Tom Kilgour walks in his North Country
In February 2006, Chris Stewart, Chief Reporter for BBC TV North East & Cumbria, found himself in the sad position of having to report on the death of Tom Kilgour. Chris grew up watching Tom on 'Look North', then worked with him at the BBC. He wrote:
It would be an understatement to describe Tom Kilgour as one of the nicest people in the world. He was THE nicest person in the world. The nature of obituary pieces can sometimes make them a tricky business. Choosing the interviewees is the key to getting it right. Somebody who knew the subject, and somebody who will speak well of him. On that basis, an obituary for Tom Kilgour was always going to be a doddle. Because everybody who did know him would be sure to speak well of him.
Many of the people at the Pink Palace today grew up watching Tom, and a few of us were lucky enough to end up working with him. It was difficult to come to terms with the fact that this gentle and avuncular figure from the box in the corner of your childhood home had become a colleague.
But there he was. "Pleased to meet you", he said. "Hullo, you're Tom. My mum loves you." Oh no, why had I blurted that out? What a jackass. "Well, I was just telling Ronnie", he continued, realising and ignoring my embarrassment. "I was coming into North Shields on the ferry from Bergen after a dreadful crossing. Really huge seas. Terrible. And just in front of me was this canny Geordie woman. And just as we were berthing, she said 'Eeeeeh, thank God. Terra cotta !" Effortlessly and with the innate kindness he never failed to show, he had transformed me from bumbling bunch of nerves to his workmate. Everybody new to the Pink Palace got a similar treatment.
And everybody in the Pink Palace loved him. Maureen and Margaret and the other transmission assistants would let him get away with more than anybody else would dare try. A misplaced script would usually be rewarded by one of Margaret's glares. But, if it was Tom... "It's all right, Tom, I'll get you another one. No, honestly, it's no bother at all."
He was utterly and brilliantly professional. Every little bulletin was given the same care and thought as the half-hour full-on programme. He was also a natural, even if his background as an actor gave him an advantage over some others.
Mike Neville remembers seeing Tom in a play, and things began to go very wrong. Tom was appearing with another actor. "So how did we get into this situation ?", was Tom's line. The other actor froze, words all forgotten. "I'll tell you how !", barked Tom, and continued to develop the story line on his own. "And how do we sort this out ?", said Tom, speaking his own line. Pause. Still nothing from his petrified stagemate. "I'll tell you how we'll sort it", Tom said...and so on. "It was magnificent", said Mike. "Nobody other than those working at the theatre knew anything had gone wrong. Tom went on and on, playing two parts, and the play didn't suffer one bit."
And if you care to look back at some of his pieces to camera in programmes like 'North Country', you will quickly be reminded of just how good he was. Nothing was recited. Everything was spoken. "It's really just remembering that you're speaking to people", he'd say. "You're saying it to your Aunty Betty over the dining table." Yeah, right, Tom. But only when you have the talent you've got, you lovely man.
For his funeral, 76-year-old Tom had left strict instructions. A message from him was read out by the vicar. He said "My life has been blessed from birth", helped along "on a tide of good nature and great affection".
John Bird, who produced 'Look North' for 15 years, adds:
Tom was a pioneer of radio and television in the region. He began his career as an actor, graduating from RADA to join the Playhouse Rep company in the 1950s. He took up radio and then television, eventually taking it on full-time. He had a lovely sense of humour and was liked by everyone. As Head of Presentation he had superb skills and talent, and he influenced and encouraged everyone around him, helping many people in their careers. Well known to BBC viewers as a studio news reader and presenter, he became the face of 'Looks Natural', which was one of the longest-running half-hour series ever broadcast. The series was created and produced by Harry Green, and on his retirement was taken on by Roger Burgess and re-launched as 'North Country'. Tom had qualities not seen so much today — decency and propriety. The viewers adored him — on one occasion he was breathless from rushing to the studio and he could hardly speak on air. Immediately the switchboard had calls asking if was alright.
He will be sadly missed. I have no hesitation is saying that Tom was one of the three giants of regional broadcasting, together with Mike Neville and George House.
Graeme Aldous remembers working with Tom as a 'North Country' attachee from BBC Radio Cleveland:
In the 'North Country' book (published to accompany the series in March 84), Tom recalled "coming down from Arctic-like exposure in the hills, and in the warmth of our homeward-bound cars the sudden and simultaneous realisation that we'd forgotten to shoot the closing sequences of a programme." There were extenuating circumstances — the rain on the Hardknott Pass was horizontal and bitter, and more than one member of the crew was suffering the effects of an unhygienic hotel kitchen the night before. But more important for a 'proper gentleman' like Tom was the fact that he'd inadvertently ripped the front out of his trousers! Safety-pins and camera tape preserved some of his modesty, but we still had to film every shot with him facing camera right — which (on that fell side) meant facing into the rain. And without the review facilities of video, it was difficult to check that his dress had been properly adjusted.
But the thing I learned most from Tom was how to be a professional presenter. I learned that we only saw the takes that worked, and that even Tom fluffed… but picked himself up and did it again… and (if necessary) again, until it was right. Often only he was dissatisfied with his performance — we would have let it go.
But best of all, at the end of every shoot he would say "Shall we do the trailer?" There was a 30-second spot after 'Look North' where an opt-out could be trailed. Tom would wander off into the moor or the forest, and mutter to himself. After a couple of minutes he'd come back to the camera and go for an ad-libbed take. The crew would put stopwatches on him — always a perfect, rounded 29 seconds! He was the master professional.