The Big Red Book
Big Red Book

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Prop Watch: This is your...big red book

A look at the show’s true icon

“...the book is the amulet... that is what makes the show work. I could be wearing a barrel – it’s the red book they see - and they go crazy..”.

That's how Michael Aspel described the effect of the show's true icon – the Big Red Book.

Although This Is Your Life and the Big Red Book are now synonymous with each other, it was not until 1970, fifteen years after the programme first aired on British television, that the Big Red Book was first introduced...

Eamonn Andrews

The ‘book’ originated on the American version of the show, first shown on television in 1952. It was simply a ring binder which held the programme’s script, read by the host during the broadcast.

It would be presented, but not given to, the unsuspecting subject at the point of the surprise, or ‘hit’. The host would then read the script – the story of their life – from the book during the broadcast, before handing it over at the end of the tribute, with the words: ‘This is your life’.

When the BBC first produced their version of the show in 1955, the book used by Eamonn Andrews appeared to be an ordinary ring binder, similar to the type used on the American version (pictured left).

David Butler

The programmes produced during the early BBC period, which ran from 1955 to 1964 were all broadcast in black and white. The colour of the book therefore was unknown to the viewers, though they varied between black, green or dark blue.

The script, often complete with Eamonn’s handwritten changes, was given to the subject to take home as a souvenir of the show.

David Butler, (right) who became the youngest ever subject at 17 in 1962, is pictured in 2009 with his dark green book which contains the script from his edition of the programme.

Kenneth More

Initially the books were decorated with the show’s title 'This Is Your Life' and later, also with the subject’s name.

Pictured left: Eamonn presents the actor Kenneth More with his book in 1959.

Red albums

Acker Bilk

Along with the script This Is Your Life subjects were also given two further souvenirs of their tribute. Firstly, some time after the recording or live transmission, an album containing black and white photographs, taken during the show, would be provided.

The photo albums, prepared after the show, just happened to be red – the original Big Red Book?

Pictured left is clarinettist Acker Bilk with his red photo album from 1962. The albums contain several 10x8 inch black and white glossy photographs, complete with a guest list and production details written in calligraphy.

And secondly, in the pre-video days of the fifties and sixties, subjects were also supplied with an audio recording of the show on acetate. As the majority of the shows produced by the BBC between 1955 and 1964 were broadcast live and were not visually recorded, these audio recordings, along with the photographs from the red albums are now the only record of these editions.

Golden silhouette

Charlie Cairoli

During the first series produced by Thames Television (1969-70), which was broadcast in colour, the books varied in colour but were mainly dark blue or dark red with a golden silhouette embossed on the cover.

Pictured left is the book belonging to the clown Charlie Cairoli, who was featured as a subject in February 1970.

The first sighting of a red book in this style was in the tribute to Bobby Charlton, broadcast in November 1969 (pictured below).

Bobby Charlton

Subjects were no longer given a copy of the script. Eamonn would still hand them the book at the end of the show, but it would then be taken back and sent on at a later date with the script removed and replaced with photographs taken during the broadcast.

This practise replaced the need for the red photo albums used during the earlier BBC period, and would more or less remain the practise until the show ended in 2003.

The use of this style of book was short-lived. Perhaps the production team decided that a bigger brighter coloured book would be more eye catching on colour television...


Bob Hope

The Big Red Book we now recognise with its gold embossed lettering was first seen at the start of the show's eleventh series – in November 1970 in a two-part tribute for British born entertainer Bob Hope (left).

Ironically, during this period some shows were transmitted in black and white due to a technicians’ strike!

Robert Soutter

As such the book was not seen in its full red glory until programme 9 of the eleventh series featuring a Glaswegian ambulance driver, Robert Soutter (pictured right)

It was during the 1970s that the Big Red Book became the show's icon, often referred to as if 'it' was the tribute rather than the actual programme, with the show and the book now truly embedded in the national consciousness.

For many people the surprise at the beginning of each edition was made all the more exciting by the sight of Eamonn clutching the book, and carefully, though not always successfully, concealing the name of the subject.

Three books were used on each programme:

The first, presented at the surprise, often contained blank pages or was, in fact, empty.

The second contained the host’s script for the recording or live show.

A final, souvenir version, containing a collection of large colour photographs taken at the recording, was sent to the subject later.

The Big Red Book has been presented and received in some interesting ways –

Les Dawson

Les Dawson was presented with his first book wrapped as a Christmas present in 1971 (pictured).

It was disguised as a Royal Navy document for yachtswoman Naomi James in 1979.

Chef Gary Rhodes was presented with his Big Red Book under the lid of a serving platter.

Zsa Zsa Gabor screamed “My Life? One Book?” when surprised at her Hollywood home in 1989.

The production team misplaced the Big Red Book just before surprising Coronation Street’s William Roache. Eamonn Andrews improvised with a red file from an office at Granada TV.

Valerie Singleton

A blindfolded Valerie Singleton was asked to guess what her Big Red Book was in 2001 (pictured).

John Blashford-Snell’s Big Red Book was hidden in a copy of the Evening Standard in 1976

The Big Red Book was concealed in a bag belonging to a member of the audience when Felix Bowness was surprised in 1986 – while warming up the same audience!

Snooker’s John Virgo was surprised when a dummy Big Red Book being used in a Generation Game stunt turned out to be a real one – with his name on it!

Douglas Fairbanks Jr told Michael Aspel in 1989 “All of it in here? I can’t wait to open it and read it!”


The smallest ever Big Red Book was presented to Harry Corbett’s creation Sooty in 1988 (pictured).

Matthew Kelly dropped his Big Red Book as the titles rolled on his 1983 show.

Bernard Cribbins, in a car, snatched the Big Red Book from Eamonn Andrews, dressed as a Womble, and pretended to drive off declaring ‘Thanks. I’ll read the bugger later…’.

Several subjects have been asked to read the name on the Big Red Book at their surprise, including Alice Goldberger in 1978

The production team have used at least one Big Red Book with braille lettering – for blind jazz pianist George Shearing in 1991.

Peter Ustinov hid his face behind his Big Red Book on each of his two shows in 1977 and 1994