Arthur ENGLISH (1919-1995)

Arthur English This Is Your Life

programme details...

  • Edition No: 476
  • Subject No: 474
  • Broadcast date: Wed 18 Jan 1978
  • Broadcast time: 7.00-7.30pm
  • Recorded: Wed 30 Nov 1977
  • Venue: Euston Road Studios
  • Series: 18
  • Edition: 9
  • Code name: Tie

on the guest list...

  • Teresa - wife
  • Sheila Van Damm
  • Mollie Sugden
  • Frank Thornton
  • Wendy Richard
  • Nicholas Smith
  • Harold Bennett
  • John Inman
  • Anthony - son
  • Jack - brother
  • Walt - brother
  • Gwen - sister-in-law
  • Sid Rule
  • Reg Winter
  • Roy Fluellen
  • Jim Pearson
  • George Yates
  • Jack Caesar
  • Maggie Fitzgibbon
  • Freddie Usher
  • Jim Steadman
  • Christian Rodska
  • Gillian Blake
  • Steve Hodson
  • Desmond Llewelyn
  • Sheila Steafel
  • Sean Flanagan
  • Freddie Jones
  • Michael Robbins
  • Diane - granddaughter
  • Brian - grandson
  • Jan - daughter-in-law
  • Ann - daughter
  • Ian - son-in-law
  • Michael - grandson
  • Karen - granddaughter
  • Filmed tribute:
  • Danny La Rue

production team...

  • Researchers: Tony Lee, Lavinia Warner
  • Writers: Tom Brennand, Roy Bottomley
  • Directors: Royston Mayoh, Terry Yarwood
  • Producer: Jack Crawshaw
  • names above in bold indicate subjects of This Is Your Life
related pages...
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Screenshots of Arthur English This Is Your Life

Arthur English's autobiography

Arthur English recalls his experience of This Is Your Life in his autobiography, Through The Mill And Beyond...

Our wedding was the event which put a huge conspiracy – which had hitherto been on hold – on Red Alert. I am talking, of course, about This Is Your Life.

If it were not 100 per cent on the level, This Is Your Life would not be the top-rated, long-running and immensely popular television show that it is. Viewers know the real thing when they see it – the bewilderment, the delight, the tears, sometimes the downright disbelief. Week after week Eamonn Andrews and his team achieve the seemingly impossible feat of keeping the subject in total ignorance until the moment when Eamonn steps forward and says: 'This Is YOUR Life.' If his team were running our Secret Service, the Russians would be in an awful lot of trouble.

Someone, somewhere, on some occasion must have let the cat out of the bag. Human nature being what it is, clues must have been dropped and twos and twos put together by 'unsuspecting' subjects. But I can only speak as I found, and I must confess that I found it rather disturbing that my entire family and my closest friends could keep a secret of such magnitude from me for a whole seven months. Since then I have refrained from making jokes about trusting women with secrets. Teresa was the ringleader, although Tony was a willing accomplice.

To explain why I never posed a threat to the conspirators, I will have to go back a few years. On three occasions members of my family, and my agent, were approached by Eamonn Andrews' team. Each time the answer was a polite but firm 'no'. It wasn't that they were ashamed of me or that I had skeletons to hide; they were simply following an instruction I had given to Ivy after being a 'celebrity' member of the This Is Your Life studio audience. The occasion had such an unnerving effect on me that I told Ivy never, in any circumstances, to involve me in the show. It wasn't the invasion of privacy that I minded; it was the risk, the risk of making an ass of myself, of breaking down and bawling my eyes out all through the programme, of embarrassing family and friends brought at great expense from far and wide, of millions of viewers all over Britain simultaneously switching off their television sets... As you can see, I built up my fear into a very vivid scenario, complete with the resounding click of all those viewers switching off...

In those days of course This Is Your Life went out 'live'. On one famous occasion the impossible, or rather the inevitable, happened. Eamonn Andrews approached a young Irish soccer star who had been lured into a recording theatre and said: 'Danny Blanchflower, This Is YOUR Life', to which Danny Blanchflower replied: 'Oh no it isn't' and walked out.

I was not a witness to this historic piece of behaviour, which was much admired in some quarters at the time, but I was a member of the studio audience on several occasions, and therefore a potential 'victim', and on each occasion my apprehension mounted. The sight of Eamonn Andrews mingling with the audience beforehand and casually saying to people 'Will it be your life?' made my scalp tingle.

It was the virtuoso ingenuity with which Eamonn's team lured their subjects into the recording studio that really unnerved me.

Imagine for a moment that you are a St John's Ambulance Service lady who has done sterling work, unsung and unremarked, for many years. Now imagine that you have been asked to take personal care of a young lady with a Swedish accent and a leg in plaster who just happens to have been invited along to a recording of This Is Your Life; what's more you have been looking after her for three days. Now imagine yourself wheeling your patient into the recording theatre, and a hush descending over the audience, and Eamonn Andrews suddenly at your side saying 'YOU... This Is YOUR Life'. You stumble onto the stage, blinking in amazement, and your patient suddenly becomes an actress pretending to be a patient!

Well, that is exactly what happened on the evening I decided never, never to appear on This Is Your Life. Ominously, Eamonn had stopped to speak to me before the show. As he made his way to the stage, I muttered to Tony who was with me: 'I hope to Heaven it isn't me.' Tony shook his head and said, very perceptively for a 12-year-old: 'You're safe enough, Dad. The camera's too far away to reach you.' He was right. [ editor: Arthur is referring to Red Cross nurse, Johanna Harris, surprised in January 1956]

The first approach was made to Ivy, who declined on my behalf. She told me about it afterwards and I thanked her for following my wishes, but I don't think she entirely agreed with my reasons for not wanting to be profiled. For one thing, she felt I was capable of more self-control than I gave myself credit for.

The second approach was made to my agent, Pat Freeman, not long after Ivy's death. Pat said it was far too soon after Ivy's death – which it was – and declined. He did not mention that he had been approached until some time afterwards.

The third approach must have been in 1976. Driving down to Eastbourne with my close friend Nip Eustace to spend a weekend with him and his wife, we stopped at Tony's garage for petrol.

'I've just turned down some work for you, Dad,' said Tony. Then he told me about the third approach.

'Did I do the right thing?' he asked.

'Of course you did, son,' I said.

As we turned onto the road again Nip decided to give me a piece of his mind, and I respect him as much for that as for the kindness and consideration he showed me after Ivy's death. It was Nip who stopped me going completely to pieces.

'Arthur,' he said, 'I think you're being very silly. No, I don't... I think you're being very selfish.'

'What do you mean, selfish?' I asked, surprised.

'I'm not saying you don't deserve a tribute like This Is Your Life,' he said. 'You do, but it's not just for you. Don't you see, it's for lots of other people as well. What about your family and friends? What about the public who've stuck by you all these years? What about Aldershot? You're always saying how proud you are of Aldershot... born there... brought up there... lived there all your life. Is this the way you treat your home town?'

'It should've happened while Ivy was alive,' I mumbled rather shamefaced, knowing full well that it would have but for my adamant instructions to the contrary.

Nip gave me a terrible roasting all the way to Eastbourne, then he let the subject drop. But he had set me thinking. I could see why he thought I had been selfish. But what could I do about it? I knew enough about This Is Your Life to know that if the proposed subject gets wind of it the programme is scrapped, even if it has to be scrapped at the last moment.

When we got to Eastbourne I telephoned Tony, told him about my change of heart, and said that if ever he was approached again he was to accept, but never in any circumstances to tell me.

'I wouldn't anyway, Dad,' he said.

Then I telephoned Pat Freeman and said much the same thing. Pat was harder on me than Tony had been.

'It's not likely, Arthur, is it?' he said. 'They've been turned down three times. That decision has to be irrevocable. And the fact that you've now had second thoughts would make it almost impossible for them to pick you as a subject. They're bound to think you'd find out somehow. One whisper and the whole thing becomes nonsense. Obviously I would never tell you if they approached me again, but frankly I doubt if they will. You're automatically disqualified.'

My boats were well and truly burnt then. I didn't mind for myself – though I would be telling lies if I said I never got a kick out of reading about myself in the newspapers – but I really had taken Nip Eustace's words to heart. It would have been an accolade for Aldershot, and for my family and friends, and for Ivy; they would probably have brought Ann and Ian and the grandchildren from New Zealand; it would have been something to remember all my life. But it was too late.

Except it wasn't. The fourth approach came in May 1977. Teresa, Tony and Pat Freeman said 'yes', and the conspiracy swung into operation. For an incredible seven months, from May until the recording in November, the secret was kept from me. Psychologically primed to believe three times of asking was the limit, I saw nothing, heard nothing and wondered nothing.

It was Teresa who asked the programme organisers to postpone the recording until the autumn, pointing out that we really ought to get married first. It would look rather odd, she said, with impeccable logic and judgement, if I appeared on This Is Your Life with a 23-year-old fiancée in tow.

I wasn't joking about the Secret Service. They actually had a codeword for Operation English, TIE. How everyone managed to keep a straight face and not burst into hysterics when the word 'tie' was mentioned I'll never know. Whenever a telephone call came through for Teresa and the voice at the other end said 'TIE', she knew they wanted to talk to her about the programme. So the conversation would go into the sotto voce mode or be terminated in the interests of security.

As the time for springing the trap drew near, the pace hotted up. After it was all over, I listened open-mouthed to Teresa's account of the final days.

'We were all operating a need-to-know basis,' she told me matter-of-factly. A need-to-know basis? She sounded like one of John Le Carre's 'moles'.

'For instance,' she continued, 'there was some doubt at one time whether they would be bringing Ann and Ian and the grandchildren over from New Zealand. They were thinking of bringing just Ann over, but Tony and I were firm. We said no, it has to be everybody, or that's that. So they went along with us. They were very patient.'

Superhumanly patient it seems. First they were turned down three times, then their recording arrangements were postponed, at Teresa's request, until the autumn, and then Teresa virtually told them who they should have on the programme.

'We laid it on a bit,' she told me, 'but they took it very well.'

The guest list which Teresa compiled would have peopled two shows, but so intent was she on making sure that every aspect of my life was covered that it did not occur to her to include her own relatives. None of them, not even her mother, were there on the night, and that gave me cause for regret.

How did the plotters get me there, all unsuspecting, on the day of the recording? To catch your fish, you choose your fly, and in my case the fly was The Windmill, and my nostalgia for The Windmill. At the beginning of November, Teresa and I attended a private viewing at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London of an exhibition about The Windmill. So when Pat Freeman told me that I was wanted back at the museum to take part in a television programme about The Windmill, I fell for it, hook, line and sinker.

'Sounds all right to me, Pat,' I said. 'Oh, by the way, how much?'

'Eh?' said Pat.

'Money,' I said. 'The fee. How much are they paying me?' Good heavens, agents are supposed to be concerned about things like that, but the penny did not drop.

'Oh... er, not very much,' said Pat rather vaguely.

'How much is not very much?'

'Standard minimum fee,' said Pat.

Oh well, The Windmill was a subject close to my heart.

'All right,' I said, 'but I want a car there and back, and Teresa to come with me.'

'No problem,' said Pat. Had I but known it, Teresa and the car were an essential part of the plot.

'The room they're using at the Victoria and Albert,' I said to Teresa later, 'it's all right for the exhibition, but they'll never get a camera unit in there, surely?'

Teresa was ready for that one. 'What's wrong with a hand-held camera?' she said.

'Of course,' I nodded. 'That makes sense.'

On the afternoon of 30 November the car arrived for Teresa and me. Just as we were about to drive off Teresa excused herself and rushed back into the house – to fetch my toothbrush as I discovered later. She had already packed an overnight case for me and sent it ahead with Tony – because the plot included staying in London overnight after the after-the-show party – but she had forgotten to pack a toothbrush.

With us in the car was a researcher from This Is Your Life, pretending to be a researcher from the television company making the programme about The Windmill. All the way up to London she asked me questions about the old days – she had certainly done her homework. On the way we stopped to pick up Sheila Van Damm, another enthusiastic conspirator.

At Marble Arch the driver, who was no more a chauffeur that I'm a deep-sea diver, stopped the car and said he had to go to the lavatory. Well, when you have to go you have to go, but I wondered faintly what sort of professional chauffeur sets out on a journey without answering the call of nature first. What he did of course was telephone HQ to tell them we were ahead of schedule.

Off we went again. As we approached the Victoria and Albert Museum, I saw the television vehicles parked outside. Nothing odd about that. I was there to take part in a television programme. The chauffeur, however, proceeded to drive us around the block. And round again.

'Parking trouble,' he said by way of explanation.

'Doesn't he know the bloody way in?' I thought to myself.

Eventually he stopped the car and we got out.

Down the steps came my chums from Are You Being Served? – Mollie Sugden, Nicholas Smith, Frank Thornton, Harold Bennett, John Inman … I saw them as if in a dream. What were they doing there? None of them had ever been at The Windmill...

And that was as far as I got. A moment later the Mad Irishman materialised at my elbow saying: 'Arthur English. This Is YOUR Life.'

Arthur English This Is Your Life

I remember very little of the drive across London to the Thames studio at Euston. My feelings were a mixture of amazement and delight, but although the initial surprise was over I still had butterflies in my stomach.

I travelled with Eamonn, and Teresa travelled with Jack Crawshaw, the producer, so that he could run through the programme with her. On the way Jack confirmed that Ann and her family had flown over from New Zealand, adding that he imagined Teresa would be looking forward to seeing Ann again.

'Oh no, we've never met,' said Teresa. 'Look, I'd rather not meet Ann for the first time in front of the television cameras. Could we have a few minutes together before the programme, just to get to know each other a bit?' And that is what they did, to Teresa's relief and Ann's too.

Ann and Ian had arrived in England three days earlier and were staying in a hotel in London, and it is a great tribute to the programme's organisers and to Ann and Ian's self-restraint that they did not visit Ian's mother, who lives in the same road as I do. That really would have spilled the beans.

You can imagine friendly neighbours saying: 'Hullo, Arthur, old mate, I see your daughter's home. Having a bit of a holiday is she?'

The rest, as they say, is history. I have a video recording of the programme, and every now and then I play it through and tears come into my eyes. My family and friends are there, in ones and twos and more … Teresa, Tony and Jan, Ann and Ian, my grandchildren Diane, Brian, Michael and Karen, my brothers Walt and Jack, my old friends Roy Fluellen, Sid Rule, Reg Winter, Jimmie Pearson, George Yates, Sheila Van Damm, Jack Caesar and Michael Robbins, my chums from Are Your Being Served?, Follyfoot and The Ghosts of Motley Hall, and good wishes and congratulations from those who couldn't be there with us. From Danny La Rue, who had known Teresa and myself before we met, came the message: 'I wish you long life and great happiness, and nobody in the profession deserves it more.' He meant it for both of us, and at that point I nearly did break down.

All things considered, I didn't make too much of an exhibition of myself. I managed to pick up the occasional feed line and enter into the banter when one of my fellow comics made a joke. So what happened to all my misgivings about the programme? They vanished as if they had never been. I was in the midst of family and friends. And by friends I mean all those who sat at home watching me and sharing in my great joy.

This Is Your Life is a show which always has a huge audience during the first few minutes, Jack Crawshaw told me afterwards, then it turns into something of a gamble, depending on whether viewers find the subject sufficiently interesting to carry on watching to the end. My fear that millions of viewers would switch me off proved quite groundless. My Life was watched by an audience of 20,450,000 when it finally went out in January 1978, topping the ratings in Britain and the Commonwealth.

I'll never know whether it was the Spiv, or Slugger from Follyfoot, or Mr Harman from Are You Being Served?, or Bodkin from The Ghosts of Motley Hall who stopped them switching off, or whether the audience just liked the idea of the old pro who kept on going. When I start to get maudlin, I say to myself: 'Arthur... you're a silly old fool.' On that occasion I was a very happy silly old fool.

Arthur English This Is Your Life

Series 18 subjects

Richard Beckinsale | Peter Ustinov | Virginia Wade | Robert Arnott | Lin Berwick | Bob Paisley | The Bachelors | David Broome
Arthur English | Barry Sheene | Margot Turner | Pat Coombs | Michael Croft | Max Boyce | Nicholas Parsons | Richard Goolden
Ian Hendry | Marti Caine | Ian Wallace | Dennis Waterman | Anton Dolin | Terry Wogan | William Franklyn | Richard Murdoch
Harry Patterson | Jule Styne | Mike Yarwood