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Gordon Burns Interview

Hello Gordon Burns! You will be most well known to visitors of 80sNostalgia as the host of The Krypton Factor in the 80s and early 90s. It was a unique show in which contestants were tested in all manner of skills, general knowledge and endurance. At the time, it seemed to me to be the hardest quiz on earth! How difficult did you find it?

It was difficult – in fact tagged “television’s toughest quiz” – because there was such a range of demanding challenges. You really were a “super person” if you could cope well with them all. Certainly I wouldn’t have scored too many points. My mental agility wasn’t bad and I was average at the observation round and the general knowledge but hopeless at the intelligence test puzzle and too scared of heights to be any good on the assault course although I am pretty fit. As for the response round where contestants landed jumbo jets etc in a simulator, I crashed more than I landed!

Do you know the origin of the name “Krypton Factor”? I always imagined it was a play on Kryptonite, the green substance that could defeat Superman.

Krypton is the planet where Superman was born with his incredible powers – hence in the search for our super being…Who has that Krypton Factor?

I have all the stats, but do YOU know how many series and Krypton Factor episodes there were?

No, I don’t know how many episodes there were in all because over the years the number of programmes per series varied from 13 to 18 and there were quite a few Christmas specials not to mention various Champion of Champions shows.

Did you have much involvement in deciding the show format?

Yes, I played a very full part in shaping the show. I was officially a consultant as well as presenter and so helped devise the many challenges. For instance the Response round which put contestants into an aircraft simulator to test hand/eye co-ordination was my idea. I also wrote all the scripts for 17 of the 18 series. I also often toured the country testing would-be contestants along with our producer and researcher.

How long did recording one episode take?

Anything from 2 hours to 3, depending on how long it took the contestants to solve the intelligence test puzzle! It was quite a complex show to make so it took time to make it as professional as it looked.

They were shown one per week, but did you film them en-mass?

We made one a week in the early days but in later times when there was greater pressure on budgets and studio space we made 3 shows per DAY.

It appeared very formal. Did you mingle with the contestants before recording, or was it as formal as it appeared?

In fact it was a very informal atmosphere away from the cameras. I stayed with the contestants at the hotel near the assault course and we used to take them out to dinner after the programme to show our appreciation…well, until budgets got tight in the last few years. But I felt it important to strike up a rapport with the contestants and make them feel comfortable in what was a very testing situation for them.

I used to watch and get quite stressed myself, usually when the contestants were assembling the puzzle. Did any of the contestants ever panic or not be able to complete a round?

Yes, often nerves set in and some contestants weren’t able to perform at their best. But the intelligence test puzzle was the only thing some would really panic over. We always liked to let them finish and that, believe me, could sometimes take for ever!

Did you ever run the assault course, and what time did you achieve?

I ran the assault course on 2 occasions for publicity purposes and hated every minute of it because I hate heights and found things like the aerial slide terrifying. Hence my times were too embarrassing ever to reveal! But at least I completed the course….twice.

If you were to play through a full episode of The Krypton Factor as a contestant nowadays, which sections would you still be good at and which would result in dismay? (As an example, I’m a desperately unfit 36 year old. I’d be great at spot the difference, but give me anything that requires running and I need a car!)

As I mentioned earlier I was not bad at mental agility, average at observation and general knowledge, poor at response and useless at the intelligence test and assault course.

When I was at school, my friend Joanne went to watch how an episode of The Krypton Factor was made, as part of her Media Studies course. She wonders if you remember her? It was about 1989-ish. (Embarassing pic not yet online, but permission has been sought!)

Thousands of people came to watch the show over its 18 years so I’m afraid I don’t remember Joanne but I hope she enjoyed her experience in the studio.

How do you think the remake of The Krypton Factor compared to the original one?

That’s for the viewers to decide, not me!

I live 15 mins from Manchester City centre, so nowadays you’re the presenter of my local news with the lovely Ranvir Singh. Where did you go for the years between The Krypton Factor and BBC News North West? We missed you!

After Krypton ended in 1995, I did a spell with Cilla Black on Surprise Surprise. Then I devised a daytime game show called A Word in Your Ear which I sold to the BBC and made it as an independent company along with a colleague. It ran for several years in a lunchtime slot and I sold the format to 12 other countries. I devised a couple more shows which had some success and also ran my own conference company which featured team building and motivational exercises at big company events. The BBC approached me in 1997 to present the evening news programme North West Tonight and get back to my journalistic roots.

Questions from 80sNostalgia members:

Neil R – Did you try out all the puzzles before you did the live shows, or did you just let the contestants do them?

We always held test nights before each series to try out the puzzles and other rounds. We used to invite former contestants to come in and have a go and that gave us a good idea if the level of difficulty was right. Bright young researchers in the Granada building were also rounded up to try their luck. Indeed one of those who helped us is now a big TV star….Zoe Ball.

Chris G – Why didn’t The Krypton Factor have catchphrases? What would it have been? (Eg “Hang on to your muzzle, it’s time for the puzzle”)

Because we regarded it as a serious test of mental and physical ability we never thought about having a catch phrase. I suppose “television’s toughest quiz” is the phrase that stuck with most people.

Nick W : Why haven’t you aged? You don’t look any older than in the 80s!

You are too kind and have now made my day. Also, I think you need your eyesight tested! But thanks for the compliment.

You recently received an honorary doctorate from the University of Bolton, how did you feel about that?

I felt really honoured. I’d never been to university. When I left school I went straight into newspapers. So to have an honorary doctorate now is very special. In fact you could call me…wait for it….first degree Burns!

Interview from 25th August 2010.


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