Klein's having the time of his life
The Stage
14 May 1992
The Stage: Brian Klein article
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PAT MOORE meets wunderkind Brian Klein, Associate Producer of This Is Your Life, who has made the light entertainment record books as the youngest-ever producer on ITV.

Any suggestion that he might be some kind of wunderkind fills Brian Klein with undisguised horror.

But there's no denying that this likeable East London-born director has moved up the television tree almost faster than it takes Michael Aspel to say This Is Your Life on Klein's own top-rated programme.

Just over 13 years ago, Klein left London University with a degree in history and politics, got a job as a reporter with Thomson's Weekly News and then moved to Thames News as a researcher.

In no time at all, he'd switched again, to become Associate Producer on This Is Your Life – a job most researchers dream about in their dotage. Today he's got a string of successful programmes behind him, two in the top ten. He's still only 35.

"I was lucky," he says, modestly. "It was a question of being in the right place when the right opportunities came along and there were more of those in the early eighties because more programmes were being made. Being very ambitious I just went for them."

"Also and despite being a great believer in luck, I do think part of that early success was being able to get on well with the artists. I seem to be on their wavelength."

"I don't mean I was pushy. I don't believe in that approach, it just alienates people, but a lot of them knew me already from my research days and trusted me. I just slowly built on that trust and I can honestly say that I'm friends with the people I work with."

One of his greatest - now much-missed – friends was the late Bernie Winters. "I was producing Whose Baby? And when Leslie Crowther left to present The Price Is Right, we needed someone quickly who was good with kids. Bernie seemed ideal and we soon became pals, both in and outside the studio."

It was also how Klein's wife, director Charmaine Carter, came to write Bernie's life story, One Day at a Time (Ebury Press).

"One of Bernie's last stage appearances was in panto in 1990," he explains. "Charmaine and I went round to see him after the show and he told us that he'd been asked to write his autobiography, but didn't feel up to doing it alone. He knew he was ill by then. He asked if Charmaine would help him put it together and we're both pleased that he suggested it. He was such a dear, kind man."

Working on Whose Baby? put Klein in the record books as the youngest-ever producer of a network Light Entertainment show on ITV, but he was still working on This Is Your Life and producing The TV Times Awards. In 1986 he found the time to co-devise a totally new games show, Headliners, with Derek Jameson which also moved him into directing and then made Take The Plunge, with Su Pollard.

Even today, with two top ten shows, Take Your Pick and This Is Your Life, he admits to feeling nervous when the red light goes on. "I still get that pit-of-the-stomach jolt which is pure fear," he confesses. "But after the first 20 seconds and the first three or four shots, I'm OK."

"I think my most nail-biting moment was when we did a This Is Your Life special on Ken Dodd. We had a stunning guest list, including the Diddy-men, who did a dance routine, and some fire-eaters. It was very exciting, but I was terrified something would go wrong."

"There were so many people to manipulate on and off set. But it went like a dream. It was one of the best shows we've ever done."

"I don't want to take all the credit though. I may be the director, but we work as a team on This Is Your Life and Take Your Pick. I do try not to be histrionic, too! A director must keep a cool head, even though it's a very pressurised way of earning a living."

"One thing I have learned in my relatively short time behind the camera is that it is better to make a decision, even if you secretly wonder whether it's wrong, than be indecisive. You must have no regrets. Just go for it."

That said wasn't it a bit daunting taking over a programme which has been a television institution since the fifties? Doesn't he ever worry about running out of interesting life-stories after 12 series with first Eamonn Andrews and now Michael Aspel holding the Big Red Book?

"Amazing as it may sound, there's an inexhaustible supply," he grins. "Look at the last series, which finished in April. We had Robert Lindsay, Gary Glitter, Nigel Havers, Paul Nicholas – all very different stories, all good names, but ten years ago they would have been too young."

"Sport throws up a lot of new stories all the time. We've had Rory Underwood, the rugby international and Stephen Hendry, the world snooker champion, but there will always be a host of young, interesting sportspeople popping up. It's self-regenerating."

"Politicians? I could sit down and write out a list of a hundred I'd like to invite on the programme. But we usually prefer to wait until they've retired from Westminster, then we can't be accused of bias. We waited for Denis Healey, for example, who has had a fascinating life."

"I am interested in MPs as people, not just their careers, however. The programme is always there to pay tribute, not to damage in any way. We want our subjects to enjoy the experience as much as the viewers and I do think – hope – that This Is Your Life is seen as an accolade, like Desert Island Discs has always been."

The programme certainly has phenomenal viewing figures of 15 million. "A lot of hard work goes into achieving that," says Klein. "Each programme takes around six weeks to research with six researchers hard at it. We do a great deal before we even contact a subject's husband or wife, because once you start talking to the family, it's harder to keep it all secret. People get so excited that I'm always afraid they'll blab if they have to keep quiet for too long."

One change he has made is to take the show out on location occasionally. "We did Bernard Manning in Manchester and Paul Nicholas in Bath, for instance. Viewers seem to like the subject out of the studio setting sometimes." [Bigredbook.info editor: The edition featuring Paul Nicholas was actually recorded at HTV Studios in Bristol.]

This Is Your Life is always shot "live", with no rehearsals for Aspel or the participants. "You couldn't ever hope to recreate the emotion on someone's face when they meet a long-lost relative," says Klein. "The programme's success is almost entirely due to the spontaneity, the smile and the tears."

Although many directors of Klein's age would have chosen younger presenters than Michael Aspel and Des O'Connor, who fronts Take Your Pick, he feels that these are two programmes where "yoof" definitely "has no place."

"Their strength lies in the ability of Michael and Des to make ordinary men and women feel relaxed in front of a camera." he says. "For that you need a very special kind of assurance and generosity which only very experienced performers like them have."

"Take Your Pick contestants aren't given weeks to prepare for their appearance. Des and I pluck them out of the audience ten minutes before we start recording."

"They don't even have time to feel nervous, but you still need a presenter who can make a guest feel like a star, who can make fun for them, not of them. Who doesn't ever make jokes at their expense."

"Then it's also fun for the audience, some of whom are watching a friend or relative on that stage. Sometimes we get groups of 40 from a bank or a supermarket and they love it when one of their pals gets chosen to be up there with Des. It adds that extra element of excitement to their evening."

Although Klein agrees with Thames light entertainment supremo John Fisher that there are too many 'people' shows on television, he thinks there's a vast difference between them and gameshows like What's My Line? which he also directed with Angela Rippon presenting or Take Your Pick. "For a start, a games show is only as good as its game," he says.

"And you've got to have what I call a 'hook'. Something that even if you were late for a date, you'd stop and watch until the end, rather than miss a minute."

"Take Your Pick has it, with Des's boxes. Will the contestant get a car or a booby prize? Even This Is Your Life has it, because it brings out the innate nosiness in us all! People love it when we have an RAF rescue hero or an RNLI coxswain on the programme. But they wouldn't want them every week. They want to know more about a celebrity's life – what his Mum looks like, what he was doing as a child."

"It's great escapism."

Although some tip Klein for an early rise to the top, he is quite happy producing and directing.

"I love it," he admits, simply. "I'd rather be in there doing than executive watching. I've been with Thames Television since 1979 and now I'm freelance, but I think it has an enormous future as a production company."

"It was time for a shake-up, an evolution, but Thames is a major force in programme making, given its current track-record of successes."

"This is a transitional period, with some old companies winding down, but by the end of 1992 I forecast an explosion of work as people look for new ideas."

"Television continues to be our strongest medium and especially in the light entertainment field. It's at the centre of most companies' outlook. I'd like to be able to develop ideas of my own in a couple of years."

"As far as making programmes for Europe goes, there will always be the language problem. Light entertainment ideas do get sold on the Continent but the programmes are then remade by the buyers using their own nationals. The Common Market hasn't really happened for game shows as far as the total package is concerned."

"Australia and New Zealand are interested in Take Your Pick, but Des is well-known Down Under so that helps to sell it."

At the moment, Klein is happy to take the future slower to think up ideas and maybe explore the field of drama sometime. He's also making commercials and corporate videos.

"I'm in no hurry. I'm lucky to enjoy what I do and get paid for it." he grins.