“Fill the Stage With Flags!”
Ian Jones interviews Cecil Korer
First published October 2005
It should go without saying that no matter how worthy or groundbreaking a television channel claims to be, it counts for nothing if nobody bothers to tune in. Yet there’s often a sense that people who can turn their hand to all-conquering ratings winners get short shrift in the grand sweep of television history, their efforts found wanting when placed against those of more self-conscious, shameless innovators. Of course, without audiences TV channels are nowhere, and you only get big, regular, reliable audiences with accessible, well-polished and exciting entertainment. Cecil Korer devoted his life to producing just such TV, notching up credits for just about every hit that matters: Top of the Pops, It’s a Knockout, Jeux Sans Frontières, The Good Old Days, The Black and White Minstrel Show, Ask the Family, Countdown, Treasure Hunt and more, besides being the man who helped bring Dallas, Taxi, Cheers and Paul Hogan to this country. In his first proper full-length interview, Cecil offered OTT a host of reflections from a truly epic and pioneering career.
OTT: What was your first job in television? Didn’t you start off as a carpenter?
CECIL KORER: A scene-shifter. That was in 1957. I’d been in the Air Force during the war as a trainee pilot/flight engineer. When the war ended, however, the authorities didn’t know what to do with us. They sent all the redundant aircrews to the Isle of Sheppey before being officially demobbed. One day the Commanding Officer came round and said to us, “Oh God – everyone’s bored to death waiting to go home. Anybody know anything about putting on a show?” Well, I’d done some amateur dramatics when I was at school, so I said, “I do!” And another chap said, “I do!” So he and I got together and formed a concert party called The Fledglings. The other chap’s name was Brian Rix.
OTT: An early brush with fame!
CECIL KORER: Although we didn’t keep in touch. Years later when I was invited to appear on Brian’s This Is Your Life, I did my mystery voice bit behind the curtain, Eamonn Andrews said, “Yes, it’s your old pal from the RAF, Cecil Korer!”, I came on, and Brian just looked at me and said “I don’t know who the devil you are!” He’d forgotten entirely!
OTT: And the concert party led to a career in showbusiness?
CECIL KORER: Yes, it gave me the bug. When I was demobbed I hung around theatres and eventually became a stage manager. I was based in the north, working across five theatres, mainly doing pantomime. But it wasn’t a secure line of work. The theatres were all closing down and going up for sale. So one day I was doing a pantomime with Terry Scott, and he said to me, “Cecil, what are you going to do when the theatres close?” I answered, “I really don’t know.” He said, “Well, why don’t you go into television?” “Really?” I replied. “What as?” “A thing called a floor manager,” he said. Terry explained what it was, and so I applied. And applied and applied and applied! I kept getting turned down and turned down, then in the end they got sick of me and said, “Look, the only job we can offer you is a temporary three-month contract as a scene-shifter in London. Six pounds a week.” I said, “I’ll take it.” So I took it, and did the three months, then they extended it, and extended it, and eventually I became a member of staff. In two years I went from a manual grade scene-shifter to a staff stage manager. Fastest promotion in the history of the BBC, so they told me!
OTT: Was it a very competitive industry at that time?
CECIL KORER: Absolutely. But I was completely obsessed. I loved every minute of it. So whenever I was put onto props duty, unlike most guys who’d nip off for a break whenever they could, I stayed on site all the time. And it was noticed. Behind my back I was getting very good reports. Hence when a vacancy came up and I applied for it, I kept being promoted.
OTT: And all of this would’ve been for live television?
CECIL KORER: Oh yes, all live. So it was like theatre, and could be very scary. When I was working as an assistant floor manager for the drama department, I was allocated to a play called The Heiress. Jill Bennett, a famous actress of the time, was playing the title role. We’d had six weeks rehearsals, which was standard. Now, as assistant floor manager you had to mark up the script in rehearsal ready for the live performance, so whenever an artist was pausing you’d make a mark on the page which looked a little like a raised eyebrow – all so you knew what would be happening when it was live. Anyway, when we came to the performance, the very last line of the play had to be delivered by Jill: “Maria, lock the door!” Her lover Maurice was hammering on the door, she was standing on a staircase, and she had to turn round to the maid and announce this final instruction. But in the performance, Jill simply walked up the staircase and said nothing. And we waited, and waited, and waited. I hadn’t marked it as a pause. I thought she’d dried. So I cut the sound in the studio and gave her a prompt. She was furious! Afterwards she gave me the biggest bollocking of my life. “How dare you!” she shouted. “But you never paused there in six weeks!” I protested. What was I to do? “I was doing it for dramatic effect,” she said. Well, how was I to know? So I bollocked her back! That stood me in good stead!
OTT: I guess it was quite an exciting time to be in television.
CECIL KORER: Fantastic. It was a real cottage industry. There were only a few hundred of us, and we did everything. Everybody knew everybody else. It was lovely.
OTT: Did you know then that this was something you wanted to spend the rest of your life doing?
CECIL KORER: I knew it was a job that was going to last until I was 60. It was great. I didn’t want to do anything else.
OTT: What was the first programme you had major responsibility for?
CECIL KORER: I was eventually allocated to a show called Top Town – a very early prototype of It’s a Knockout – to work for a man I’d never heard of called Barney Colehan. He was one of the BBC’s light entertainment producers. I obviously made an impression, because soon afterwards he invited me to apply for a vacancy in Manchester. This was in 1959. Turns out he’d marked my card, as I got the job – outside broadcast stage manager – and then my career started to move. I was now in charge of things like covering the Grand National, rugby matches, soccer matches. A lot of sport. But I also got my first experience of real light entertainment programmes, working with Barney: theatre excerpts from Scarborough, The Black and White Minstrel Show, a lot of summer shows.
OTT: What were those big events, such as the Grand National, really like to work on? I’m guessing they would have had to be done on a shoestring.
CECIL KORER: No, they were amazing. We had 14 cameras. Even in those days it was a massive operation. And as a stage manager I was also in charge of up to 40 or 50 foreign commentators, which stood me in good stead for Jeux Sans Frontières. So it was lot more than the equivalent of a theatrical stage manager.
OTT: And by and large did everything run smoothly?
CECIL KORER: Oh, everyone was a pro. I look back and realise they carried me. My colleagues were so good, you weren’t allowed to make mistakes. I was an amateur compared to some of those guys. The thing to do was watch everything and say nothing.
OTT: By this time you must have been aware of increasing competition from ITV?
CECIL KORER: Well, it didn’t affect me at all. But what I was aware of, as ITV expanded, was that friends I knew within the BBC were going over. For the prospects really, not so much the money.
OTT: You weren’t tempted to follow them?
CECIL KORER: I saw my future in the BBC. Later, when I became a fully-fledged producer, the offers began to come in. But I wanted to make my name at the BBC.
OTT: Within a few years you found yourself working on your first really big shows: The Good Old Days, and Top of the Pops.
CECIL KORER: Yes, I was assistant producer and director on Top of the Pops from the very first edition in 1964.
OTT: How did you land such a prize job?
CECIL KORER: Johnnie Stewart, the show’s producer, knew me and asked whether I’d do it. Of course, I knew nothing about popular music at all. Not a thing. But it all came about because before Top of the Pops I’d been working as assistant producer on The Good Old Days, which Barney produced. We’d decided to enter one particular edition for the Golden Rose of Montreux, and so all the bigwigs came up from London to watch the recording. The show was in the City Varieties theatre in Leeds, as they all were. Anyway, the tape machine broke down in the middle of everything, so I had to do a half-hour spot to keep the audience amused until they fixed it.
OTT: You personally, on stage?
CECIL KORER: Yes, of course! That’s what you did! I told jokes, did a few routines …
OTT: Back to your days in the forces …
CECIL KORER: Yes, my ham days, being the ham. I remember I did a bit of business with a little reel of tape I had in my pocket, and said something like “If you want to know how this programme is recorded, look on this tape. Here’s Cilla Black …” and I brought out a tape that was really thin and tiny. Then I said “oh, and this is Ken Dodd,” and I brought out a huge video tape, and so on. The audience fell about. Afterwards we were having a drink in the bar with the head of BBC Light Entertainment Tom Sloane, and his assistant Bill Cotton. They said, “That was great what you did. We’re putting together this show in Liverpool next month, involving this group called The Beatles; will you do it?” Naturally I said yes. But I’d never heard of The Beatles!
OTT: So what did you make of them?
CECIL KORER: Well, we were in Liverpool. It was a concert, followed by an edition of Juke Box Jury, and this was where I first met Johnnie Stewart. It was all very grand. We rehearsed all day, we had cameras lined up everywhere, in the stalls and on a rostrum. Eventually the group came in the stage door and I said hello, introduced myself, before David Jacobs went onto the stage to introduce them to the audience. And then the screams started. A high-pitched roar. And I couldn’t hear a thing. The cameramen couldn’t hear. Nevile Wortman, the man in charge, couldn’t hear. The Beatles ran on, but the bloke who was running the tape found it wasn’t working. He shouted to me to hold it, but I couldn’t hear him. It was absolute mayhem! So as a cue I worked out a series of hand signals to show John Lennon when to start. Every time I crouched to get in his eye line, he would crouch down with me, until we were both on the floor giggling our heads off! It was hysterical. But from out of all that Johnnie Stewart asked me to do Top of the Pops.
OTT: What did The Beatles make of you?
CECIL KORER: When it came time to do Juke Box Jury, I arranged the stage with the desks and all the name cards so the audience could see who was who. But then the boys came on and started changing them round. I’d walk away and they’d quickly swap John’s name with Ringo’s. I’d rush over, change them back, then when I walked away they’d switch them again. In the end I gave up. When the programme went out John was labelled as Ringo, Ringo was Paul and so on. Some time later I was in a club in London called the Scotch of St James choosing dancers for Top of the Pops. The programme had temporarily moved to London, because the stiletto heels of the girl dancers had so damaged the floor in the Manchester studios it had to be re-laid. I was in this club, when suddenly I was thrown on the floor and found John and Ringo sitting on top of me! They said, “What are you doing here? And do you want a drink?!”
OTT: So what were those first editions of Top of the Pops like? They must have been fairly manic.
CECIL KORER: We did a pilot to see what it looked like, and I had to be on the studio floor mingling with all the kids ready to cue the presenters – David Jacobs, Pete Murray, Jimmy Savile and Alan Freeman. But when the tape was played back, the camera kept picking out this big bald head in the middle of all the dancing kids. I said, “God, that’s me!” As a result, the BBC made me a wig. So now the kids would stream into the Top of the Pops studio, all eager and shouting, to be greeted by an old wrinkly with a wig on and what looked like a deaf aid – my talkback – who was desperately saying to them, “C’mon kids, let’s get with it!” Unbelievable. One night I went home with the wig still on and my dog wouldn’t let me in. He probably thought I was a dead cat.
OTT: Did you ever feel out of sorts with the young audience?
CECIL KORER: Oh no, I was flavour of the month with those kids, because I was the one who gave out the tickets!
OTT: So you were the man with the power!
CECIL KORER: Well, there were two of us. Me and my assistant Samantha Juste, who was the one who played the discs on the programme. She later married Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees. We’d walk into a club in Manchester and the kids would be suddenly all quivering, shouting, trying to catch my eye, saying you’re the man with the tickets! Incidentally I solved the business of the stilettos shoes damaging the floor. I insisted the girls change their shoes or wore thimbles which we loaned them. Problem solved!!
OTT: How long were you on Top of the Pops?
CECIL KORER: From 1964 to ‘66, by which time I’d started work on It’s a Knockout with Barney. Then in 1967 the BBC promoted me to producer. But as a favour to Johnnie Stewart I came back to floor manage the two Top of the Pops Christmas specials in 1967 and ‘68.
OTT: I take it the show had moved down to London by that point?
CECIL KORER: Oh yes.
OTT: You lived in Manchester for a while?
CECIL KORER: From 1959 to ‘67, then moved down to London when I was promoted to producer.
OTT: So what were the origins of It’s a Knockout?
CECIL KORER: It began while I was still in Manchester. It was an amalgam of ideas. Barney and I had done Top Town before, and started up It’s a Knockout in 1966, just as a domestic competition, between Yorkshire and Lancashire. Meanwhile there was a programme in Italy called Village Bells, where villages competed for the best set of ringing bells for their churches. At the same time there was a man in France called Guy Lux who started a programme called Entres Villes – “between towns”. Barney put them all together to come up with Jeux Sans Frontières, which began across Europe in 1967.
OTT: You began as assistant producer?
CECIL KORER: Yes, and Barney was the producer/director. But it was very different show in the early days. The first presenters were McDonald Hobley, Ted Ray and Charlie Chester. No costumes, giants, puppets – it was pure competition entertainment! Then David Vine took over, with Eddie Waring as a judge, not a commentator. Soon it became so complex that Barney asked Eddie to become a commentator as well, and eventually David left and Stuart Hall came in, and that was the making of it really.
OTT: But initially you only worked on the show while you were based in Manchester?
CECIL KORER: Yes, in 1966 and ‘67. Then I was promoted to producer and went to London. It was later on, when Barney stepped down, that I returned to It’s a Knockout as producer in the 1970s. The BBC apparently cast around all over the place for someone to take over, until they asked Barney, who said there’s only one man who could ever do the job. And that was me. Even though he was wrong!
OTT: Well, you certainly presided over the show’s imperial years.
CECIL KORER: I kicked it up the backside a bit when I took over. And the viewing figures increased enormously. I introduced into the games all the big grotesque figures, the giants and the Tweedles – Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Those kinds of things. It gave a new look to the domestic series. The show really came into its own. Not that it hadn’t before, Barney had done a great job, but I just felt I had to make a different kind of impression. So I decided to give it a new look.
OTT: Did you actually attend the recordings?
CECIL KORER: I went to every one. Every single one. Every year for six years. Every country, every programme.
OTT: You must have clocked up a fair few air miles.
CECIL KORER: I went to produce it in France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Portugal, Holland, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Hong Kong and America. There was a plan and a timetable I always stuck to. We’d arrive in the new country on a Sunday, rehearse on Monday and Tuesday, and did the programme on Wednesday. I also held a disco on the first night we arrived. This way all the contenders from all the different countries could get to know each other. In some instance they became friends for life! The Germans would be dancing with the English, and the French with the Dutch. It was lovely to see, everybody ended up great chums. I was even responsible for some marriages.
OTT: And in these instances you had to work alongside the host broadcasters?
CECIL KORER: Yes, but all that was fine, because then and still now the BBC was an icon. So if the BBC said it was right, it was right. It was lovely. Even if you were wrong you were right. Because it was the BBC. Little did they know!
OTT: One of the show’s most enduring images is of rather hapless Brits struggling through rain-soaked, mud-caked fields.
CECIL KORER: Exactly, but that was the key. It was entertainment: pure and simple. Kids loved it, the whole family loved it.
OTT: Throughout this time you were presumably working on other programmes as well.
CECIL KORER: Oh yes. I was based in General Features, with specific responsibility for the quiz unit. That didn’t cover things like Call My Bluff - that was Light Entertainment. But I oversaw loads of shows. The Heritage Game, Where in the World?, it was just endless. I had a staff of about 15 directors and researchers working to me. But I always did Ask the Family myself. Sometimes I’d allocate another show to a different producer, but I always did Ask the Family.
OTT: A unique quiz show, it’s fair to say.
CECIL KORER: Indeed, but I didn’t know it was going to turn out that way. It just started off like any ordinary programme, but I’d been given the instruction to make it academic and quite hard. I said, “No, it’s got to be fun, and be instructive through laughter.” And if you watch it, there was always a lot of laughter – from the host, and from the families. That made the whole thing much more distinctive, but at the same time relaxed and enjoyable. The fun the families were having made it fun to watch at home. On top of that, Robert Robinson used to take the mickey out of me all the time. This was mostly because I had very lowbrow tastes. You can see that in the way the moment I left the programme, the music rounds suddenly became full of opera and the classics, whereas I would do things like play a clip of Strawberry Fayre and then some music by Cream, and say what’s the dessert? Or Midnight in Moscow and Midnight Cowboy, and say how many hours difference?
OTT: So you were involved in everything – setting the questions as well as coordinating the production?
CECIL KORER: Oh yes, oh yes.
OTT: Robert Robinson was there from the beginning. Was he your choice?
CECIL KORER: No, he was assigned to me.
OTT: At the time he was renowned more as a writer.
CECIL KORER: And an academic.
OTT: So what did you think when you heard he was to be the host?
CECIL KORER: I went, “Oh my God – I’m in trouble here!” But you see, I’d once worked with a French juggler on The Good Old Days. At the end of his act he used to produce bunches of flowers and flags from out of nowhere, until there’d be about 60 flags surrounding him on the stage. It was truly astonishing, but also rather wonderful. So on the very first dress rehearsal for Ask the Family, my instruction to Robert was simply: “Fill the stage with flags!” And he said, “I don’t know what you mean.” I explained it, and he just said, “Yes – thank you.” And that became our catchphrase. Every time before we did a recording, I’d say to Robert, “Fill the stage with flags.” And we got on like a house on fire.
OTT: You certainly knew you were in capable hands when you watched Robert at work.
CECIL KORER: Oh yes, he put everyone at ease. I remember reading somewhere of how Robert was supposedly aloof, that he never wanted to meet the families. What a load of rubbish. In the hospitality room at the BBC where all the families would meet, Robert was always there, chatting, having cups of tea, socialising. Indeed, when one of the children we’d had on the programme was killed in a skiing accident, I turned up at the funeral, and so did Robert – the only two BBC people who went.
OTT: Ask the Family was also atypical because there wasn’t an audience.
CECIL KORER: No, no applause, no clapping. The laughter and the atmosphere came from the families, that was what it was all about.
OTT: What about the theme tune? It was quite an unusual piece of music.
CECIL KORER: Acka Raga.
OTT: Was that your choice?
CECIL KORER: No. I inherited it. I didn’t try and change it, though. You should never change a theme tune. When I finally left the programme, a guy called Mark Patterson took over, and the first thing he did was change the music. I phoned him up and said, “Mark, why have you done this?” He said he wanted to give it a different look. But I said, “don’t you realise, when you’re in the kitchen washing up and you hear that familiar tune, pom-pom-pom, you say, oh yes, Ask the Family’s on; but if it’s something else, some new tune, you’ll say what’s this? I’m not watching that.” It’s like with the Knockout music – never changed. You should never change the music.
OTT: I can probably guess what you thought of the revived Ask the Family. There wasn’t really any comparison …
CECIL KORER: It was a shame. They should either have done it properly or not at all. Everybody said the original was too middle class, and that you wouldn’t find families like that anymore. Oh really? You can you know. But you’ve got to do the research. No family ever appeared on that programme that I hadn’t interviewed personally. I’d been to their homes and spoken to them all. That’s what you had to do. I’d spend half the year choosing families. It doesn’t happen by itself.
OTT: Well, the BBC themselves has acknowledged that the revival was a mistake.
CECIL KORER: But they’ve killed it forever. It’s dead forever now. They can’t bring it back again.
OTT: Why was the original series axed?
CECIL KORER: Well, why did the BBC axe It’s a Knockout? Why did the BBC axe The Good Old Days? A new breed of people came in who said I’m sick of them, I don’t like them anymore. Never mind if they’re popular – I don’t like them.
OTT: But they all had good innings; The Good Old Days ran for decades.
CECIL KORER: And it still could have. I go on cruises, and sometimes I do interviews for the on-ship television service, mainly because of my involvement in Countdown, but people still come up to me and say, “Why don’t they bring The Good Old Days back?” Because on cruises they’re all wrinklies like me, and they adored that programme. Do you know, it was number one in Sweden for years? There was a waiting list of 40,000 just for seats, and 8000 people waiting to dress up. It was just enormously popular.
OTT: Why doesn’t that particular kind of variety and light entertainment exist on television nowadays?
CECIL KORER: A new breed of viewer – they say. They say it’s important to cater to the young. And it is. But that’s not the only thing to do. They’re forgetting that the people with the real disposable income are the pensioners. I’m not saying make all the programmes nostalgia-based, but there is an audience out there they could cash in on if they had the sense. Big Brother, Celebrity Love Island – they’re fine if you’re 20 and you like seeing people screwing around. When you get to 60 and over, you want to be entertained: quality shows, fun, games, Palladium-type shows. It’s true!
OTT: By the time you’d become a full-time producer, I guess you began coming into contact with BBC management.
CECIL KORER: Oh yes.
OTT: What can you recall about those kinds of people? Did anyone stand out?
CECIL KORER: From memory, there were four giants: Huw Wheldon, David Attenborough, Paul Fox, and Alasdair Milne. Nobody ever came close to them, in any television station or company. Never.
CECIL KORER: Charisma. The ability to make you feel at home. If you worked for them, they trusted you entirely. If you said you could do it, they said do it. You said, “I need the money”, they said, “you’ve got it.” Marvellous! All very different to, say, Channel 4. With Jeremy Isaacs, it was always the case that if you wanted to do something you were restricted to what he liked. In those days at the BBC it was always about what you liked.
OTT: Alasdair Milne has been sort of airbrushed out of BBC history, thanks to the way he was sacked.
CECIL KORER: Yes, it was such a shame, because his influence was immense. I never knew a producer or a Controller like him. He was a producer’s man. Dead straight, straight as a dye. He bollocked the hell out of you if you did something wrong, of course. He called me into his office once and tore several strips off of me. He went on for about 20 minutes. It was incredible. He ended by saying, “Get out of this office, I never want to lay eyes on you again.” But then as I was walking out he said quietly, “Oh Cecil, I’ll feel better tomorrow.” And you knew you hadn’t made an enemy. He was just telling you what he thought. To his credit, you could often tell it back.
OTT: You’ve had a long working relationship with Paul Fox, both at the BBC and then, with Countdown, at Yorkshire Television.
CECIL KORER: Paul I still see. A true friend, and I’ve known him throughout my professional life. Oddly enough he became my son’s boss for a while, when my son moved up to Yorkshire TV as assistant head of planning.
OTT: What was it about Paul that singled him out above the rest?
CECIL KORER: His bluntness and perception. And a great sense of humour. Somewhat belied by his figure, though – he could be quite a scary character. He was an ex-paratrooper, and was very broad and stocky. But underneath it there was this warm, very funny guy.
OTT: Why do you think these kinds of people aren’t around in television anymore?
CECIL KORER: Because there’s not the same respect. All these young kids, the whiz kids – some are very good, but a lot don’t have a sense of rapport. Management tends to be very separate and aloof. When I worked at Channel 4, I had tea-chests full of letters from people wanting to make programmes, and I always replied to them all. No letter was ever unanswered. Nowadays you write, and you can’t get a reply.
OTT: So is there anybody working in television today who you’d rate?
CECIL KORER: Kevin Lygo at Channel 4. He’s excellent. I don’t know many others very well, but of those I do know, Kevin stands out.
OTT: In what way?
CECIL KORER: Because he came up through the ranks. He’s done the time, he knows what he’s doing, he knows what an audience likes, and he knows what’s popular.
OTT: What were the circumstances in which you left the BBC to go to Channel 4?
CECIL KORER: I was headhunted.
OTT: By Jeremy Isaacs personally?
CECIL KORER: Yes.
OTT: What was it he saw in you?
CECIL KORER: There’d been an advert in the paper saying they were looking for people to work at this new channel that was starting up. It was brought to my attention by one of my BBC staff. I said, “Oh, I’d be interested in that.” And somehow that was reported back to Jeremy. I’d met him before, at a party thrown by Robert Robinson. And a few years back I’d been offered the role of head of quizzes at Thames TV, when Jeremy was still at the company, and had turned it down. But by the time Channel 4 came along I’d made a name for myself, not just in light entertainment, but also as a programme purchaser. I’d ended up involved in the Programme Acquisition department, and had bought things like Dallas and Taxi for the BBC. So off the back of that Jeremy invited me for an interview and said, “Would you be interested in being in charge of purchasing at Channel 4?” I said, “Well, really I’d be more interested in light entertainment.” So he simply said, “Will you do both?” And that was that! I started there in 1981, and soon began snapping up all sorts of shows: new ones like Cheers, but classics like The Munsters as well. I bought shows from France, Australia, all over the world. It was a great job, lovely. And on top of that I was commissioning new programmes!
OTT: It seems like you were about the only person responsible for getting people to watch Channel 4 in the early days.
CECIL KORER: Well, at one time eight of the top 10 Channel 4 programmes were mine. I gave the channel Cheers, Paul Hogan, Treasure Hunt, Father’s Day. I remember I used to go the weekly programme review meeting, together with all the Channel 4 commissioning editors, and I’d always argue that if you want people to tune in to “worthy programmes” you have precede them with programmes people will watch and like, and hence they’ll then stay with the channel. But they rarely did that. My stuff was getting shoved out at 2am. The final straw for me was when they showed a one-and-a-half-hour Greek drama, translated into English but with all the actors in masks so you couldn’t see any faces, spoken completely in verse. I sat watching with my mouth open, thinking, “My God – what is this?” When it came to that week’s programme review, I listened as all the other editors said how the thing had been marvellous, terrific, until it was my turn. I looked at Jeremy and simply said, “I want to ask a question. When does a programme stop being an artistic success in Chelsea and become élitist crap in Barnsley?” They all went, “My God!” and there was commotion. I also said, “Why not change the name ‘Channel 4′ to ‘Brimstone and Treacle’? You might not like it but it might do you some good!” But by that point, you see, I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand the pomposity. I couldn’t stand being criticised for not doing what I wasn’t able to do. Jeremy would never give me the money to do my job! I could’ve done wonders, if only I’d had the money.
OTT: But you managed to get Countdown and Treasure Hunt onto the screen, surely two of the top five all-time Channel 4 success stories.
CECIL KORER: I cherry picked them. One came from Yorkshire TV, who’d done a pilot and asked me if I was interested. I thought it was boring as hell, but was impressed by Carol Vorderman and I liked Richard Whiteley, so I said we’ll run with it. Treasure Hunt was brought to me by Chatsworth Television. The pilot was a disaster. I gave them the money to make it but for some reason they went to Egypt. They set it all up and then the Egyptian government wouldn’t allow the helicopters to fly. So they had to abandon it. They came back and thought I’d say no more money. But I said “Let’s try it again”. When Malcolm Heyworth, the producer, sent me the next pilot he rang me up and asked me what I thought. I said to Malcolm, “I’ve got bad news for you.” He said, “Oh dear – why?” I replied “I don’t know whether it’s brilliant, or bloody brilliant!”
OTT: Had you any idea that these kinds of programmes were going to be a success? Could you sniff a hit?
CECIL KORER: No, never. I knew we were onto a winner with Countdown thanks to Carol because she was unique. I just didn’t know how long it’d run. Then it took off like a rocket, same with Treasure Hunt.
OTT: So was it easy turning your back on all this?
CECIL KORER: Not really. I’d been at Channel 4 for three years, from 1981 to ‘84. It came to the stage of renewing my contract. Jeremy just said he was unhappy with my performance, and I was out. I do not remember what I said. I was in total shock. My loyalty to him and the new channel had been immeasurable. It was no consolation to read in his memoirs later about his time at Channel 4, where he apologised because he had treated me badly deliberately keeping me short of programme funding. After it happened, I don’t think I slept for weeks. Luckily for me I had friends at HTV in Bristol who took me on at once.
OTT: Have you seen or spoken to Jeremy since?
CECIL KORER: Oh, many times. We’re on good terms now. The only thing I’m still sad about is that I knew I had enemies at Channel 4, and I don’t think Jeremy defended me. When I ran a department, if there was critical comment I would always defend anyone on my unit by taking the blame myself – after all in the end I had made the decisions. I knew that certain members of Channel 4 management were not happy with my lowbrow approach, but I was getting the figures and should have been vigorously defended. That’s the one thing I still regret. I knew Jeremy wasn’t behind me, yet I’d been completely behind him. It upset me for weeks, for months. He tried to make amends when I formed my own production company, by commissioning programmes from me, but it wasn’t the same.
OTT: Would you have stayed if the relationship had been different?
CECIL KORER: Oh yes, because I knew there was so much more to do. And I’d be getting more money to do it! I wanted to expand in so many different ways. I’d been delighted with Cheers, for instance, and had got an award for that from the Press Guild. So there are some happy memories. Funnily enough my daughter, who’s a costume designer, was in America recently working on a film with Shelley Long. When she explained who she was, Shelley asked her to send her love to me.
OTT: When you set up your own company, did you have in mind any particular kinds of programme you wanted to make?
CECIL KORER: Ones that made money! I did two quiz shows for Channel 4 which I’d originally done for the BBC, Where In The World? and The Heritage Game. I then devised a series called Hand in Hand which was for children with hearing disabilities. I made about 80 of those programmes for Channel 4 before they ran it at 2am and killed it. I did another show for the BBC called Tricks of the Trade. I also did a lot of one-offs for people like Roy Hudd and Frankie Howerd.
OTT: Did you enjoy being in this position?
CECIL KORER: Oh yes, of course. I got paid to devise the show, then got paid as a production company, then got paid as a producer. It was great!
OTT: How long did you run your company for?
CECIL KORER: I stopped in 1992. I spent five years as a recruitment manager for the National Trust. Then I was approached to be a consultant for various television programmes, including the revival of It’s a Knockout, but they wouldn’t listen to my advice so the thing died a death. Finally my son Jeremy asked me to be an executive producer at his media consultancy firm. And that’s what I’ve been doing right up to June of this year. Jeremy’s now moved to San Francisco, so I’m out of work again.
OTT: So what now?
CECIL KORER: I’m looking forward to going to America to see the birth of my first grandchild. That’s all I care about at the moment.
OTT: Have you ever thought about writing a book?
CECIL KORER: Everybody has asked me. But with so many tales, I wouldn’t know where to start. I know what the title would be: Namedrops Keep Falling From My Head. A quote from Larry Adler.
OTT: I’m sure people would love to read it.
CECIL KORER: There are so many tales. I’ll give you just one more. Rod Stewart had been invited to do an interview at the BBC, when my secretary came in and said, “We have a problem: Rod wants to bring his pet camel to the studio.” I said, “A pet camel – you must be joking!” So at no expense spared we built a huge cage, with straw, and found out what a camel ate and shipped in some food. Come the big day, Rod arrived with a very beautiful woman, and said to me, “Have you met my wife Alana?” Alana – not a llama. Oh dear!
OTT: To end with, out of all those shows you’ve worked on, what would you name as the one of which you’re most proud?
CECIL KORER: I’m proud of all of them. I’m realising now how much impact Ask the Family had. But I’m going to say It’s a Knockout. Working with Stuart Hall made for a lifetime of laughter.
OTT: Thank you very much.
CECIL KORER: Out of interest, what will you use as a title for this interview?
OTT: Oh, it’ll be a quote from within the interview itself.
CECIL KORER: Well if you’re looking for something, here’s one to end with: Cecil Korer – he’s still available!
WITH THANKS TO CECIL KORER