Eamonn ANDREWS (1922-1987)

Eamonn Andrews and Ralph Edwards

Eamonn Andrews with host Ralph Edwards

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THIS IS YOUR LIFE - Eamonn Andrews became the very first subject of This Is Your Life on British TV, when he was surprised by the host and creator of the show’s American version, Ralph Edwards, at the BBC Television Theatre.


Eamonn, already contracted to present future shows, was led to believe the subject was to be his friend, boxer Freddie Mills, after the original choice of footballer Stanley Matthews had been cancelled due to a press leak.


“This Is Your...Oh blimey!”

An extract from the UK’s first This Is Your Life with the show’s creator, Ralph Edwards, surprising the future host Eamonn Andrews

Photographs and screenshots of Eamonn Andrews This Is Your Life. In September 1958 Eamonn was employed by G.E.C. to advertise their new television sets. To tie in with the promotion the company produced a souvenir booklet of this first edition of This Is Your Life. The booklet contains photographs from the broadcast, along with a shooting script.

Extracts from Eamonn’s autobiography, This Is My Life, published in 1963, in which he recalls the lead up to this edition, and his reaction to being surprised:


Early on I decided that as soon as I had enough money I’d go to the USA, and go as often as I could to see what I could learn from a country that was producing more television than anywhere else in the world. Before I went there in the summer of 1955, BBC Light Entertainment Chief Ronnie Waldman said: “There’s a programme out there called “This Is Your Life” – take a look at it. I’d be interested to know what your think.”


Well I had a look at it, saw an American named Ralph Edwards presenting it, and my first reaction was: This is Television. I immediately cabled Waldman saying I thought it was a great programme, and one that I would very much like to do. Certain changes would have to be made, but I was convinced the show could be a great success in England too.


Several telerecordings of the US version were made available for BBC where, in high places, there were doubts about the programme. It wasn’t “A BBC type programme”. But I think the story that did most to win them over was a tremendous “This Is Your Life” on the late film actor, Victor McLaglen. It was a bouncy, rumbustious, tearstained show. The decision was that they would try the programme at first on a monthly basis.


The first programme was to be put on by the original American production team. Ralph Edwards came over with his director, Axel Gruenberg, a great, gentle ox of a man wearing thick glasses. Like Ralph, Axel was practically born in radio and TV.


Now the first subject of the programme was to be the greatest footballer of them all – Stanley Matthews. The research was done, the script prepared, and the count-down beginning when the whole thing exploded in our faces. A journalist got hold of our secret and ran the story in the Daily Sketch, naming Matthews.


We sat around in Ralph’s hotel apartment – Ralph, Axel Gruenberg, Leslie Jackson (Jacko), who was to be the BBC’s producer, myself and one or two others. I don’t know how the rest felt but I was numb. There was little more than a week before transmission.


This sort of thing had happened once in America to Edwards, but he had managed to stave off the disaster by cordoning off as it were the unsuspecting subject from the offending newspaper. What people sometimes forget is that the only person we are concerned about surprising is the subject. As long as he or she is unaware of the intention, we don’t really mind who else knows. But, of course, the more they know, the greater the risk.


Ralph Edwards, holding the paper in his hand, said: “Where is Matthews?”


“He’s away fishing,” someone answered.


“Well, can’t we get a ring around him to stop newspapers getting to him?” Ralph suggested.


But the problem was easier in America, where newspapers are local rather than national. When it was explained, Edwards realised that it was inevitable that the news would leak through to the soccer maestro.


“OK then we’ll have to cancel,” Ralph said, and the gloom deepened. There were no reserves ready.


Jacko left the room and was out for a minute or two. I heard him coming back in. I didn’t look around because I knew the look of despair on his face would only be a reflection of the expressions of all of us. What I didn’t know was that when he came back in, he stood behind my chair, making signs at me, and mouthing silently to Ralph: “What about Eamonn? Let’s do his story?” I was oblivious of these goings on.


Then someone said: “Look, we’ve got to go over and see Ronnie Waldman and Cecil McGivern and talk things over.”


And they vanished, leaving me alone in the room with Mrs Gruenberg.


When I met up with the team later, I was told they had decided to do some very fast work on the Freddie Mills story. Since I knew Freddie, would I help with the get-there routine? Would I – I would have tried to fly around the dome of St Paul’s if I thought it would absolve me from the suspicion I felt sure they were feeling.


Arrangements were then made to put on a special sports programme on which Freddie would be a panel member, with me acting as Chairman. But it was up to me to get Freddie to appear, and then to keep him in tow and steer him into the “This Is Your Life” set-up.


I worked very hard on Freddie. (To give him his due, he worked very hard on me). At first asking, he hedged, said he didn’t know, thought he might go to Brighton on that day. In the end I won him over, as I thought, and the fake sports programme with famous sportsmen, producer, cameras, lights, went on the floor the same afternoon of the night for which “This Is Your Life” was scheduled. It was very realistic. The purpose of this was to keep him occupied (as I thought) during the afternoon so he wouldn’t discover if some of his friends or family were absent and preparing for the show. From there we went back to our flat for dinner, because I told Grainne what I was up to, and Freddie had accepted an invitation to dine and then go on to see the new programme.


Actually, earlier in the day the cat came perilously near to being let out of the bag. Grainne had told me she wouldn’t be home as she was visiting the doctor. Before I left my office for Lime Grove, I rang the doctor’s and asked if I could speak to her. I wanted to give her a lift home.


“Oh, no, Mrs Andrews hasn’t been here for some time,” I was told. I rang home and she wasn’t there. I was mystified. In reality, at that moment, Grainne was at the BBC preparing her little part in the scheme. But when I did get home and tackled her she explained she’d gone shopping after the doctor’s and had forgotten to mention it to me.


Although I didn’t twig anything, all through dinner with Freddie and myself Grainne was on hot bricks. Her problem was to get to the BBC Television Theatre before me, if possible, and without my knowing. I didn’t notice the car that pulled in at the door as soon as Freddie and I pulled away. Otherwise, again, the secret could have been out. No, I was feeling pretty proud now that the programme’s first subject was on his way, and that I’d carried off the ruse with such aplomb.


There was great confusion in the foyer of the theatre, and my heart missed a beat or three when one of the first faces to leap out at me was Don Cockell’s, the British Heavyweight Champion. I nearly had a fit. If Freddie saw Cockell, he was bound to guess. So I palmed Freddie on to someone else, slipped over to Don, and said desperately: “Get out! Get out of here quick and around to the stage door. You’re not supposed to be here.”


Don must have been doubly puzzled. He knew why he was there. And here was I acting like a man who also knew why he was there. He must have thought I really was a phoney.


At the same time Freddie, as he told me afterwards, had spotted Cockell and thought: “Maybe it is me after all!” Talk of double-double-cross.


Don slipped away, and Freddie and I went and took our seats in the audience. Around us were celebrities like Boris Karloff, Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon and many others. After introductory explanations the lights flickered and the show was on. Ralph Edwards at last came down into the audience. He picked on people here and there, people whose life stories would undoubtedly be interesting. This was the delayed drop, the teasing opening. It was exciting. I was smiling, a trifle smugly, I’d say.


Then Ralph was in the aisle right by our seats. I could hardly stop grinning at the surprise old Freddie was in for. Ralph rattled off a few comments about Freddie, then handed the book to me and said: “Here, you read it.”


I was only too eager. Before I even had the wrapper off that hid the name, I was reading aloud.


“This Is Your Life – Oh blimey!” for there, staring at me, was my own name, “Eamonn Andrews”. Oh blimey! I just couldn’t believe it. I was in a daze as Ralph led me up on to the stage. And that was how I came to be “This Is Your Life’s” first subject in this country. The question is very frequently asked: “What is it like when the words ‘This Is Your Life’ are said to you? I can’t answer for anyone else, but I can tell you how I felt.


My reaction at the moment of impact was that of getting a shock. I felt myself tremble. It is so unbelievable that you are going to be thrown into that spotlight. You don’t know what is going to come, and when it begins, the memories keep flooding back.


It’s like a dream, it goes so fast. I don’t think you enjoy it or not enjoy it, while it is happening. I know I was in a daze, and it was all great fun and wonderful, but I enjoyed it even more in retrospect.


At the party afterwards I kept harking back to things that happened in the days and hours before transmission. So that’s why Grainne wasn’t at the doctor’s and that’s why Don Cockell looked so surprised. I should perhaps explain that Don was in my “life” because of the first ever direct-to-England BBC fight commentary from America. It was the night the British champion courageously tackled Rocky Marciano for the world heavyweight title.


The programme became a success on British television, switched from monthly to fortnightly to weekly, and as I write this, well over two hundred editions have already been presented. It has made me many friends among people I would never otherwise have met. It has given me the most tense moments I’ve ever had in broadcasting. It has shown me, more than a lifetime of books could, the achievements and the courage and the sparkle all around us every day of our lives. Apart from throwing new light on the famous, it has clearly demonstrated that many little people have big, inspiring stories.

Eamonn Andrews biography

Writer Gus Smith recalls this particular edition of This Is Your Life in his book, Eamonn Andrews His Life...


He was himself the subject of Life on two different occasions. On each occasion he found the experience 'shattering'. He was also able to see the humorous side, as when his mother Margaret nearly caused an upset:


"When they flew her and the family over from Dublin, they booked her into an hotel on the south side of Hyde Park. I was living on the north side. My mother became assailed by doubts as to whether she was doing the right thing. She didn't know all these strange people who were arranging all these incredible things. The only one she did know was producer Leslie Jackson, who kept on assuring her that everything was alright. Even so, she told me afterwards, her hand strayed towards the telephone in the hotel time and time again. ‘I must ring Eamonn and ask him if it's all right'. Fortunately she never did. Or bang would have gone another This Is Your Life."




Radio Times listing

Radio Times listing for 29 July 1955: Ralph Edwards introduces the television programme he made famous in America in which, without warning, a person is confronted with incidents from his or her past life

programme details...

  • Edition No: 1
  • Subject No: 1
  • Broadcast live: Fri 29 Jul 1955
  • Broadcast time: 7.45-8.15pm
  • Venue: BBC Television Theatre
  • Series: 1
  • Edition: 1

on the guest list...

  • Gladys Hay
  • Mrs Andrews - mother
  • Peggy, Kathleen & Theresa - sisters
  • Noel - brother
  • John Callaghan
  • Jack McGowran
  • Patric Fitzgerald
  • Grainne - wife
  • Don Cockell

external links...

production team...

  • Researchers: Peter Moore, Nigel Ward
  • Writer: Gale Pedrick
  • Producer: T Leslie Jackson
Series 1 subjects: Eamonn Andrews > Yvonne Bailey > Ted Ray > James Butterworth > Charles Burgess Fry > Johanna Harris > Donald Campbell > Joe Brannelly > Stanley Matthews > Henry Starling > Ida Cook > Lupino Lane > Hugh Oloff de Wet > Elizabeth Wilde > Robert Stanford Tuck