John CONTEH (1951-)

John Conteh
related pages...

Life In The Ring

From flyweight to heavyweight


Henry Cooper

THIS IS YOUR LIFE - John Conteh, boxer, was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at the Abbey Road recording studios in London’s St John’s Wood.


John was born in Liverpool, to an Irish mother and Sierra Leonean father, who encouraged him to box at the Kirkby Athletic Club when John was only 10 to keep him from joining the local gangs.


As an amateur boxer, John notched up wins against the world’s best at the 1970 Commonwealth Games, winning the middleweight Gold Medal. He quickly followed this up by winning titles in the Amateur Boxing Associations Championships at middleweight in 1970 and light-heavyweight in 1971.


The early promise shown by John as an amateur soon blossomed and developed into a prolific career at a professional level. Taking on the world’s best, he defeated at light heavyweight, British, European and Commonwealth champions before becoming the (WBC) World Boxing Councils World Crown Holder in 1974, defeating Jorge Ahumada of Argentina.


“I thought you were one of the keys!”

Screenshots of John Conteh This Is Your Life

Surprise of your Life book

Eamonn Andrews and producer Jack Crawshaw recall the experience of this particular edition of This Is Your Life in their book Surprise Of Your Life...


Had he not been sitting at the piano with Paul, I swear I would have had the new world champion sagging at his knees. Was he surprised! The sharp left hand that had helped him to his hard-earned and well-deserved title was now raised in a gesture of bewilderment as he scratched the head that just 36 days before had been crowned in triumph.


That was October 1, the night we saw John Conteh, the son of a proud ex-merchant seaman from Sierra Leone and his wife who was born in Bootle in Lancashire, become Britain’s first light heavyweight champion of the world for more than a quarter of a century.


Being a confirmed fan of the noble art, I knew how John had progressed through the amateur ranks, winning forty six out of fifty fights including a gold medal at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. In 26 professional fights he had won the British Commonwealth and European titles.


So, as the referee raised his hand to confirm his world title win, we were making a decision of our own – to pick up John as our own number one in the series that was about to begin. And who better to help us than Paul and Linda McCartney.


They were among his fans at the ringside cheering him on with their own particular brand of the Mersey Sound. They were good friends and Paul had included a picture of John on the cover of his latest chart-topping album. Before the fight he sent John a good luck telegram saying: “You made me number one. Now you be number one.”


It was that telegram that gave us the idea to get Paul to lure the new champion to the studios in Abbey Road. So among the hundreds of post-fight invitations that naturally flowed in to his business manager was one for John to pose with his number one pal in front of the camera. Who would be taking the pictures? Who else but Paul’s very own professional photographer, his American born wife, Linda.


Even so, it was an exciting moment when Paul gave us the news that John had accepted. But with just 48 hours to go the excitement turned to near panic in the office famed throughout television for it’s stringent security measures – the This Is Your Life office where files are kept under lock and key opposite a wall that bears a poster stealing a message from more serious times and reminding all who work there that “CARELESS TALK COSTS LIVES”.


Top security dossiers containing the latest detailed research notes had been sent by despatch rider to the homes of myself and key members of the team. But en route, through the dark and wet winter night, the rider skidded on a greasy road and crashed.


He was badly shaken, but valiantly brushed himself down, collected the scattered mail, remounted and continued his journey … totally unaware that one envelope still lay by the roadside.


The shock news did not break until the following day when Robert Reed, one of the programme directors, announced that the information he had been warned to expect had not arrived. When the despatch rider told us of the accident we feared the worst.


He returned to the scene of the mishap, but there was no sign of the missing envelope. Someone somewhere had confidential information that could kill the programme. Robert Reed’s address and phone number were typed on the front of the envelope, but there was nothing to stop the finder opening it and blowing the secret.


One call to John, or even someone on a newspaper who didn’t know that all the leading television writers would never ruin the programme by disclosing the key name in advance, could kill the surprise. It had happened once before a long time ago. As the search went on, my mind went back nearly 20 years to the time when I had first spotted This Is Your Life on television in America. When I reported back to London, the show’s creator, Ralph Edwards, was invited to present a pilot showing on BBC Television here. The subject we chose was the footballing genius, Blackpool and England star, Stanley Matthews. Just as now, all was geared up to go with the programme when the Daily Sketch broke the story and brought our plans crashing around us.


More recently we had lost another show when, again with only days to go, comedy actor Derek Nimmo received an anonymous note in his dressing room at the Adelphi Theatre telling him: “Beware Wednesday. This Is Your Life”. And true blue character that he is Derek told me about it. Even though we lost a wonderful story I couldn’t help but admire and respect him for it. I couldn’t bear the thought of it happening again and you can imagine my relief later that day when I heard that the envelope had been found and that the finder had sent it on to Bob’s home. Unopened.


But we still had to surprise John. Fortunately, the busy recording studios provided the cover we needed. We were able to hide the mobile outside broadcasting unit at the back of the building and feed the cables through a ventilating duct to cameras hidden in the studio.


Only minutes before John was due to arrive at the front, I was smuggled in through the rear tradesman’s entrance. And after a few snatched words and a joke with Paul and Linda I hid behind a carefully-placed acoustic screen close to the piano where John was to sit.


John Phillips, the director and man in charge of the technical side of the operation, had been controlling director for ITV’s massive coverage of three general elections, but I knew that as he sat in the control unit parked outside he would be just as nervous as I was.


For, like all his fellow directors who sit in the This Is Your Life hot seat, he could have no rehearsal and would have only one shot to capture what the viewers demand: the picture that show’s the look on the guest’s face immediately the book is revealed and the words they first utter as the surprise hits home.


Happily, John – like Linda (and our own stills photographer, Stan Allen) – got the picture. And I got my man. Within a couple of minutes, John and I were dashing across North London by car to the studios for more surprises from a guest list that included actor Kenneth Haigh and his wife Myrna, Henry Cooper and eight British champions, all walking on to pay tribute to the hero of the hour.


Paul and Linda talked to us via a live link we kept open to the Abbey Road studios, but the final word went to John’s mum Rachel.


Surrounded by his nine brothers and sisters, she recalled once more the night her son won the world title.


“I won a title myself that night”, said Mrs Conteh, “the proudest Mum in the world”.


The Story of Television's Famous Big Red Book

Scriptwriter Roy Bottomley recalls the experience of this particular edition of This Is Your Life in his book This Is Your Life: The Story of Television's Famous Big Red Book...


We set up a deliberate mystery with Paul and Linda McCartney at the EMI studios in Abbey Road on Wednesday 6 November 1974, to surprise a young man who’d nothing to do with pop music. Fighting was the game for twenty-three-year-old John Conteh, the Liverpool-born son of a seaman from Sierra Leone, and he had punched his way to world fame while retaining the looks of a film star. He was the newly crowned Light Heavyweight Champion of the World, Britain’s first for over a quarter of a century.


Fellow Liverpudlian Paul had been at the ringside with Linda. There was a picture of John on the front cover of Paul’s latest hit album. Paul’s telegram before the fight read, ‘You made me Number One. Now you be Number One.’


After his victory, Paul and Linda lured John to the EMI studios to pose with Paul for a picture to be taken by Linda, a professional photographer.


What a line-up for the Life. The new glamour-boy champ, the ex-Beatle and his wife. Then, panic.


The despatch rider taking the top-secret script to the programme’s director skidded on the wet, wintry road and crashed. Bravely, he shook himself down and got on his bike, not realising that one large envelope still lay by the roadside. It contained the secrets of the Life.


More panic when a return to the scene of the accident revealed the envelope was missing. Luckily for us, the finder sent it on to the director’s address, unopened. As it was marked ‘Strictly Confidential’, the temptation to open it must have been pressing, especially as it had the Thames Television logo on it.


We got our man at Abbey Road, thanks to Paul and Linda, and back at the studios Henry Cooper and eight more British champions were there to surprise John, plus an old friend, Man at the Top star Kenneth Haigh, and his New York model wife Myrna. Oh, yes, and John’s nine brothers and sisters. His mum Rachel said she’d fought the championship herself that night. On Merseyside, at least, it was a knock-out.


Eamonn Andrews biography

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


Eamonn made no secret of his admiration for the boxing skills of John Conteh, who was crowned World Light Heavyweight champion in the seventies. 'Pound for pound,’ he would say, 'John's as good as any fighter I've seen.’


For that reason, he was eager to present him with the large red book. To do so, he called on the assistance of Paul and Linda McCartney, who were both fans and friends of the boxer. He also asked Henry Cooper to join the guests on the programme. On this occasion Henry did not hesitate to say yes. He never missed a chance to be among his boxing friends.


More than once, Eamonn had spoken about the traumas surrounding This Is Your Life, his favourite television programme. Some people felt he overstated the point, but to keep the secret required, he said, tremendous security and no little integrity.. He never failed to be bitterly disappointed when the secret was leaked. Therefore when he learned that packages containing special Life research papers had been lost he was almost in despair. He immediately feared that the John Conteh show would have to be cancelled. It happened when a rider's vehicle skidded on the wet road and the papers were scattered about. Although slightly hurt, the rider gathered up the papers but left behind him a vital envelope. On returning to the spot it was nowhere to be seen. Next day a frantic search was undertaken with Eamonn being kept informed of progress almost every hour.


Imagine his relief then when the missing envelope eventually turned up. ‘I was more relieved when I heard that the envelope had been found unopened,' he said. It had been sent to Robert Reed, one of the programme directors. Eamonn admitted it was ‘a panic moment’. It tended to make him more nervous than usual about surprising John Conteh.


Paul McCartney had arranged to meet the boxer at a recording studio. A few minutes before John Conteh's arrival, Eamonn was smuggled inside and hid behind a screen. After a nervous wait he was able to deliver the surprise punch to the boxing champion, who had been taken completely off his guard. It was a happy programme, with the boxer's nine brothers and sisters joining in the tribute. Henry Cooper and the eight British boxing champions found it hard, as Henry said later, to compete with the Conteh family.

programme details...

  • Edition No: 389
  • Subject No: 389
  • Broadcast date: Wed 13 Nov 1974
  • Broadcast time: 7-7.30pm
  • Recorded: Wed 6 Nov 1974
  • Venue: Euston Road Studios
  • Series: 15
  • Edition: 2
  • Code: Greyhound

on the guest list...

  • Rachel – mother
  • Frank – father
  • Frank - brother
  • Paul - brother
  • Tony - brother
  • Robert - brother
  • Gerard - brother
  • Michael - brother
  • Peter - brother
  • Marian - sister
  • Angela – sister
  • Charlie Atkinson
  • Mickey Fellingham
  • Morris Bell
  • Joey Singleton
  • David Needham
  • George Francis
  • Joan Francis
  • Myrna Haigh
  • Kenneth Haigh
  • Paul McCartney – live link
  • Linda McCartney – live link
  • John McClusky
  • Evan Armstrong
  • Bunny Sterling
  • Pat MacCormick
  • Kevin Finnegan
  • Ken Buchanan
  • Joe Bugner
  • Filmed tribute:
  • Henry Cooper

external links...

production team...

  • Researcher: Fred Austin
  • Writer: Fred Austin
  • Director: Robert Reed
  • Producer: Jack Crawshaw
  • Executive Producer: Malcolm Morris
names listed in bold indicate subjects of This Is Your Life
Series 15 subjects: Jack Ashley > John Conteh > Jack Howarth > Chay Blyth > Bill Maynard > Richard O'Sullivan > Dick Francis > Arthur Askey > Jean Kent > Geoff Love > Ray Cooney > Queenie Watts > Harry Johnson > Leonard Rossiter > John Hanson > Denis Law > Ted Ray > Peter Butterworth > Nina Baden-Semper > Dickie Davies > Moira Anderson > Precious McKenzie > Mollie Sugden > Michael Bates > Willie John McBride > Petula Clark > Garfield Sobers