This Is My Life
John Bull Magazine
21 April 1956
John Bull magazine: Eamonn Andrews article
related pages...

Eamonn Andrews

a brief biography

The Legend That Was Eamonn Andrews

a celebration to mark the presenter's centenary year

Eamonn Looks Back

first-hand recollections

Ralph Edwards

the man who created it all

Gracie Fields

Sammy McCarthy

by Eamonn Andrews as told to Wilfred Greatorex

A gamble takes me to San Francisco - part six of a continuing interview

John Bull magazine: Eamonn Andrews article
In California, Eamonn relaxes with Jack Solomons, the boxing promoter. Solomans gave him the tip-off that Cockell was to fight Marciano

For months I dreamed of America. Then came my chance. I travelled six thousand miles – to do a broadcast that might never be heard

In this television age, there is only the thickness of a cathode-ray tube between obscure anonymity and public recognition on a scale that can be both bewildering and dangerous. The medium that makes all men brothers can also lead a man to think he's Big Brother himself.

I couldn't help reflecting on this during that warm, and for me eventful spring of 1954, when Grainne and I returned from her recuperative holiday in the south of France. We stepped right into a whirl of public interest in her health and professional offers for my services as heady as the wine and climate of Cannes.

John Bull magazine: Eamonn Andrews article
Grainne and Eamonn went to the south of France after her illness. She had difficulty in walking on the beach and had to be carried to the sea whenever she wanted to bathe

For months, Grainne had lain in hospital at Stanmore with an infected hip and I had stepped up the amount of work I was doing, partly in self-defence against loneliness. Then had come, with the hospital sister's forecast that Grainne would soon be able to leave for home, the most hectic fortnight I ever remember.

Besides fulfilling an average of three radio and television engagements a day, with all the preparations they entail, I set out to find a new flat: it had to be on the ground floor, for I knew that for some time Grainne would be able to walk only on crutches.

Finally, after inspecting twenty or thirty flats in various parts of London, I found one at Lancaster Gate, just opposite Hyde Park. I had photographs taken of every room, and on most days stole an hour or two to pore over them with Grainne, who was thus able to plan the decorations and furnishing from her bed. She worked out everything, including the colour schemes, and I merely transmitted her instructions; but television had made this domestic move a matter of apparent public interest, and one over-enterprising and persuasive photographer got me to pose with a wallpaper brush on top of a step ladder. It gave the impression that I was a do-it-yourself expert.

When I brought Grainne from hospital to our new home, we stayed only a few days before flying to the Riviera, to a quiet hotel at Cap Ferrat. We visited Nice, Cannes, Juan-les-Pins and Monte Carlo, and once crossed into Italy, but most of the time we were on the beach.

Grainne was still not sufficiently recovered to be able to swim or even to keep her balance on the sand, and I carried her to the water, where she could at least float. In the sun and sea, Grainne improved noticeably with each day, and I knew that she was well on the way to recovery when she started complaining about the amount of weight she had put on during her illness.

It was more of a convalescence than a holiday, and I promised that as soon as she was properly fit we would spend a real holiday in Jamaica, where her sister Siobhan was now living after marrying a doctor in practice there. There had been a tearful scene in Grainne's hospital room when Siobhan had called after her wedding and just before leaving for Kingston.

John Bull magazine: Eamonn Andrews article
After Grainne had left hospital she received hundreds of letters inquiring about her health

But now we were back in London, a further break seemed a long way off. As we came through the Customs at London Airport a BBC representative took me by the arm and said that a car was waiting to take us to the studios for an appearance on the Ask Pickles programme. Grainne was using elbow crutches, and the sight of her prompted hundreds of viewers to write in the days that followed, inquiring about her health. It was a new situation for Grainne to be getting most of the mail every morning and, down to earth as usual, she took the opportunity of pointing it out.

I slipped back into the routine, taking over again from Ron Randell, who had blown kisses as chairman of What's My Line? and resuming my Saturday sports programme. By this time, two novel problems had arisen. My manager, Teddy Sommerfield, said that the time had come to limit my activities in any particular field to avoid the danger of over-exploitation, and he was also working out a plan to make me into a limited company.

I used to think that earning more money than is required for immediate needs would be no hardship at all, but in the strange world of show business it can be a menace. The professional entertainer is peculiarly vulnerable to the effects of retrospective taxation, and after the tension of a public appearance there is a reaction of relief which can lead to wild spending.

I have always been quick to grasp security, and this proposal of Teddy's looked like a second line of defence; as a limited company I would have my spending money limited and my taxes would be paid on the nail. I was less enthusiastic about reducing my activities, for the times when I couldn't land even a single engagement were all too recent for comfort of mind; but gradually I began cutting down on programmes which had the same sort of public.

There were many other lines to attempt. I went into radio's Forces Show with a high-speed fifteen-minute quiz, and did a sponsored series for Radio Luxembourg called Strike It Rich, an American programme idea which appealed to me but which was also somewhat depressing to handle; for the challengers who came up to win sums of up to £100 all had hard-luck stories to tell, and some were blind, maimed and sick.

I have always admired the Americans' approach to radio and television, their professionalism and slickness, and I began wondering whether the time had come to go over to New York to seek new ideas. It would mean making the trip during the off-season of What's My Line? but before this happened I was to launch out on a series I had long coveted, the Saturday night disc-jockey hour. We called it Pied Piper, and I found myself engaged in a series of four-programme Saturdays when I lived almost the whole day at Broadcasting House.

The rush began first thing when I drove to Waterloo Station to pick up Sports Report editor Angus Mackay so that we could discuss the day's sports news on the way to Broadcasting House, and it finished a minute after midnight. With Angus, I had developed through years of working together on a more or less off-the-cuff programme a telepathy which amazes those who notice it. One snowbound Saturday, when I was calling in the football reporters from various BBC centres, we were finding that the weather had prevented many from reaching the studios. No reply came when I introduced one or the other of them, and I knew instinctively which centre Angus next had in mind even before his instructions came over the headphones.

Mackay is by far the greatest sports editor I have ever met. He refuses to be hidebound by red tape, and if he wants an interview with Rocky Marciano he will move the entire United States of America to get it.

This determination was illustrated some time ago when he was severely burned in the Barnes train smash, in which many people lost their lives. He had no complaints when I went to visit him in hospital, but merely remarked that he was not supposed to touch his face or to exercise his arms. He willed himself out of that bed, and four weeks after the crash surprised us all by turning up in the studio. We called his doctor and compelled him to go home; even then, he was back at work three weeks later, though his hands had not yet healed.

Several times, with Angus, I managed to get out to see part of a football match at Stamford Bridge or Highbury on a Saturday afternoon; but we abandoned this after we were once held up in traffic and only just reached the studio in time for Sports Report.

John Bull magazine: Eamonn Andrews article
Eamonn joins Sammy McCarthy in training. Before a fight in Belfast, Eamonn wished Sammy, a Londoner, good luck. Later he had to be protected from angry Irish boxing fans

I missed seeing Saturday soccer games and, increasingly, I wanted to return, if only occasionally, to my first love – boxing commentaries. The opportunity came in January, 1955, when Sammy McCarthy was defending his British featherweight title against Billy Kelly, the Empire champion, in Belfast. A few weeks before, in our annual round-up of Sports Report, I interviewed McCarthy, a gentle, smiling cockney, and asked him about his chances.

"You hope to comeback with both titles, I suppose," I said.


"Well, good luck, Sammy!"

Those words seemed innocent enough, but in Belfast that Saturday night they were thrown back at me along with a few more material objects. As I arrived at the ringside, I sensed a disturbance behind me and a voice rose above the rest, shouting: "So you wished McCarthy good luck, did you? You hope he's going to win. A right bloody Irishman you are!"

I tried to remember what I had done to make the natives of my own Ireland so hostile, and then it dawned on me. It all seemed unnecessary and hard to understand, for McCarthy's name hardly suggested that he came from Czechoslovakia – and here we were in Belfast, where you would suppose a Londoner might be regarded as a fellow citizen.

When Kelly and McCarthy appeared, the rumpus behind me died down. It was a wonderful fight, and I did a commentary of which I was proud, and later prouder still; for a well-known referee, listening in London, kept a scorecard from my descriptions and when he checked it with one kept by the fight referee, it tallied exactly, round for round. For all that, I had to be escorted from the hall under a hail of paper pellets.

It wasn't the first time that my Irish nationality had landed me in a spot of bother, and I suppose it won't be the last. Once, in a newsreel commentary, I had commended the co-operation in an electricity scheme between the Government of the Republic of Ireland and what I called the Government of Northern Ireland. Shortly afterwards, a member stood up in the Dail and criticised me for talking about the Government of Northern Ireland. It's a sad problem that a country should be so divided, and I have always regarded Ireland as thirty-two counties rather than twenty-six and six, but I was annoyed by the point he had made, and thought it churlish in the circumstances.

By contrast, my occasional contretemps with Gilbert Harding seemed mild. As What's My Line? continued week after week, I took as many buffetings as anyone and after one argument a viewer who was on Gilbert's side sent me a dictionary which he suggested I needed badly. After a while one learns to smart and laugh at the same time over the side-effects of public appearances, of which there are plenty.

Once, when I arrived to open a store in the west country, I had to run the gauntlet of a large crowd outside; another television-age trend that the crooners are welcome to keep for themselves. My back was patted, my arms were tugged and my hair ruffled. I felt like a wild Red Indian when I finally got inside, where I was greeted by a well-dressed young man who looked like an official of the store. Chuckling over my dishevelled appearance he said casually, "Well, what did you think of that?"

"It's just as well I'm not a woman," I said, "and don't have a permanent wave. Otherwise I'd be upset."

It was after the opening ceremony when I was about to board the London train that I bought an evening paper and saw a half-column report about the event. To my horror, I read that I was supposed to have said: "I used to have a permanent wave. Look at me now." I've never forgiven that reporter.

I was still considering a trip to the United States for my further television education when, in the spring of 1955, the head of BBC Television light entertainment, Ronnie Waldman, telephoned me with the news that he might be going ahead with an American programme called This Is Your Life.

We had lunch and talked it over. It seemed just the chance I had been waiting for: there was now more justification for crossing the Atlantic and studying American television methods and ideas, and for fitting in that holiday with Grainne in Jamaica.

We went ahead with plans for the trip as soon as What's My Line? was rested, and in the middle of all this I met Jack Solomons, who gave me the first whisper that Don Cockell might be going over to fight Rocky Marciano for the world heavyweight crown. I found this an even more exciting prospect, for a world heavyweight championship is to the boxing commentator the biggest deal in the pack.

Later, when the fight was definitely announced, I found that the BBC had no plans for a direct commentary, and at a boxing writer's dinner I tackled Solomons about the prospects. He promised to do what he could if the BBC was interested. Everything seemed to be fitting into place. The BBC started preliminary inquiries into costs and technical arrangements. There were a number of snags, not least the fact that a razor blade firm controlled the broadcast rights, and not all of these had been ironed out when Grainne and I flew to New York.

The hospitality of Americans was already well known to me from those days I spent at Limerick, but I was not prepared for the hearty reception we had from the moment of landing. A BOAC girl had been sent to drive us to our hotel, and explained on the way that she had once been auditioned for the panel of What's My Line? – one of scores of people, some of them famous, who have gone through that ordeal.

We were invited to the Arthur Godfrey Show by an Irish girl called Carmen Quinn, who has a part in it, and there I studied the astonishing results Godfrey achieves with the most uninhibited ad libbing. We met Gracie Fields in a theatre foyer at the premiere of a new Fred Astaire film, and one morning in a television studio I was introduced to Ed Murrow, that fabulous deep-voiced commentator with the authoritative manner whose wartime broadcasts from London did as much as anything to enlist American support for Britain.

I suggested to Murrow that I might do a Person to Person television show on him, but he had already promised this, if ever it should be done, to another broadcaster.

Television in the United States goes on with much less preparation than in Britain, and off-the-cuff interviews, which I prefer, are the order rather than the scripted variety. When a telecaster called Bill Leonard interviewed me over the CBS network about the Cockell-Marciano fight, he promptly riled me by referring to "this bum Cockell." Frankly, I was in my element hitting back with spontaneous stuff that Mr Leonard probably enjoyed less than the Cockell supporters who might have been looking in.

Next day I had a note from Peggy Coolidge, a descendant of ex-President Coolidge, whom I had once met at a party in the Irish Embassy, expressing indignation over Leonard's remark and inviting Grainne and myself to a party thrown on our behalf.

Peggy said she would invite anyone we particularly wanted to meet, and among these people was John Daly, my opposite number on the American What's My Line? In the event, Daly could not come because he was dining that night with President Eisenhower in Washington. Nevertheless, I did meet crooner Eddie Fisher, a sports fan who laid a five-dollar bet with me on the outcome of the big fight.

Apart from these occasional parties and visits to television studios, I spent most of the time watching TV and listening to radio programmes in our hotel room. When Grainne suggested going out, I solemnly drew attention to the fact that this was all part of my extra-mural education whereas in fact I was lost in the novelty of being able to switch around six television stations.

I kept in touch with the New York office for the BBC and when I left for San Francisco a few days before the fight the arrangements were still not watertight. Only one line was available from San Francisco to New York, the radio relay link for Britain, and this meant that we would have no studio talk-back and would therefore have to do the commentary in the dark, without knowing if it was being received.

In San Francisco, I made myself known to the broadcasting contacts and spent most of the time buzzing between the Cockell and Marciano camps. The champion gave me an interview for Sports Report, which I took on a tape recorder, and on the day of the fight I again met him, unexpectedly this time, in the lift of the municipal hall just before the weigh-in.

"Hallo, Rocky!" I said, and edged towards him in the lift-car, which was tight-packed with his bodyguard of four untrusting tough guys who had been in more than a fight or two themselves. I stretched out my hand towards Rocky, and suddenly it was taken in a wrist-snapping grip and replaced firmly at my side. I looked up into one of the most unwelcoming faces I have ever seen, and the words came out lopsided but clear: "The champ don't shake hands with nobody before a fight." Even if I'd had a pocket-size atomic bomb I wouldn't have questioned this statement.

I arrived early at the Kezar Stadium that evening. I took my seat at the ringside and started talking into the lip microphone at least twenty minutes before the fight was due to begin.

As the excited hum of anticipation built up among the fight-frenzied crowd, my heart was pounding fast. Nobody in the hall, except Cockell's supporters, expected him to last more than four rounds. When he appeared in the spotlight on the way to the ring I was gripped with a feeling of pride that set me at one with the British heavyweight. In those moments, I felt so much like a fellow-Londoner of Cockell's that I might well have lapsed into cockney dialect.

In Britain it was four o'clock in the morning, and I sensed that this would be a broadcast I would always want to remember – or a complete fiasco. For I still did not know whether my voice was being heard on the other side of the Atlantic.

NEXT WEEK: My nerve-racking ordeals in This Is Your Life