The identity of the next ‘victim’ to appear on This Is Your Life remains one of television’s closely guarded secrets, rivalled only by the mystery surrounding the name of the celebrity who would replace Eamonn Andrews following his untimely death last November. Michael Aspel, himself once a subject, tells STEWART KNOWLES of the ‘cloak and dagger’ way he got the job.
Replacing the irreplaceable Eamonn…
The car park of Twickenham rugby football ground, February this year. Fans gather for the England versus Wales game. Among them is Head of Light Entertainment at Thames Television, John Howard Davies, ultimately responsible for choosing a successor to Eamonn Andrews and ensuring the continuation of This Is Your Life.
Michael Aspel, a man of divided loyalties this day since he was born in London but began his broadcasting career as a radio actor in Cardiff, is helping himself to a picnic lunch from the boot of his car.
John Howard Davies, who as a child actor played the title role in the 1948 film Oliver Twist, spots Aspel, ‘Love to have a chat with you sometime,’ he says. On the face of it the encounter is casual and entirely coincidental. ‘But,’ says Aspel, ‘I knew, of course, what he meant.’
Weeks of speculation start within a fortnight of Eamonn Andrews’s death. In November 1987 Aspel is for the first time named by newspapers as a likely successor.
Aspel, for his part heavily committed to London Weekend Television with, among other things, his own chat show, Aspel & Company, makes no comment.
Meanwhile, Andrews’s widow, Grainne, has agreed that Thames Television should show three episodes of the programme recorded before Eamonn’s death but as yet not transmitted.
Beyond that, it isn’t certain that the series will continue. Many feel that Eamonn was such an integral part of the show that no suitable replacement could, or indeed should, be found.
Aspel understands this point of view. ‘I know there will be people who will think the show should have died with Eamonn and that nobody else is fit to do it.’
Grainne Andrews, working to finish the life story Andrews was writing when he died, appears to have had no such reservations and is soon reported to be unhappy about the delay in naming someone to take over.
By now, rumours are rife. Would Thames drop the series? Would it revert to the BBC where after all, it had first been produced in Britain as far back as 1955, nine years before ITV acquired the rights from the American owners? As the New Year approaches, Aspel’s name is no longer in the frame. Michael Parkinson has become Fleet Street’s top tip, to be followed closely by Terry Wogan and then Russell Harty, who sadly was to die in June.
In January Parkinson denies he is in line for the job and suggests Frank Bough. Thames TV say talks are continuing with several possibilities in mind but no firm decision has been taken.
Soon the names of Nick Owen, Noel Edmonds, Leslie Crowther and Gloria Hunniford have joined the line-up of alleged contenders. But in March it is gossip writer Nigel Dempster who places Michael Aspel firmly at the top of the list and says he will take over the programme ‘at about £15,000 per transmission’.
Aspel is immediately quoted as saying that, even if he were approached, he could not consider taking on This Is Your Life because of his other TV commitments.
‘It had become a national game,’ says Aspel, who clearly seems to have enjoyed playing it. ‘Rumours flew and the game had started long before there was any discussion about my doing it. I didn’t even consider it. I thought I had plenty of things on and certainly didn’t sit at home thinking ‘Please let it be me’.”
But it now appears that direct approaches to Aspel from Thames had begun soon after the car park encounter.
‘It did become an extraordinary cloak and dagger operation’ says Aspel, ‘with everyone keeping the secret until it was finally announced at the end of March.
‘The whole thing was blown up out of all proportion. I began to think it would become a dreadful anti-climax because what to me has always been a nice cosy little programme was suddenly going to be lifted out of its proper place in our lives.
Meetings and telephone calls continued while newshounds followed the scent. There were ‘lots of chats’ at Aspel’s beautiful, secluded home near Esher in Surrey. Malcolm Morris, producer of This Is Your Life, John Howard Davies and Aspel’s agent became frequent visitors. Drinks were poured; money discussed.
‘Of course we talked about money,’ says Aspel. ‘It meant I was going to have to change the whole shape of my life. First, I felt there was no chance I could do it because I belonged totally to LWT.
‘But,’ he says with some satisfaction, ‘we ended up with a nicely balanced package between Thames and LWT.’
It was that ‘balanced package’ that led to newspaper speculation about the actual figure and towards the end of March, when it seemed certain that Aspel was ‘The Man’, the magic figure of £500,000 was floated as Aspel’s annual ‘salary’ for the two jobs.
‘The money thing,’ says Aspel, ‘was amazing…grossly exaggerated. At the press conference when it was announced that I would take over This Is Your Life, I was asked how much I would earn and I said it would be a great deal less than they were going to print.’
Sitting in an airport afterwards, Aspel was ‘astounded’ to read in one of Britain’s more sober newspapers that he was now going to earn £1 million a year.
‘I mean,’ says Aspel, ‘a million pounds…Unbelievable! The newspapers invent that figure and then compare what you’re not earning with what Wogan is not earning, and then soon we’ll have someone say what an outrage it all is when people are starving in Central Africa. ‘It is a game they play and it is not a pleasant one. I see no reason why any of us should have to tell anyone what we earn. It is entirely not their business,’ says Aspel who was named, for the third time, ITV Personality of the Year within a month of the official announcement that he would take over from Eamonn Andrews.
When I spoke to Grainne at the Andrews’s home in Dublin, she told me: ‘I certainly didn’t feel that the programme should have been stopped after Eamonn’s death. It is, after all, an institution and I felt sure Eamonn would have wanted it to go on and would have been pleased to think that Michael Aspel was taking over. ‘I had heard other suggestions, of course, but he seemed to me the right person. Eamonn, of course, had met him several times and liked him.’
Aspel’s own This Is Your Life occurred in May 1980 while he was chairing Give Us A Clue. ‘Of course, you feel tremendously flattered – and slightly alarmed. It is probably the strangest thing I have ever experienced. It certainly never occurred to me that one day I would step into Eamonn’s shoes.’
How different will he be? ‘Eamonn got such excitement and pleasure out of trapping the subject. He was just like a schoolboy, hiding behind doors, almost giggling with excitement. I shall, of course, be just as excited, but it probably won’t show in quite such an open way.’
There will be disguises – ‘a variety of wigs and different jackets.’ says Aspel, who once appeared as a Welsh spider in Crackerjack and has played Baron Hardup in Cinderella.
‘Like Eamonn, I will have some sort of power of veto over the victims. I must start talking about subjects, not victims!
‘There will continue to be the two main categories – either show-business folk or people who have done some particular good in the community. Looking down the list of people who have been featured already or might be considered, it is strongly-weighted in favour of show-business because people like to see familiar faces, but I would hate to think there wouldn’t be just as many worthwhile stories to be told.
‘One of the things that floated across my mind was whether there was anyone left to be done, but the producers are confident that there are many, many more out there, that the list of possibilities is quite impressive.’
Who? Well, there have been rumours – names ranging from Mick Jagger to the Queen Mother have been confidently put forward by journalists, tireless in their dogged pursuit of the facts, and of Aspel.
All that can be said is that the famous phrase ‘This Is Your Life’ will be delivered without the Irish accent and that it seems likely Aspel’s style will be slightly more laid-back, perhaps even a touch facetious.
‘I have practised saying the phrase,’ Aspel admits. ‘Eamonn tended to accent the third word. This Is YOUR Life. I’m bound to place the accent somewhere. This Is Your LIFE. THIS Is Your Life?’