Gordon Burns talks about the launch of The Krypton Factor and how it changed his career

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!


Leave a Reply