Jessie MATTHEWS (1907-1981)
Born into relative poverty, the seventh of sixteen children, Jessie made her stage debut, as a child dancer, at the age of 12.
As a chorus girl in the 1924 Charlot Review she received her first great review understudying the star of the show, Gertrude Lawrence. After a string of hit stage musicals and films in the mid-1930s she became one of Britain’s most successful and well-loved performers, popular at home and in the USA.
“Oh, you're joking!”
Jessie recalls her experience of This Is Your Life in her autobiography Over My Shoulder...
I was asked by Eamonn Andrews to appear as the mystery guest on his show What’s My Line.
I had decided to mystify the panel with a Welsh accent. While I waited for the car to pick me up, I tried it out on Rosie. ‘How does this sound?’ I asked her.
Rosie didn’t seem too interested. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with Rosie today. She was acting like a cat on hot bricks. First she washed her hair, a thing she never did on Sundays, then she put in pins and curlers. Finally, Rosie, who was always immaculate, was still wearing her overall.
‘Don’t you feel well, Rosie?’ I asked her. She’d even refused to come with me to watch What’s My Line. Rosie said she felt very well. ‘Then why don’t you change your mind and come with me?’
‘How can I,’ snapped Rosie, ‘with my hair in pins?’
‘I’ll do your hair for you. Oh, come on, Rosie.’
‘For the last time,’ Rosie’s black eyes flashed with anger, ‘I’m not coming.’
She doesn’t care, I thought sadly. And I’d do anything to have her with me, I always feel so nervous in front of those television cameras. Because I was upset I clumsily overturned the bottle of red nail varnish with which I was painting my nails. It crashed on the kitchen floor.
‘Don’t touch it,’ screamed Rosie. ‘Don’t touch it. I’ll get you some more. Next door, I’ll be right back.’
Before I could stop her, Rosie in curlers and overall, went flying out of the house. She’s odd, I thought, my goodness she’s odd. She must be sickening for something.
Eamonn Andrews himself was waiting for me in the foyer of the Shepherd’s Bush theatre. I was touched by his thoughtfulness. He gave me one of his lop-sided Irish smiles and then caught my arm in a vice-like grip. ‘Jessie,’ he said. ‘there’s been a change in the programme.’
I edged away, trying to move my arm. ‘What’s happened?’
Eamonn’s grip tightened, but with his free hand he ripped the poster advertising What’s My Line off a bill board. Underneath … ‘Oh, no,’ I gasped, ‘not that!’
Eamonn, grinning like a Cheshire cat, cried, ‘Jessie Matthews, This Is Your Life.’
They say it takes different people in different ways. Mine was to almost faint with shock. Now I knew why Eamonn takes such a stranglehold on his victims, it’s to hold them up when they pass out. I was still trembling with shock when so many of my dear friends walked back into my life … Anna Neagle … Buddy Bradley … Danny O’Neill …
‘And now,’ announced Eamonn, ‘here are your army of brothers and sisters.’
‘Hallo, Jessie. It’s me, Rosie.’ Treacherous Rosie, looking wonderful with her hair done and a new dress that must have been concealed under that awful overall.
‘Hallo, Jessie. It’s me, George.’ My brothers and sisters came on right down to the last voice that said, ‘Hallo, Jessie. It’s me, Ray, all the way from America.’
Afterwards Rosie told me, ‘They very nearly messed it up. Your car was late, that’s why I rushed outside to find a bottle of varnish from a neighbour, and would you believe it, there was the wrong car waiting for me and Lena.’
Poor Rosie, she’d had the brunt of the arranging forced on her shoulders, and the difficult time of keeping the secret from me. The rest of the family brought from their various homes had been living it up in hotels. ‘And what did I get?’ said Rosie. ‘Just two guineas from the BBC and a shocking headache.’
Writer Michael Thornton discusses This Is Your Life in his biography of Jessie Matthews...
On her return to Ruislip in mid-March she found strange things happening. Rosie wore a harassed and preoccupied air, and was secretive about the mysterious telephone calls she kept receiving. Jessie wondered anxiously if she had outstayed her welcome at Happy Daze.
Before Jessie could investigate further, she received a telephone call herself – from the BBC, inviting her to be the mystery guest celebrity on British television’s top panel game, What’s My Line? If it seemed surprising that she should be asked to appear in the top TV guest spot at such a downbeat moment in her career, she was too excited to realise it. And she at once began to practise fake accents to fool the panel over her identity. Having discarded an Australian one on the grounds that she had been linked with that country too recently, she settled on a Welsh voice for the programme.
On the evening of Sunday 26th March 1961 she again set off for the Shepherd’s Bush studios where she had become a star, this time in an enormous BBC limousine. She assumed they gave this VIP treatment to all their mystery guest celebrities, and thought how nice it was to be spoiled a little after the rigours of the Welsh tour.
As she stepped out of the car and walked into the BBC television theatre, Eamonn Andrews came forward to greet her, and her alert eyes instantly spotted a live television camera trained on her from a corner. She thought, ‘How odd! Surely I shouldn’t be seen by anyone yet?’
‘Come over here,’ said Andrews. ‘I want to show you something.’ He pulled a curtain aside and there on a board, beside a photograph of her, were the words, JESSIE MATTHEWS, THIS IS YOUR LIFE.
Without reading what it said – because she thought it said ‘What’s My Line?’ – she laughed politely and said, ‘Oh, very nice.’
Seeing that she had not understood, Eamonn Andrews pulled the wrapper from the book he was carrying and announced dramatically, ‘Jessie Matthews, tonight, This Is Your Life.’
She turned deathly pale, murmured, ‘Please no, you mustn’t do this,’ and began trying to push her way past Andrews. Instantly the cameras cut to the applauding audience waiting inside the television theatre.
What was the reason for her sudden panic? Was it simply shock? Or was it Catherine? Brian Lewis? Or some other part of her life that she feared might be waiting for her behind the curtain?
For Eamonn Andrews it must have been a very unnerving moment. Ever since Anna Neagle had broken down on the programme three years earlier in repeated torrents of weeping, 'This Is Your Life' had been branded as ‘keyhole television’, although the British version was infinitely milder than its American counterpart.
And not long before the Jessie Matthews programme, Danny Blanchflower, the footballer, had flatly refused to take part in his own ‘Life’ and had turned and walked out of the studio door before Andrews could even open his dreaded book. Had Jessie done the same?
Two minutes of agonising suspense went by before Andrews succeeded in getting the white-faced, shaking and breathless star inside the theatre to face the assembled audience. ‘Just wait till I see Rosie’ was all she could say, having understood at last the significance of the mysterious telephone calls.
On came surviving neighbours from Soho, including Fay Phillips to recall the incident of the ballet shoes when she and Jessie were ten year old.
On came all her brothers and sisters, led by the unrepentant Rosie, and including Ray, flown all the way from New Jersey by the BBC. They were followed by Buddy Bradley and Anna Neagle. But when Terry Freedman walked on at the age of seventy-three to talk of her pride in her most famous pupil, Jessie hugged her and silently wept.
There was no reference to her first or third husbands, and only the briefest mention of Sonnie Hale. Indeed, one of the younger BBC researchers had asked Rosie, ‘Who exactly was Sonnie Hale?’ After a moment of oscillating silence, Rosie replied in a tone that would have daunted a rhinoceros, ‘You don’t know very much, do you, young man?’
‘Did anyone think of telling Katie?’ was Jessie’s first pathetic question at the party afterwards. Rosie, conscious of the crowd surrounding them, gave only a vague answer.
For Catherine had indeed been told. She had been asked if, for this night alone, she would suspend the estrangement to pay a public tribute to her mother.
She had refused. ‘I am afraid I find programmes of that sort dreadfully vulgar,’ said the ex-model and repertory actress who had become Countess Grixoni.
Jessie, in spite of the row of the year before, was bitterly hurt and also astonished by Catherine’s absence from her ‘Life’.
This Is Your Life, which was screened on 3rd April, made Jessie news again briefly. The Daily Mail described her appearance in it as ‘plump, sunny, comfortable’. And the Daily Herald television critic ‘was moved by her storyand by the reminder of her magic’.
on the guest list...