over and watching him, and he fiddled around with them, rubbing them and so on, but he didn’t actually bend on the programme, although at the end he suddenly showed us two that were bent, but nobody ever saw them bend, and they certainly didn’t bend live on the programme. But he also said to people at home, “In your houses now, knives with be bending in your cutlery drawers, clocks will be stopping,” etc. etc. And blow me, didn’t we get hundreds and hundreds of phone calls and letters saying, “It’s unbelievable! I went to the cutlery drawer and my fork had bent – it’s unbelievable!” “My clock stopped at exactly that moment!”
And it sort of got to be that this hysteria sets in, because if this was all true it would be totally astonishing – and if his mere presence made metal bend, would you every fly in an aeroplane with him, next to the engine? So I did a programme the next week where I brought in a guy who said he too had paranormal powers, but in fact he was a professor and the biggest sceptic ever about the paranormal, and he did a whole piece on making spoons bend and clocks stop in your homes now, I’m doing it now, and we got phenomenal amounts. “It’s amazing, the clocks stopped, the spoons bent, everything happened…” Well, clearly it couldn’t have, he had no powers whatsoever.
And I also did an experiment to show this hysteria where we said we were going to try and transmit smell for the first time on television, and that we had trapped smell under this container, which was actually just a metal lamp shade but it looked quite good on the television, it didn’t look like a lamp shade, and we said we had trapped smell under it. And we had all these wires coming out of it and going into an oscilloscope, so you had lines going like that, and then we put on a buzz sound, but if you actually followed the wires, they were just loose on the ground, they weren’t going into anything, but the oscilloscope did all these wavy lines, and the buzz went, and we said, “We’re now transmitting smell1 This may never work, it probably won’t, I’m not going to give you any clues. It might be something in a farmy-type community, but I’m not saying any more than that, we’re now transmitting it, let us know if you’ve got anything or not.”
And of course we weren’t doing anything of the sort – but unbelievable response, how people had smelly cow manure – name any farm smell, they’d smelt it. We had lots of people saying their dogs suddenly ran up to the television screen and barked like mad and were sniffing around it etc., and it just could not have been true! So you get this mass hysteria.
So we had enormous fun making programmes like Reports Extra and doing all that sort of stuff, and playing with the audience, and that was until it got very serious and I moved back to what I did in Northern Ireland, which was politics and current affairs, which was the launch of Reports Politics, which I co-produced with David Kemp in the early days, and later just on my own, and presented…
37:41 That would have been about that, ’77?
It’s hard to put dates on it. I would put it at around possibly ’76, because Krypton Factor started in ’77 I think, and I think I started politics in ’76.
37:58 You were certainly doing politics in ’78, when I joined, ’78-’79.
Yes, well I think I must have been there for two years… David Kemp wasn’t there in your day, was he?
38:09 Yes, he was.
Right. Well, I don’t know. Anyway, it was somewhere in that time. It’s a long time ago! So we did lots of local politics and things like that, which was fun and interesting, and we always had two researchers on the programme, of which you were one in due course, and all went on to do quite well for themselves! You and Clarissa Hyman, who went on to make a name for herself in cookery writing and cooking etc.; yourself, who went on to be an author of lots of books and are now making this recording of the great days of Granada; Andy Harries, who went on to be head of entertainment, and launched many major programmes on the telly, not least of which was The Royle Family, when everyone thought it was going to be a disaster he pioneered it through and he made a big name for himself in television; Peter Weil (corr), who went out to head up the Discovery Channel in the UK, prior to that he was head of daytime at the BBC; they are the ones that immediately…
39:39 Claire Lewis (corr)?
Claire Lewis, who I bumped into recently at some event, she went on to be a very successful documentary maker. I think she has her own company, but she made many major documentaries. So yes, potentially good people as researchers there – and we made many great programmes, but probably the highlight for me was when I got to interview the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. That was an interesting and strange experience, by the way it came about.
My co-producer, David Kemp, who had also worked for World in Action, had made a documentary about Mrs Thatcher when she ran for the leadership of the Tory Party against Ted Heath, who was the current leader, and nobody believed in those days that a woman could ever – especially in the Tory Party – become leader; it would have to be a man – and ted Heath was the red hot favourite. But David Kemp made this film about Mrs Thatcher, followed her on the campaign trail to be the leader, talked to him, he interviewed her in her home surroundings, all that sort of thing, and she knew how to put it across to be the caring women, the housewife but politician who understood people’s needs and so on, and she did very well in that programme – it opened people’s eyes to a side of Mrs Thatcher they didn’t know, because she wasn’t very well known at the time. She had been education secretary or something like that, but nobody knew very much about her, she wasn’t a big name, and a few days after that, the election happened and she had beaten all the odds and beaten Ted Heath to become leader, and the rest is history.
But she had always said after that, and said it to David Kemp when she next met him, that she believed that that programme was the turning point, and that when people saw her as she was it swung a lot of support around her, even in the Tory Party, and that’s how she narrowly won the vote against Ted Heath, which wasn’t exactly music to David Kemp’s ears, as David Kemp worked in World in Action, which I hope you will forgive me for saying, but in those days was a hot bed of lefties, of which David will I am sure put himself amongst, and for him to carry the blame, as far as lefties were concerned, of the future Thatcher years, was a lot for him to bear – and he was reminded regularly by his leftie friends about it. But nonetheless, he carried on manfully, and in the programmes he made he was always fair, reasonable and balanced. But she had always said, “I owe you a favour, David, and any time you need a favour, let me know.” And in due course, she became prime minister, and one day we thought wouldn’t it be a great coup if we could have the prime minister on our local politics programme and do an interview with her – because she never gave interviews to regional programmes – never, ever. She wouldn’t entertain the thought of a regional programme, obviously it’s not enough widespread coverage for her.
But David put in the application, and was told by Downing Street people that there was no chance he would get the interview, but it went to Mrs Thatcher who said, “I owe David a favour; I will do the interview.” So we were astonished, amazed and elated – we were getting the prime minister! This was a great coup against our BBC rivals! And it was set for, I believe, a Monday – I may be hazy on this, but I had a feeling it was on a Monday, so we were going to go to Downing Street and do the interview. And then over the weekend prior to the Monday, all hell broke out on the world’s stage when there was a hostage situation in Iran, they had taken hostages there – I think American hostages – and the Americans had flown in their top-notch commanders in helicopters to carry out a rescue operation, and I sort of remember it, the helicopters, I think, crashed into each other, but they certainly crashed, and a number of the commanders were killed, and the mission failed, therefore. But President Carter, the American President at the time, went on television across the world, really going to town in Iran and calling on Europe in particular to help impose major sanctions in Iran and actually called on Mrs Thatcher to lead the way, as she was not an established European politician.
And we groaned, because we thought that was the end of our interview, the whole world would want to interview her – and they did. Everyone’s application went in – Panorama, News at Ten, you name it, they all went in for it – so we expected the regional station to be cancelled. And in due course, Downing Street issued a statement saying it would a busy day that day for Mrs Thatcher because of what had happened, she had conversations to have with President Carter, she had a statement to make to the House of Commons, and because of all that she was doing no television interviews or radio whatsoever, so they were all sort of put on the back burner. So we groaned as we listened to this, only to hear the final sentence, she’s not doing any except for Granada Television’s politics programme “because she had promised to do it,” and, she says, “she always keeps her promises.”
So we were put back quite a few hours from 11an or something to 4pm to do the interview while she went to the house and made her statement – but suddenly my interview changed from local politics; I had to go in – obviously – with the big question, because everybody had booked my interview – News at Ten, ITV, BBC, the whole lot – the newspapers had booked the transcripts, so I was expected to be asked, and obviously I had to do it – and I was shaking at the responsibility of this big interview, the only one to get it – thanks to David. And we were in Downing Street in the lounge upstairs, you’ve got those stairs when you go into the front door, past all the pictures of the past prime ministers, which is very impressive when you’re in that building, all that history beside you, and you go into the big lounge, which I had been in before – I had interviewed Ted Heath in there for Ulster television when he ended up losing his temper and shouting at me, but that’s another story.
So I went in there, and we sat and waited and waited, because she was about 40 minutes late, I think, and the tension rises, the camera crew were there, and I think all, I would have to say, of a leftie persuasion, but nonetheless they were our camera crew, and in the end, the door opened, and an entourage swept in. When I did Ted Heath, he’d shuffled in on his own, and looked a very sad and lonely figure, and he wasn’t a very nice man either. Very difficult to get on with or have any conversation with. But this entourage came in – aides and PR people and so on – and she then appeared in the midst of it. She came walking over very efficiently, and I leapt forward and said, “Prime Minister, my name is Gordon Burns, I think you know David Kemp, the pro…” “Oh, David, dear! Lovely to see you again,” blah, blah, blah. And I said, “This, of course, is our crew…” and then she went round each member of the crew and shook their hands, and although I think they may have been lefties, I think they were actually quite pleased that they had shaken the hand of a prime minister in Downing Street. So she knew what she was doing. So she came in and sat down, and she said, “Right. There’s a vase of flowers just over my shoulder. Will that be in shot?” And we said, “If we pull into a wide shot, it will be, Prime Minister, yes.” “Take it away,” she said to her entourage. “Take it away. I saw an interview with myself on French television a week ago, and that looked like it was growing out of my ear – it was very distracting. Take it away.” And then she chose something else to be put in its place, and then she looked down on the coffee table in front of us, which had all the daily papers on it, and she said, “Will this be in shot?” “Yes, Prime Minister, in a wide shot it could well be in shot.” Then she reorganised the papers so that the Times, the Telegraph and the Tory papers were all prominent and the (??48:22) type papers were all tucked underneath – it was fascinating how she organised everything. And then when she felt ready, she turned to her aides and said, “Do I look alright? Is my hair in place? And the microphone hasn’t pulled my dress one way or the other, has it?” And they all assured her she looked fine – which is actually, people may say, is very fussy, but it’s actually exactly the right thing to do – because there is nothing more distracting on television than somebody with a hair out of place that’s sticking up in the air, and everybody at home is looking at the hair out of place, and start saying, “You think somebody could have combed her hair for her,” or whatever, so she was absolutely right to get everything super right.
And then I launched in – this was my big moment. Gordon – go for it. I’m going to make every national bulletin that night, so I waded straight in. “Prime Minister, the president of the United States has called upon you to lead the way in imposing sanctions on Iran. So let me ask you straight: are you imposing sanctions on Iran?” And she went into a, “First let me say how brave those American commandoes were, and what a tragedy it was…” – etc., etc. – “… trying to save those innocent people who had been taken hostage by these terrible people,” and blah, blah, around the houses she went. And of course, I then leap in and say, “But Prime Minister, that’s not answering the question. The question was are you imposing sanctions, as President Carter has asked you to do?” And she said, “I thought I answered that question, but let me tell you again.” And off she went, around the houses and I leap in in the middle saying, “Prime Minister, you’re not actually answering the question. Are you imposing…” She said, “Don’t interrupt! Did I interrupt your question? No, I didn’t – so don’t interrupt my answer!” I said, “But you’re not answering.” “If you’d listen, you’ll get your answer.” So I was handbagged, metaphorically speaking, by the prime minister, and I tried three or four times, and no way was she going to answer the question, which you have to leave in the end, because you hope that people listening have decided that she’s not imposing sanctions against Iran but she’s not going to embarrass President Carter by saying so on television, so she’s batting it out of play. So it was a fascinating experience for me. I have interviewed her three times in my career, but that was the most memorable. She was quite a formidable lady.
50:56 Do you want a drink of water at all?
I might settle for another cuppa… if you don’t mind!
51:03 No problem.
Recording: Gordon Burns 2
The Granada 500 I think began… would it be the ’79 election? Tell us about that.
Well, the Granada 500 was one of the best experiences I’ve had in television, certainly with Granada. Granada were this wonderful, pioneering organisation, I’ve talked about their quality demand, they are clearly pioneers of television, even in drama it was pioneering when they actually took on things like Brideshead Revisited and Jewel in the Crown, but even in the area of politics and current affairs. For instance, Granada were the first company to get into the political party conferences in Blackpool or Brighton, wherever they were, and the TUC, to cover it gavel to gavel, if you like, from beginning to end. They made that breakthrough to get in, they made various other breakthroughs in television, one of which was they became the first television station to bring the party leaders – which included the prime minister at the time – together to face questions from the public – because the first time this ever happened was through a series called The Granada 500.
Now, it had launched before I did it – Mike Scott did the first one, he was a very well-known presenter at the time, and he did that one. Before he became head of programmes, he was a main presenter, he did a lot of network stuff, very handsome guy, very eloquent, very likeable presenter. But he tended to do the more serious stuff, like World in Action specials, like they had a series called State of the Nation, which is what it was – they looked at the state of the nation in great detail, probably an hour-long programme talking to all the key politicians and experts and so on.
The thinking behind The Granada 500 was, in the run-up to a general election, when the campaigning had started, Granada would go to a key constituency, a marginal constituency in the election, and also if they could, to find a marginal that had always voted in the end in favour of the winning party – they had never got it wrong, so to speak. So he did it the first time, and I was invited to do it in the election… it must have been… I did it in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister.
So we took Bolton West as our constituency that had always voted for the winning party, it was a key marginal, and the way it worked was, we moved into the Octagon theatre. And for Granada Reports they put a large section of the programme towards the Granada 500. Actually, I can’t remember if they did that or whether they had an extra half hour at the end. But the 500 people who were gathered were found for us by a polling organisation who represented a cross section of the community in Bolton West, and people who were largely, but not necessarily, undecided were polled regularly in the run-up to the election to see whether they had changed. Because every night we did a programme on a different issue of the election campaign, be it the economy one day, law and order the next day, whatever, and we would have experts there, and I would be quizzing the experts and then the 500 would be asking questions and this was done in the octagon Theatre in Bolton so you got a feel for the election you got a feel for the issues you got a father how our 500 were swinging and swaying, but it all culminated in the end with a trip to London where we took the 500 in a special train, which left Bolton station and arrived at Euston or Paddington or one of those, but it was our train, full of the Bolton 500, and the TV crew and so on, and we got to London and we had coaches to whisk us all to a theatre, I can’t remember which one, was it the Wyndham Theatre?
So they all came and took their seats in the audience and we had the stage set up, whereby each leader would arrive separately and do a 20-25 minute stint, a bit like Question Time, where members of the audience asked the leader questions, and the leader answered directly to them. So the three leaders which was then the Liberal party, so it was David Steel, Margaret Thatcher for the Conservatives, and the prime minister, Jim Callaghan was also appearing. It was an interesting experience in many ways, and it may, I understand, have played a part in what happened in the election, because it was fairly neck and neck in the opinion polls as it neared election day but Labour had a slight advantage over the Tories, if memory serves me right. I think we did the special on the Monday or the Tuesday – sorry, I should explain, although this was regional up to now, the meeting with the party leaders where they let the public in to the theatre in London, went out nationally on World in Action as a special.
So this was either the Monday or the Tuesday, and the election was on the Thursday, so it was that close. And it was interesting, the party leaders… David Steele came on first, and interestingly, Callaghan and Thatcher had the routes and the timings scrutinised when they would be coming to the theatre so they never crossed paths – there would be a gap between them. They wouldn’t even drive past each other, which was interesting. So David Steele arrived, and he was very straight and very honest, he answered every question head on, he didn’t evade any or whatever, and he came over quite impressively, I think. And then Mrs Thatcher arrived, and she had, I think, grasped the mod of the nation, law and order and all that sort of stuff, and they wanted it all to be a bit tougher, and she did the housewife bit, and how she has to organise the budget in the house as all housewives do, and therefore it’s important that you have proper budget-keeping for the nation and no debt and all that sort of stuff.
This was a time of industrial strikes.
Indeed so – the winter of discontent and all that bit. So obviously she went to town on that lot and she did really well, I have to say. She did really, really well – and I’ll tell you more about that and how people reacted at the end. And then in came Jim Callaghan, after a break when Mrs Thatcher had gone – and I found him not as I expected. I had interviewed him once before, not for too long a period, and he was avuncular Jim Callaghan and I found him to be slightly arrogant. But what surprised me incredibly was how nervous he was. He was the prime minister who had handled all these things and the dispatch box and prime minister and industrial disputes, and always looked to me as in control and calm on the television etc., always putting down people all the time – but he was shaking. His hands were shaking and he muttered as he came towards us, “I wish I’d never agreed to do this.” And I thought that was very strange – I thought he would be in his element. I mean, there’s no great confrontation, people put their questions – I might do a quick “I don’t think you totally answered that,” or whatever, but basically it was him and the audience, that’s what it was supposed to be.
So he was very shaky. And it was a time of industrial disputes, and where he made his big error in my view, sitting in the front of the audience, were these nurses, and they had on t-shirts. And there was a dispute with the nurses about how poorly they were paid and the hours they had to work and all the rest of it, and they were threatening, I think, to strike. And one of them asked a question, and Jim Callaghan turned on them and really went to town on them about being irresponsible and all the rest of it – he really tore into them, which was the wrong thing to do. You don’t attack nurses – they are the darlings of the community! And yet he went into them – and it was a big mistake. And he then left and that was it, and then we all got on the train and went back to Bolton because it was the end of the whole series – we had done it now, and there was no more.
And I remember touring each carriage on the way back, thanking everybody for their participation, and I asked them all, don’t tell me about voting in the election, but who was the most impressive of the leaders to you? And virtually all of them – not all, a high percentage – said David Steele. They said he was honest, he was straight, they liked what he said, and then I said, “Will you vote for him?” No. “Why?” Wasted vote. So that’s always been the thing the Liberals always had – he made sense to them, they liked him, but they thought he had no chance so they weren’t going to vote for him. And of the other two, they were really impressed by Mrs Thatcher, even those who weren’t normally Tory, they said she was very impressive, and they didn’t like Callaghan, and they didn’t like the way he went at the nurses. And so came the election, which is history now, Thatcher won it to become the first female prime minister. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know, but I was later told by somebody within the Labour ranks that when they carried out their post-mortem of what went wrong, one of the areas pinpointed was Callaghan’s performance on that Granada 500 programme, which they think from having a slight lead turned it to Mrs Thatcher. Now, whether that’s true or not, I don’t know – but I like to believe that I played a telly little part in history.
I did the 1983 Granada 500 in Warrington. (It was called The Election 500)
I didn’t even know we did another one.
The other thing I should mention, which is another one of my pride areas, that World in Action was the great award-winning, again, pioneering investigative programme which the elite, if you like, in news… most journalists’ ambition was to work on World in Action, and it was left, right and centre award-winning, and tremendous investigative stuff, and they used me because of my expertise on Northern Ireland, and having covered the first four years of The Troubles I knew all the politicians, and I knew the story back to front and inside out. So when they did a number of stories on Northern Ireland, they used me as the… they didn’t really have presenters, but if they did, they had me as the presenter. In one particular one was the time of the Protestant workers’ strike in Northern Ireland, whereby the new power-sharing assembly – not the one that’s there now, but the very first one in which the SDLP with Gerry Fitt (corr) and John Hulme (corr) had to sit down and work with the unionists, led then by Brian Faulkner, who had been prime minister in Northern Ireland, and Paisley and the extreme Protestant section, who were probably in the majority in Northern Ireland, had refused to have any truck with it because they weren’t going to sit down with them. “We will not sit down with nationalists who don’t believe in the constitution of this country!”
So they would have no part in the parliament, which actually made it fairly ineffective if the largest chunk of Northern Ireland wouldn’t actually take part, but they were determined to make it work so it was up and running when the Protestant workers, who tended to be of the extreme unionist variety, called a strike, and they were going to bring the country to its knees, which meant the electricity was going out because all the Protestant workers were the workforce in places like the Ballylumford power station (corr) and so on, they controlled the power and they could pull the plugs, and it made life very tough.
So they told everybody that nobody was allowed to go to work, it was almost mob rule on the streets, and if you tried to go to work, they had set up vigilante groups all over Belfast and, I presume, other parts of the area, and guys with baseball bats, and if you were driving to work, your car was stopped and you were dragged out and beaten up, basically. And we went out to cover the Protestant workers’ strike, and I was there to more or less do it – but the producer had the overall control. And they decided one day that they wanted to go to the Lower Newtownards Road (corr) at 8am. Normally it would be packed with traffic – it was one of the main routes from East Belfast into the city centre, and it was also the heart of extreme unionism, if you like, but the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), which was the paramilitary group centred in East Belfast, and it was a heavy, heavy area. And of all people that the press had to be worried about, it was the extreme Protestant community, rather than the extreme Nationalist community.
Of course the nationalist community welcomed all media coverage, because they felt it helped their cause in civil rights and in equality and all the rest of it, whereas the extreme Protestant side saw all that they had was being eroded, they had already lost their parliament where they had dominated, the gerrymandering areas were being resorted and all that sort of thing, so they hated the press and television, and they regularly beat up press and television if they ever got their hands on them. So it was dodgy – and I told them that when they said they wanted to go and film on the Newtownards Road to see it empty. And it was totally empty – nobody was daring to go to work. I said, “This is seriously dangerous if you want to do this,” But we had the most brilliant cameraman in the world bar none, in George Jesse Turner (corr) – big World in Action star cameraman, all over the world in the most dangerous situations. The man who knew no fear! And I was appointed driver because I knew the place like the back of my hand. I used to live just a little bit away from east Belfast, and that’s where I used to work in my early years – so I knew it all inside out. I remember warning them again that this was a dangerous situation, and I took them through the old rules of when I worked there – once you got in the car you locked the doors immediately. You did not forget to lock the doors, that was first and foremost. So we went to the Lower Newtownards Road, centre of east Belfast, and we set the camera right in the middle of the road in its tripod, just in front of our car – and he shot down the road to get these shots of totally empty streets in rush hour Belfast. And word gets about very quickly in those areas – little streets of terraced houses, all flying Union Jacks and red, white and blue pavements and all that sort of stuff, and there was a big pub right down on the left hand side in the distance, which is where the paramilitary groups used to gather. And even though it was 8am, there was a big gathering in there – and suddenly out came these thugs, basically, carrying things, and could see us filming in the road, and there were shouts and all the rest of it, and they came for us up the road. I said to George, “George, get in the car now!” Would he? No – he kept filming. I went, “Get in the car NOW, George!” They would have killed you, or certainly beaten you to a pulp if they’d got you.
And he was still filming as they were running towards us, and then suddenly, at the last possible moment, he swept the tripod in his arms, shoved it in the boot, which was open, leapt in the car, and I yelled again, “Doors!” so that they all locked their doors, and just as we took off the mob arrived and were actually holding on to the door handles, ad these faces peering in the windows that were absolutely almost black with rage, trying to get at us and drag us out of the car. I’m glad nobody was stood in front of the car, we just whizzed off and through a few side streets I knew we could get out of, and it was probably one of the most terrifying moments of my life, even having worked in Northern Ireland for a long time – but that man knew no fear, and that’s how he got some of the greatest pictures in the world.
Let’s move on to the Krypton factor. That’s the programme you’re most associated with at Granada.
Like many things in one’s life, you get breaks you don’t expect to get – they happen in the most ludicrous way, and they change your life. And my break originally into newspapers in Northern Ireland was in a freak circumstance, I changed from newspapers in Northern Ireland to working on – totally under-qualified – sports reports on BBC radio in London when I was a mere hack on a weekly paper in Ireland, it was a complete and utter fluke of the first order. And then I came to Granada, and then came another of these moments when my good friend and colleague – and I mean good friend in that we and our wives went on holiday together and things – Jeremy Fox. Jeremy was the son of the iconic television executive figure, Sir Paul Fox, and Jeremy was very bright, inventive, thrusting young would-be television executive, and at a young age he had been made editor of Granada Reports and he did lots of transformations, like they do when they are young and they want to put their own stamp on things. So he had done that, and moved onto a few other things, but he wanted to do entertainment – that was his big thing. And he devised the Krypton Factor. And he wanted to do this pilot them, to see if he could get a network series out of it.
But it was an upmarket quiz show, which is really the only thing Granada would probably entertain in those days – they wouldn’t do a silly one. So it was upmarket, it was challenges like mental agility and intelligence and observation and general knowledge, and interestingly the most remembered thing about it, the physical challenge, which was running an army assault course.
So he devised this, but also to make it more intellectual, they had a psychologist on the programme who analysed how the contestants had performed certain tasks and things like that, who was Dr Laurie Taylor – I made a number of psychology programmes with him later. He was a psychologist from York University at the time, then became quite big on television, being interviewed on a whole range of things, and his son (Matthew) now of course, is particularly famous as a political spokesman and I think a former advisor in the Labour Party to the prime minister. I saw him on television and he looks exactly like his dad! So that’s what they did.
Anyway, they wanted an upmarket, intelligent presenter, so they got Mike Scott to do the… it’s was strange, because nobody thought about Mike Scott because he was the big political man etc. doing State of the Nation and so on, and so they made the pilot, and the pilot did well and got commissioned for a network series. So Jeremy was over the moon, I was pleased for him as his mate, and then as time got nearer to when they were going to record in the studio, Mike Scott pulled out and decided, advised by his friends etc., that he couldn’t be a quiz show host and he taken seriously when he was interviewing the boss of British Leyland or even senior politicians for State of the nation or whatever else, and I think that persuaded him that that was right, and so he stepped down – so there was no presenter and it was getting close to recording the first show.
And I used to take Jeremy over to The Stables bar, I think it was at the time, at Granada, and suggested names to him. So I’d say, “You could approach David Coleman,” or whatever, and he would make notes. And for one reason or another, nobody could or would do it, and he was getting ever closer to the studio. And then one day he came to me and said, “I’ve decided who’s doing it.” I said, “Oh, great – anyone I suggested?” And he said, “No.” I said, “Do I know the?” he said, “Oh, yes.” I said, “Who is it, then?” and he said, “You.” I paused and said, “Me?” he said, “Yes, you’re going to do it.” I said, “Don’t be stupid – I’m a serious political journalist – Mike pulled out because he felt it would compromise him and I’d have to do the same. I can’t become a quiz show host and do my politics and current affairs with Granada.” And he talked me round, maybe because he was a mate and so on, maybe because he was desperate – “It’s an upmarket show, it’s okay, it won’t affect anything else you do, and it will only be for a year…” and I quite liked the show, and I liked the idea behind the show, and the challenges in the show, and it was different from any other television quiz that was going on at the time, so in the end I said, “Okay, I’ll do it – it’s just a year.” Well, that year became 18 years, and it just mushroomed. At its peak it became – I’ve got the clipping at home from the TV Times top 20 where it reached number two behind Coronation Street with 18.2 million viewers! And it was just astonishing for me – it gave me a network profile, a face that was known on the network and so on, but it did also do what Mike Scott had feared – it pigeonholed me.
Because it was such a huge success, I became a quiz show host, and instead of doing more politics and current affairs, shortly after The Krypton Factor started I went freelance and I wasn’t employed to do any of that. Instead, I found myself on Surprise, Surprise with Cilla Black, to do a one-off for her as a guest quiz show host, which turned into a thing called Searchline, which looked for people who hadn’t seen each other for 50 years or since the war or since at school, because the quiz they were going to do fell down overnight, so they changed it to this other thing, and they were going to have guest presenters every week, and I did the first one of the latest series of Surprise, Surprise. And at the end, Cilla said, “I’d love you to do the series.” And because I needed money, being a freelance at he time, and I was seduced – not by Cilla, I hasten to add! – by the showbiz element. Because you went down to London Weekend Television, who were an entertainment side as opposed to Granada, who were more serious and political and so on.
So I got flown down on the shuttle – none of your economy train nonsense! – met by a limo, whizzed into LWT, had a studio that overlooked the River Thames in all its glory, right across to the left to the Commons and over to the right, St Paul’s Cathedral – I mean, it was just phenomenal. So I got looked after. And when the show was over – Bob Carolgees was in it, people like that – we went for a meal, sometimes with Cilla, sometimes not, limo back to the hotel, overnight in the hotel, limo to the airport, flew me home, paid me a lot of money for doing very little, and I did it for five years.
I was invited onto other programmes as well, and in the end started to devise and make as an independent my own shows for daytime television. So that’s what the Krypton Factor did for me, it opened up a whole new area, made me an awful lot more money than I would ever have… I wasn’t in the big league, but I made a lot more than I ever would if I’d stayed put. So it was a huge change in my life, considering I was the last-gasp stand-in!
Was there anything in particular you wanted to talk about?
I don’t know whether you want to do it or not, it’s a fairly unknown story… I’ll lay you a pond to a penny… do you remember Linda McDougall?
Yes. I remember her husband.
It’s a fascinating cloak-and-dagger spy-type story that I think she would deny these days, but it’s absolutely true, the gospel truth from beginning to end. This was World in Action again, and it was a time when Sinn Fein were a banned organisation, and the British government wouldn’t talk to terrorists and all the rest of it. The then secretary of state for Northern Ireland in the Labour government was Merlyn Rees (corr), and the producer involved, Linda McDougall, was the wife of Austin Mitchell MP, and she knew Merlyn really well – obviously her husband was an MP so they mixed in those circles. And we were talking one day and I said, “The British government won’t talk to the IRA, but in the end they always do.” In the back woods and so on or whatever, you have to communicate in the end. And I said, “Wouldn’t it be a great idea if you did a bit of an interview with Merlyn Rees and then took that to the IRA, let them watch it, and then interviewed them on the back of it, and then take what they said back to Merlyn Rees and let him see that, and let him comment?” So it was a sort of negotiation going on but in a different way – you never talked to the IRA, but as a World in Action breakthrough programme, we could piece it together to see if any progress could be made. Just a wild thing.
Linda McDougall took that on board actually, and quite liked it. She came back a bit later and said, “I’ve talked to Merlyn Rees and he’s up for that,” which I found absolutely impossible to believe, that he would allow himself – or be allowed – to do that; even though he wasn’t directly talking, he would still be seen to be involved in it. But she said, “Yes, he will,” and persuaded World in Action that she would deliver him to do it. And they were all quite excited, but the problem was to get the IRA, who were not that easy to get. And they said to me, “Can you sort that out? Could you get an IRA leader or a chief of staff of the IRA to see if they would do it?” And I said, “Well, I could never guarantee that, but I’ll try.” So we flew into Belfast, Linda McDougall and myself – she was terrified of flying, she would grasp my hand through take-off and landing, I remember, she was absolutely terrified – and we were booked into the Europa Hotel. I said to her, “Right – I don’t want you involved in this bit at all.” She had already made another World in Action which had upset some of the nationalist community, so I didn’t want her involved. I said to her, “You stay in the hotel and you don’t come near me,” So I said I was going up into the Ardoyne to visit a well-known person who I would say was attached to the IRA – or certainly her husband was, and she clearly was as well – who I had interviewed on Ulster Television, which created a total storm with the Protestant Community, a woman called Máire Drumm (corr), a very tough, hard lady. But I got on quite well with her when I did my Ulster Television interview with her etc. So I went up to her house, and right opposite her house was a big army base in the middle of the Ardoyne, which looked a bit like the perimeter fence of Colditz – a huge fence all around and then they had these towers where the guards would stand, and they were fairly enclosed, otherwise they could be shot, and they had a thin slit down it. And as I stood at the door, knocking at the door, (there was this guard stood on my shoulder? 34:20), looking at this strange edifice behind me, I could hear clicking, and then the door opened and Máire said, “Come in.” So I went in, she took me into her front room where I could see out of the front window. I said to her, “What’s that funny clicking sound?” She said, “You’re being photographed; everyone who comes in and out of here is being photographed from that tower.” And as I looked up at the tower, I could see a rifle pointing at me – they had it pinned right towards me in the house, which made me feel hugely uncomfortable. I said to her, “That looks like a rifle.” She said, “It is. Would you like to come in the back room?” I said, “I think so.” So I went in the back, and then I explained the story to her, and said, “What do you think?” She was very, “No, it wouldn’t happen…” I went on a bit and I assured her that we had Merlyn Rees ready to do it, so it would be a big thing. And she said, “Right – wait there.” And she went and got on the telephone – and it was just like in a movie. She dialled some number which I presume was in the south of Ireland, and she said, “Hello, can I speak to Uncle, please?” And there was this sort of double-speak because she probably knew her phone was being [hacked]. She said, “I’ve got somebody here who I think you should see.”
After a while she came back to me and said, “Right – I can’t guarantee it’s happening, but what you need to do is to go down to Dublin, just off O’Connell Street, the top end, there are the offices of (what was the IRA newspaper) An Phoblacht (corr).” She said, “You’re to go there to the office and say that I have arranged for you to visit there, and then somebody there will talk to you.” So off we went down to Dublin – I told Linda to stay away as well. I wasn’t sure if I was frightened or not, but I went to the office, a tiny little office where they did this heavy Nationalist newspaper all the time, and sure enough a guy came, I identified myself and mentioned Máire Drumm and all the rest of it, and asked if he could set it up, and he said, “Stay there.” So I waited for a bit, and he came back and said, “Yes, we’re interested.” I said, “Right.” He said, “The thing is, when you fly in your crews to do this, they’ll be monitored all the way, so you’ll have to send your crew to – it was a Scandinavian country, I think he said Finland, I’m not sure – and fly them in separately.” You know, so they can’t me monitored and followed. So I said, “I’m sure that can be arranged.”
So he said, “You’ll have to come back tomorrow and then we’ll give you a definite answer. By the way – the chances are you’re being followed, because you have been photographed at Máire Drumm’s house. Just to check that, when you leave here and go back to wherever you’re staying…” – I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Dublin, but O’Connell Street is a huge street, right down the centre of Dublin and over the River Liffey, like a dual carriageway either side with a big (aerial? 38:05) statue all down the middle, very impressive street. – so he said, “When you get to O’Connell Street, go along a bit and then cross it twice.” So as I crossed it right over the first dual carriageway and the second to the other side, I was to look back and see if anyone was crossing as well. And then I was to walk along a bit and cross back, and then look back and see if the same person was crossing, if anyone had been crossing the first tie. It was like a spy movie! I didn’t know what I had got myself into.
So anyway, that’s what happened, and I finally got back to my hotel that evening – I had been gone a long time – to find that Linda had reported me missing to World in Action, and I think it had got to Plowright level and so on, and they were thinking about whether to bring in the police, which would have blown everything. So I was furious with that. And then a bit later in the evening she took some phone calls and came back and said, “Right, bad news – Merlyn Rees has pulled out.” I said, “Sorry? You said he was guaranteed.” And she said, “Well, now he’s decided not to. He’s pulled out. He won’t do it.” So I’d just been through all this with the IRA people and then I had to tell them that it was all rubbish? I was absolutely beside myself.
And so the next day I went back, expecting them to say, “It’s all set up, here’s what will happen, you’ll be blindfolded and taken here for the interviews,” so I got in first. I simply said, “Look…” I think another incident happened that night, I think it was just high tension, everyone was being monitored and followed. I said, “We like the idea but it’s too dangerous to do it at the minute, let’s just let this die down a bit, and if we can, we’ll come back and re-set it up.” And I think they thought it was odd, but they sort of bought it, and so the great programme that would have been breakthrough television, never happened in the end.