Phillip Schofield first appeared on TV with the show ‘Shazam!’, in New Zealand, but he truly achieved fame upon his return to the UK. He was hired to front CBBC, where he would be broadcasting live to as many as nine million children. The future star of ITV show This Morning would get a big break after showing off a silly squeaky toy that a family member had bought him for Christmas. Little did he know then that ‘Gordon the Gopher’ would help him become a near-millionaire and enable him to buy his first house.
At the time, Phillip had been taken on as the first in-vision presenter of CBBC in 1985.
It was a large leap for the host, who was used to broadcasting in front of 800,000 people with ‘Shazam!’.
The star, then 23, had proven himself to doubting TV executives after his sensitive handling of the NASA Challenger space shuttle crash during a live broadcast.
But he likely never expected the success that an unusual gift would bring him and his TV career.
The “joke gift” was given to Phillip by his Auntie Diane – who had picked up a soft toy with a squeaker in a Cornwall market.
In Robin McGibbon’s 1992 biography ‘Phillip Schofield: The Whole Amazing Story’, he revealed how the star’s unlikely yet “hugely popular sidekick” Gordon the Gopher aided his success.
He explained that the gift was “a long limbed, furry, yellow puppet that made a squeak when you squeezed inside its mouth”.
Phillip showcased the toy during a live link and expected that would be “the beginning and the end of the furry animal’s TV career” but he was wrong.
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Phillip’s “zany humoured” colleague Tim Mackay-Robinson decided to use the toy to have a little fun at Phillip’s expense.
He pushed Gordon into the camera and made it squeak loudly during one of their broadcasts.
Mr Mackay-Robinson said: “I just started being disruptive and knocking things off the desk.
“I found it quite funny because Phillip was trying to speak to the camera and I was trying to put him off.”
They quickly realised the comedic potential between the host and his toy – naming it Gordon the Gopher to mirror the alliterated names of other popular characters including Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse.
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Soon Gordon the Gopher became a hit with children and the studio would realise their post bag was “half full with at least 300 letters in it” for the toy.
Others had sent in woolly jumpers to clothe the cuddly creature.
Mr Mackay-Robinson said: “I would make Gordon misbehave and be very naughty because I knew that Phillip would always react well.
“It was the unpredictability that was so funny. If we rehearsed anything it would have fallen flat. We would cry with laughter when the lights went down and we closed the show.
“It was the first time anything like that had been done. It was anarchy. The more chaos the better.”
By February 1989, Phillip had been awarded the TV Times award for Best Children’s Presenter.
The accolade sent sales of Gordon the Gopher toys and merchandise through the roof – which Phillip had licensed out as part of a lucrative deal, according to biographer Mr McGibbon.
It also helped him to pay for a “beautiful” four bedroomed house in West London and left the press of the time to speculate that he was close to becoming a millionaire.
Mr McGibbon claimed that the original Gordon the Gopher took “pride of place on a shelf” in Phillip’s home in recognition of how it had helped him.
Mr Mackay-Robinson added: “The success ran away with us and, to be honest, none of us expected just how big he would become.
“Gordon was one of those things no one could have planned. Phillip and I stumbled on him by fluke.”
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