This Is Your Life...
“After my first viewing of This Is Your Life, I said to myself ‘This is television’”
Eamonn Andrews was instrumental in bringing This Is Your Life to a British television audience.
The year was 1955 and Eamonn, in America on a sports assignment, took time out to watch a TV show which was proving to be a big hit with American audiences.
The viewing of that particular show was to have a major, lasting effect on Eamonn Andrews’s professional life.
Eamonn Andrews was born in Dublin on 19 December 1922 and was educated at the city’s Synge Street Christian Brothers’ School. It was while at school that Eamonn developed his writing skills and story telling. His first job as an insurance clerk was short lived, as his real passion at that time was sport, and in particular, boxing. As a keen amateur boxer, Eamonn moved seamlessly from the ring to the commentary box, utilising his ability to convey the sporting action through words, and he soon secured employment with Radio Eireann – Dublin’s commercial radio station.
After moving to London and joining the BBC in 1950, Eamonn quickly established himself as a well-respected presenter and sports commentator. By 1955 the BBC - now well aware of his talents and popularity with shows such as What’s My Line? (pictured right) - were on the look out for a new show for him to front. Ronnie Waldman, the then head of BBC Light Entertainment, had his sights set on creating a British version of a hugely popular American TV show called This Is Your Life.
He had already lined up T. Leslie Jackson as the show’s producer, and wanted Eamonn as host. Waldman took advantage of Eamonn’s assignment as boxing commentator for the Rocky Marciano/Don Cockell fight in San Francisco, and requested he take a look at the show while he was in America. Eamonn loved what he saw and signed up immediately on his return to London.
Worried it wasn’t a BBC style show, corporation executives were initially sceptical about the format and its possible impact on British audiences, but eventually they were persuaded to commission a monthly series.
The original creator and host of the American version, Ralph Edwards, was invited to London, along with his producer, Axel Gruenberg, to arrange and present the first UK edition. The footballer Stanley Matthews was chosen as the show’s first subject, but when The Daily Sketch broke the story, before the surprise had taken place, plans had to be hastily changed.
Although Eamonn had been part of the initial planning process, unbeknown to him the production team decided to select him as the first subject, whilst tricking him into believing that his old boxing pal Freddie Mills would be Matthew’s replacement.
So, on Friday 29 July 1955, Eamonn Andrews and Freddie Mills took their seats at the BBC Television Theatre in Shepherd’s Bush, as Ralph Edwards teased the audience about the name printed on Britain’s first This Is Your Life book.
Eventually Edwards handed Eamonn the book, and (as Andrews himself would do on many subsequent occasions) asked him to read the cover. His reaction on seeing his own name printed on the cover was – “This Is Your Life – oh blimey!”
Eamonn’s show (pictured above) was a huge success, with many positive reviews in the following day’s press. Unexpectedly, Eamonn had received a taste of what his future subjects would experience and, to him the surprise would always be the show’s centrepiece.
He was now determined to make the show a success in the UK and develop his own style for a curious British public, clearly hooked by this new form of television.
Going from strength to strength, the show was soon being broadcast weekly. Eamonn became synonymous with the programme; viewers warmed to his friendly style and his professionalism meant he appeared relaxed with people from all backgrounds.
He played an important part as a member of the production team, keeping a little black book in which he would write down his suggestions for future subjects.
Defining the ideal subject, Eamonn once commented: “The basic requirement is a good story, a varied story, and if you can add to that a pleasant, bubbling personality then you have something else going.”
By 1963, after eight series, there was a feeling among the BBC hierarchy that This Is Your Life had lost a lot of its spontaneity and excitement. This was also felt by the show’s producer T. Leslie Jackson, who believed the choice of subjects had not been consistently strong.
The BBC took the decision to drop the programme. Eamonn took this news badly, especially as his other ratings winner, What’s My Line?, had also been recently cancelled.
This development, however, coincided with a lucrative offer from independent television for Eamonn to front their sports magazine show, World of Sport, as well as present his own chat show; a well-worn format in America, but untested on British TV.
So in 1964 Eamonn took up residence at ABC TV, where his late night chat show became extremely popular, attracting guests as diverse as Noel Coward and The Beatles.
In 1968 the government reallocated the ITV broadcasting franchises. ABC was forced to merge with Rediffusion, resulting in the formation of Thames TV. The new company was now faced with the dilemma of what to do with their poached BBC star – now devoid of his networked chat show.
It wasn’t long before Eamonn was suggesting the idea of reviving This Is Your Life. He felt that the BBC had killed off the show too early, and that the format had years of ‘life’ still in it. Enthused by the prospect of This Is Your Life in colour for the first time, the Head of Light Entertainment at Thames, Brian Tesler, commissioned a 13 part series.
So in November 1969, Eamonn brought This Is Your Life back to viewer’s screens. The revived show was soon a ratings winner for Thames, and Eamonn was proved right. That first series was extended to 26 editions.
This Is Your Life maintained its position as a ratings winner throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s. Eamonn was undoubtedly a major factor in the show’s new found popularity. He was passionately interested in people and his enthusiasm for the programme was always evident.
He continued to play a major part in the show’s production, and was influential in helping to secure such high rating subjects as Muhammad Ali and Lord Mountbatten, though his dream to surprise the Queen Mother never materialised!
Eamonn was painstaking in his approach to the show, and worked under immense pressure. Absolute integrity and total secrecy were the show’s watchwords. Producing 26 shows a year took its toll on the team.
For Eamonn, the surprise (or ‘pick up’ as it became known) was more nerve racking than he perhaps cared to admit. He once confessed: “No show is the same. Each one is different because the subject is a different person, so for me it’s a new experience with fresh tensions. I’m never sure that a potential subject will actually agree to accept the red book.”
Eamonn, his wife Grainne and their three children (pictured right) lived in a beautiful Thames-side house in Chiswick until 1970 when the family made the decision to move back to Ireland. They set up home in Portmarnock, just outside Dublin, from where Eamonn commuted to London, for the weekly routine of meetings and recordings.
In addition to This Is Your Life, Eamonn also fronted, until 1977, Thames TV’s London news magazine programme, Today, four nights a week. It was a gruelling workload and, in 1984 with Eamonn now in his 60s, he relented to more pressure when his other former BBC show What’s My Line? was revived by Thames.
A self-confessed workaholic, Eamonn showed no signs of slowing down, despite a doctor’s warning after he had contracted bronchitis. In ailing health, he continued working to his limit, even fulfilling a long held desire to record editions of This Is Your Life in Hollywood.
Following several bouts of illness, exacerbated by the demanding schedule and anxiety over his troubled business interests in Dublin, friends, colleagues and viewers became increasingly concerned about him.
As the 28th series of This Is Your Life began, it was evident that Eamonn was deteriorating physically and, only at Grainne’s behest, did he agree to postpone the planned recording of a particular show, and attend the Cromwell Hospital for urgent tests.
Some hours later Eamonn died peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of 5 November 1987. That evening ITV broadcast a special tribute programme hosted by Terry Wogan. Three editions of This Is Your Life recorded before Eamonn’s death were shown the following February, along with five classic editions chosen by his family.
‘He let people be the stars’
‘He never did things with disregard for others; he was a gentleman as well as a gentle man.’
‘He combined integrity and humour, loyalty and fair play.’
‘The best radio commentator (boxing) ever had.’
Press speculation about the future of This Is Your Life began almost immediately. Both the television industry and viewers believed that no one could replace Eamonn, and that the show would die with him. Time proved otherwise. There is no denying how seriously he took his work and how passionately he believed in This Is Your Life. He once wrote:
‘All of us have, I’m sure, an in-built desire for surprises from the first Christmas stocking we ever hung. There is hardly a person in these islands who, at one time or another, hasn’t crept down to the end of the bed on Christmas morning and experienced the thrilled surprise of delving into the Christmas stocking.
I’m sure that desire for surprise stays with all of us and that is why, on This Is Your Life, we keep the contents of the stocking a surprise for the guest of honour. We do it not to shock, not to pry, but to give them that moment of joy…to excite the reaction: ‘What, it’s for ME, this gift?’
I think viewers share this. We continue the theme of surprise by picking out of the stocking, out of the parcel, more and more ‘gifts’… And as we try to enchant our guests, we hope, at the same time, to tell viewers a story worth telling.’