Beryl REID (1920-1996)

Beryl Reid
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THIS IS YOUR LIFE - Beryl Reid, actress and comedienne, was surprised by Eamonn Andrews in the car park of Thames Television’s Teddington Studios.


Beryl began her acting career in 1936 in music hall, moving on to variety shows and pantomimes during the 1940s. Her first big success came in the BBC radio show Educating Archie as naughty schoolgirl Monica and later as the Brummie, "Marlene".


Beryl, a popular character actress on stage and screen, received critical acclaim for her roles in such films as Entertaining Mr Sloane and The Killing of Sister George.


“I can't go. I'm busy!”

Screenshots of Beryl Reid This Is Your Life

Beryl Reid's autobiography

Beryl's biographer, Kaye Crawford, discusses Beryl's attitude towards This Is Your Life in this exclusive contribution to the Bigredbook website...


Ah Beryl! What a fabulously funny, gentle, witty, generous, talented lady she was. But oh how complex! If ever there was a performer who was best identified by the two masks of comedy and tragedy, it was Beryl, and some people have been taken aback by a side of her they never knew existed until my biography of her was published last year.


This is Your Life is a very good example of how Beryl’s mood depended on how well her career was going. She had an insatiable appetite for her work and was so driven and determined that she only ever allowed herself three holidays in the space of a 60 year career. Work always came first and so to understand her initial reaction to being surprised with the Big Red Book, you have to understand that when the show was recorded in 1976 Beryl really was having a bad time of things. She was fast approaching 60 and job offers had almost completely dried up. As well as the financial implications, Beryl had been diagnosed with osteoporosis which would get progressively worse over the next 20 years and stop her doing the thing she loved most - working.


By 1976, she’d already been forced to pull out of two stage runs she was desperate to do as a result of ill health and her colleagues from the time remember that she had a bit of an air of sadness about her and was perhaps drinking a little too much. She was only really being offered minor roles in things she didn’t want to do but forced herself to keep herself in the spotlight and out of the red, but naturally this made her really quite depressed. In other words, This Is Your Life came when Beryl was having a bit of a mid-life crisis and that’s why she initially wasn’t too happy about the way the programme had been handled.


Her major issue with the programme was the choice of contributors. Her closest friends, Eileen Atkins and Harry Secombe, couldn’t make it to the studio and had to provide their tributes via video link….that actually left very few people she considered close friends to be present, with the exception of course of Harry Andrews (whom Beryl adored), Peter Brough (who gave Beryl her earliest success in Educating Archie) and Jack Tripp (whom Beryl spoke to every day on the telephone throughout her later life). She was delighted to see her brother Roy and his family as her busy schedule didn’t allow much time for her to spend time with them but some of the other guests irritated her a little. Whilst she was very fond of Richard O’Sullivan, she didn’t exactly need reminding of the fact that they’d just made a sitcom together which had flopped and had actually stopped her getting job offers. Another guest was an ex-boyfriend she had deliberately avoided for 30 years and was suddenly face to face with him, feeling very awkward indeed! After the show, she gave her Big Red Book to her sister-in-law Pat and complained to Jack Tripp, “40 years in the business and that’s the best they could do for me? I wish they hadn’t bothered!”


She felt that the episode hadn’t really showcased her best work at a time when she really did need it and so annoyed was she by the experience that when she saw Eamonn Andrews a few months afterwards, she sailed past him and refused to speak to him! But then, just three years later, she was cast in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as Connie Sachs alongside Alec Guinness. Her performance was so well received that her career enjoyed a fabulous revival and though her illness made it harder to work, she was never short of offers and she never again experienced the feeling she always dreaded, that she was being forgotten or that her career was at its end.


I think she felt a little embarrassed at how she had behaved at the time This Is Your Life was made and so when it came to writing about the show in her memoirs, she wanted to put things right. Her 1984 autobiography, ‘So Much Love’ is fascinating because it was not so much written as it was dictated. An editor called Eric Braun was brought in to put the material she recorded into a machine into some sort of order but Beryl was fiercely protective over the book and allowed little editing at all! She would come to call the book ‘The Bible’ and I think she wanted people to regard it as the definitive version of her life. But naturally, writing her biography some 30 years later, certain things came up in a very different light to the way Beryl first told them to her public. But that’s what’s so touching about Beryl’s story. She was almost a little childlike at times and that came from a place of insecurity that she just wasn't good enough. I think we can all agree, she most certainly was!


In the last years of her life, she kept saying to friends, “Please don’t let them forget me” and ironically, it was probably her appearance on This Is Your Life which reminded casting agents of what she could do and was responsible for her career getting back on its feet again after it aired. So I think she genuinely was very grateful to the show in the end, and certainly she kept her Big Red Book very well preserved and took great pride in showing it to people when they visited her at Honeypot Cottage. I know that she was (eventually!) very honoured to be on the show and often suggested that, as she’d done so much more since then, she might be “surprised” a second time! Beryl would love the fact that she’s featured on your website and that people are still thinking of her 20 years after her death. She was one of our best and I can honestly say that in writing my book about her life, I came to absolutely adore her. And from the tributes paid to her on her episode of This is Your Life, I know others did too.

Beryl Reid's autobiography

And here, as mentioned in the extract above, Beryl recalls her experience of This Is Your Life in her autobiography So Much Love...


My passion for cars goes right back to childhood. I’ve always driven myself to work, sometimes hundreds of miles at a time, so much so that some of my friends have thought occasionally I was being silly. When I was taken to the Motor Show and could afford it, I bought a Lancia Fulvia Zigato, which was very ‘goey’, except it was really useless for driving into London every day, because it has twin carburettors which have to be tuned – so you spend all the time at the garage with an expert carburettor tuner, who is something like a piano tuner! I then went to a BMW, so when Thames Television asked me if I would go and do a programme called ‘Drive-In’, I felt I had really quite a lot to say on the subject.


I prepared a little programme, including some of the improvements I believed should be made, like windscreen wipers on the side mirrors. I also thought there should be windscreen wipers on the headlamps, because when you’re on the motorway in dirty weather, everything gets gunged up so you haven’t got clear vision or good lights – you haven’t got anything that’s good – and you get the spray from all the other cars.


I was quite prepared to go and do this programme about cars, but when the day dawned I had Olivia and Terry staying with me in the flat I had then in London, and I said to them, ‘I don’t want to do this at all – I feel awful.’ Then Joan Bisett’s daughter, Margaret, who was helping me in the house at that time, said, ‘Why don’t you have your hair done?’ I was supposed to be going out to dinner, and she obviously thought this would cheer me up. I said, ‘Not likely, I’m not going to bother to have my hair done to go out to dinner!’ Margaret said, ‘Oh, it would be nice if you had your hair done’ – everybody tried to get me to make the best of myself.


Terry Ward, Olivia’s husband, took me to the car and I said, ‘I don’t feel a bit like going, Terry: the back of my nose is all raw and I feel as if I’m going to have a cold, and I feel thirsty ….’ He said, ‘Oh, well you’ll feel better when you get there.’ I said, ‘What I’d really like to be doing is staying at the flat with you and just watching the television and having a bit of gas, you know, a gossip.’ But I got into the car and drove to Teddington Studios, and they interviewed me, and I thought it rather strange that at that time in the afternoon – it was about half-past three or four o’clock – the bar was open. There was this one lady, whom I knew well because I’ve been going there for years, and she said, ‘Now, would you like a drink, Beryl?’ She expected me to say ‘a Courvoisier brandy’, but I said, ‘No, actually I feel as if I’m going to have a cold; I’d like a glass of soda water with a piece of lemon in it, you know, nice and cold – a long thirsty drink.’ She said, ‘Oh’ – and was really quite disappointed, but she said, ‘Well, that’s fine.’


I thought this was a little bit strange, but obviously they knew I was doing a programme and thought I might be thirsty. I said, ‘Will I be able to get into the car park?’ That was an impossibility at Teddington, unless you’ve had your name down for three weeks, but they said, ‘Oh yes,’ and there was the car I drove in, I think it was a BMW, and a lot of other cars assembled there, all of which I drove round the car park. The one I liked very much was a Scirocco, which is a Volkswagen, and so I said, ‘Oh this is a smashing car – I’d love one of these,’ and, in fact, I’ve had nothing else since – I’ve had three of them, because if I keep them for two years I get the maximum amount of service out of them, without them having to be sold for nothing.


I did try an enormous car, which cost something like £46,000, and was hand built, but it had an automatic gear-change and I’ve no time for those. I like driving, I like actually changing gear and being in charge of the car. I said, ‘Oh, no, I wouldn’t have one of those: I’m sure it’s beautiful, but I certainly wouldn’t have automatic gears,’ so that was that car written off in one.


They said, ‘Are you ready to start filming?’ I’d got this rather nice little suit on, which is something I would have worn outside and I asked if I should put some make-up on. They said, ‘Yes, just an ordinary sort of television make-up,’ which I do myself anyway. I always say to the make-up artists, ‘I’ll do it, and you make all the improvements!’ and then nobody’s offended.


I started talking, about my invented windscreen wipers and how fabulous I thought cat’s eyes were in the road and that they were one of the best inventions of the century; then I saw this big car pull round and Richard O’Sullivan was driving it. Eamonn Andrews got out and I thought, ‘Why ever has he got make-up on – how ridiculous!’ Still nothing – I mean, I must be very thick – but nothing entered my head. He came over to me and said, ‘Beryl Reid, This Is Your Life!’


I said, ‘I’m very sorry – I’m very busy with a programme called “Drive-In”, Eamonn. Get off’ and sort of pushed him back. He said, ‘No, no, this is your life.’ I said, No, no – “Drive-In”.’ This was the opening of the programme, of course, and eventually it dawned upon me that it was my life. I was in a total state of shock and he said, ‘Just leave your car there.’ I said, ‘Who’s going to collect it?’ He said, ‘That’s all arranged,’ and we were on the way, driving to London and I said, ‘Nobody’ll be there, Eamonn – everybody I know is dead! What am I going to wear – I’ve no clothes with me,’ and so on. He said, ‘No, all that’s been seen to; Margaret’s bringing your dress.’ I said, ‘How’s she going to know what dress I want to wear?’ And, of course, she did bring exactly what I would have chosen to wear.


I had no idea what was going to happen, I was put in this very nice dressing-room with a lot of little presents around it, and flowers. Knowing me, they had this security man standing outside, because they knew I’d try to get out to see who was going to be on the programme. I was really quite well behaved and didn’t try to escape. Little did I know what was in store.


My brother Roy was there and his wife, Pat, my niece Susan, my nephew Peter and his wife; Andrew Gardner was there, Richard O’Sullivan, of course, whom I’d done a television series with at Teddington, called ‘Alcock and Gander’, Jack Tripp, Reggie Vincent and Pat Kirkwood – lots and lots of people – and Warren Crane, my dearest, dearest friend from New York was flown over as my big treat after they’d located him in some motel in California. Mind you, I don’t know what he was doing there, but as he’s Californian-born he was probably doing something quite all right! It was the most over-exciting evening in the world: in a way, I don’t think they should do it to people. Unless you’ve got a very strong heart you could drop dead with excitement.


I was so excited I couldn’t possibly go to sleep for two nights after seeing all these people, having not really realised at all that it was going to happen to me. I hadn’t had a clue. Olivia and Terry knew – that’s why she tried to get me to have my hair done – everybody but me knew. My brother and his wife had had to register in a hotel under her born name, which is Hall, so they were Mr and Mrs Hall, not Mr and Mrs Reid – they and Reggie and Jack Tripp and all the people who were going to be on the programme had stayed at the same hotel, had all had breakfast, lunch and dinner together for the last three days and been driven about in a great white Rolls-Royce all over London, peeping round corners in case they saw me.


You can imagine it is one of the biggest possible surprises in your life. The marvellous thing is I have photographs of my brother, who died quite recently – I am very fond of him and miss him dreadfully – I have his voice on record, and that is something I would never have had, unless this had happened to me, because he was very shy altogether. It was only occasionally, when he’d been here a little while and had a couple of Pimms, he would perhaps juggle with three oranges and say, ‘This is the life, you know, Beryl,’ and that sort of thing. We were so totally opposite, yet we were such great friends.

programme details...

  • Edition No: 433
  • Subject No: 430
  • Broadcast date: Wed 17 Mar 1976
  • Broadcast time: 7-7.30pm
  • Recorded: Wed 3 Mar 1976
  • Venue: Euston Road Studios
  • Series: 16
  • Edition: 19
  • Code Name: Sister

on the guest list...

  • Richard O’Sullivan
  • Andrew Gardner
  • Roy - brother
  • Pat – sister-in-law
  • Susan - niece
  • Peter - nephew
  • Lyn – Peter’s wife
  • Pat Kirkwood
  • Bernard Habgood
  • Cyril Escott
  • Bunny Escott
  • Horace Mashford
  • Reg Vincent
  • Jack Tripp
  • Peter Brough and Archie Andrews
  • Pam Brooks
  • Harry Andrews
  • Warren Crane
  • Filmed tributes:
  • Harry Secombe
  • Eileen Atkins

external links...

production team...

  • Researchers: Tony Lee, John Viner
  • Writers: Tom Brennand, Roy Bottomley
  • Director: Mike Dormer
  • Producer: Jack Crawshaw
names listed in bold indicate subjects of This Is Your Life
Series 16: Ronnie Dukes > Ray Milland > Mike Hailwood > Frank Windsor > Magnus Pyke > Bill Tidy > Gladys Mills > Andy Stewart > Windsor Davies > Ray Reardon > Patrick Mower > Alberto Remedios > Susan Masham > Betty Driver > Henry "Shrimp" Davies > Gwen Berryman > Vince Hill > Arnold Ridley > Beryl Reid > Alan Mullery > Percy Thrower > Gareth Edwards > June Whitfield > Terry Fincher > Richard Dunn > Norman Croucher