Life Is What They Make It...
TV Times
6 May 1972
TV Times: This Is Your Life article TV Times: This Is Your Life article TV Times: This Is Your Life article TV Times: This Is Your Life article
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The story behind This Is Your Life is one of chance, challenge and achievement. Always there lurks the danger that one person sworn to secrecy will let the cat out of the bag and spoil everything for Eamonn Andrews and his team. That's why we've masked the research team. They have frustrations galore – but the successes are what make the team's life worthwhile. On Wednesday, another 26-week series ends, and here DAVID MCGILL looks behind the scenes...

In the middle of a Masai village 100 miles outside Nairobi, Kenya, Eamonn Andrews, a Thames Television film crew and TV Times chief photographer, Peter Bolton, joined the locals gazing anxiously up at the sky. There was a long sigh of relief, like a breeze in the heat, at the sight of a dot on the horizon and the faint but unmistakable throbbing of an engine through the still air. For the villagers it meant their illnesses would be attended to – and for ITV it meant another This Is Your Life was on.

Michael Wood, the Flying Doctor, climbed out of the plane and was confronted by a microphone held by a large, genial man, who suddenly was telling him that this was his life and television was there to prove it. Most This Is Your Life subjects are surprised. Michael Wood was also puzzled, he had never even heard of the top-rated British programme.

Andrews and producer Malcolm Morris were then faced with their routine weekly crisis: would the subject agree to come to their London studios for the programme? It does not help that few have refused. As Morris said, this is not so much a series as a collection of individual tributes, each with its own problems.

Wood agreed, and then things went wrong. The jet was running more than three hours late, and it was touch and go whether the film would be processed in time for the following Wednesday.

There was further panic when a newspaper leak threatened to ruin this most ambitious and expensive edition of This Is Your Life. But, as usual, the programme went out to its accustomed success, the reward for several months of intensive research and planning.

"We've nearly had heart failure a few times," said Morris, "because we've sailed so close to the wind with no back-up programme. But then I like that. I don't like a series too safe. I like danger because it makes for exciting television. If this is an untidy programme in that it is immediate, an actuality event, it makes a good contrast to a smooth play-like production."

Morris knows the successful formula but will not divulge it. Nor will any of his staff of 10 writers, researchers, organisers and assistants who are also crammed into an unobtrusive corner of the Thames building in Euston, London. The words TOP SECRET are stamped as effectively on their faces as on that of any Civil Servant at the Ministry of Defence.

Life behind This is Your Life is encapsulated in its producer, in his sober lightweight suit, white shirt and shadowy tie, hair neat over the ears. He has the shrewd, discrete manner and conservative appearance of the young manager of the local branch of any bank, in quiet contrast to the many peacocks that parade through television production. Morris got to know Eamonn when he was a photographer covering This Is Your Life back in the 1950s. He has produced four years of The Eamonn Andrews Show. They play golf together and the families are friends.

Morris has made the series the most successful ever. Adventurous programmes like the Kenya trip have helped. Earlier in the series they took their cameras to a fashion salon in Paris to do Ginette Spanier, director of Balmain. Getting a camera team abroad in absolute secrecy is a challenging proposition, something Morris finds very satisfying.

At home he has also set up challenging situations. It was a bold stroke to begin the series with George Best, whom many have tried (and most have failed) to pin down. Andrews surprised him in the West End and somehow got him through the rush hour traffic to the studios, a risky venture, even in a Rolls. They went a risk better with Welsh rugby genius Barry John, confronting him as he came off the field at Twickenham, or trying to. The mud was so thick on all the players that they came within a dirty face of confronting the wrong player.

Then there was the time Andrews slid up on Graham Kerr crossing a stretch of water to launch his new boat at Poole harbour, in Dorset. The tide proved stronger than anticipated and the galloping gourmet galloped ahead. In this context minutes are hours. However, Graham's wife Treena was in on the secret and managed to divert her husband's attention from his own boat and from Eamonn's.

"It's tremendous suspense," said Morris, "because we never know if we've got a show until it's done." For director Margery Baker and production assistant Maggie Ricketts it can be a nightmare.

Hughie Green was a tight schedule. With the help of TV Times they got him to climb to the controls of a new plane. The petrol was drained so that Hughie Green (an expert pilot) would have to refuel. Then Eamonn Andrews in white overalls, rode out on the tanker to present Mr Opportunity Knocks with his own life story.

Rolf Harris was another globe-hopper they had to reach and hold until they could "nab" him. At least he was in Britain for more than a few hours at a time – unlike David Frost, who is perpetually on the move. They got him through his mother, surprising him eating with her in London.

The programme's policy is to get a subject, if possible, at a moment of change or importance in his career. They got Kerr just before he was retiring from television to travel for three years. Best when he was making more headlines than usual, Pauline Collins at the end of the very successful run of Upstairs Downstairs.

The team laid Keith Michell's life before him at the time he was filming The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

The subject need not be a well-known personality – for instance the Flying Doctor. But Alfred Marks, boxer Alan Rudkin, and climber Don Whillans were not red-hot news when they appear. The important criteria, said Morris, is a good story that people can identify with, feel they could achieve given the chance.

The history of This is Your Life would probably make a programme in itself, featuring its dedicated hard-working team that grinds on despite an 80 per cent failure rate: that is, most of the subjects "fall through".

"I'm being paid to make professional guesses," said Morris, matter-of-factly, as if he were shuffling stocks and shares.

"Calculations based on instinct, experience and luck. If you research a person and find he is dour, you have to do certain things to get a response. It is an emotional programme, without production double-think. You don't tell people they are the subject, and you always have the nightmare of them taking it into their heads to go off somewhere."

Or worse. As when Bernard Braden's grandson Alec blurted out the news to him that it would be his life two days hence, and Braden felt obliged to bow out.

The elaborate network had to be dismantled, all the travel arrangements of all the guests they had lined up had to be called off. That time they had a stand-by programme. When they don't they sweat all the way to the end of the programme.

Already they are planning the first three of the next series. All they will say is that there will be more live studio confrontations, more trips abroad, the same man – the unflappable Eamonn Andrews out front.

The team – researchers, investigators, programme organiser, secretaries – are off on holiday. They reassemble in July. "They must come back," said Malcolm Morris, "They are the ones who do all the work."