TV Times
15 November 1969
TV Times: This Is Your Life article
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Birth of Life

the genesis of the programme

Billy Butlin

Jack Petersen

by Eamonn Andrews

Forecast: Maybe we'll consider doing a hippie, maybe I'll get a punch on the nose...

I'm bringing back This Is Your Life because we've a whole set of new people, new stories, new trends, new standards, new values – a new world. I want to explore it. And, what's more, explore it in colour.

I think it was a mistake to drop the programme for so long. It's one of the few great original ideas thrown up by TV. But the lay-off has given us a chance to up-date it completely: give it an entirely new look.

Good stories will still be our first concern. But now there are whole areas we would have hesitated to tackle in the old days.

We might consider a hippie, for instance, if he had a good story to start with: we'd explain why he's a hippie, maybe.

And we have new technologies. Take satellites: we'll be able to speak directly to people, to put on a conversation between two old friends, separated perhaps by thousands of miles. In the old days we had to make do with snippets of film often recorded days before.

And the programme will go out live. You can't really record it and get anything like the same results. People like to know it's spontaneous, that anything might happen: maybe even that I'll get a punch on the nose. But we'll have a recorded programme in reserve, of course, in case anything goes wrong.

What could go wrong? Let me explain! – this is a terribly hard programme to do, simply because of the innate difficulties.

We begin by approaching somebody close to the subject – his wife or his mother or father or best friend. We swear them to secrecy, explaining that if the subject finds out, then we simply won't do the show. It's got to be a surprise.

Now, although no more than nine or ten people will appear on the show, we always see around 50. Getting 50 people to keep a secret is really very difficult. But that's only half of it.

How do you make sure that a man is going to be in town - say next Tuesday, and at a certain time of the evening? His wife can't say: "Oh, do keep Tuesday evening free, dear." He'll want to know why.

The worse thing that has happened to us was with Billy Butlin. On the very day he was to appear on the show, his secretary rang through in a panic. "He's suddenly decided to fly to New York", she yelled. "I'd better tell him." We told her under no circumstances – and did the show a year later. That can happen any time!

I know that, in the past, people have criticised us about "scripting." But you can't really call This Is Your Life a scripted show. A scripted show is where a writer sits down to invent a story or to give his impressions about a real event.

Now take the case of a person appearing on This Is Your Life. He might be able to talk for half an hour about the subject. We listen to everything he has to say – and then decide what's really relevant or interesting. It could be just a single joke or anecdote. We tell the person to stick to that bit only.

To help him, we provide him with a note of what he's told us – in his own words. He can either speak his own words again, or say the same thing again whatever way he likes. So long as he sticks to the point.

We have to do that because each person only has a few moments, anyway. And we also do it to avoid a person "freezing".

That can happen to anyone. Our subject once was the former British heavyweight boxer, Jack Petersen, and one of the friends we called on was a man who'd refereed many of Jack's fights.

But the poor fellow was so nervous that when it came to his turn to say something he couldn't speak. He opened his mouth once or twice, but there were no sounds. Then finally he blurted out something.

"Jack Petersen," he declared, staring straight at Jack, "would be the greatest heavyweight in the world, if only he were alive today!"

Believe me, this is one show where you're always walking on a tightrope. And I'll be the most terror-stricken man in Britain the night the first show goes out.