Mr Crawshaw... This is your nightmare
The Daily Telegraph
14 March 1977
The Daily Telegraph: This Is Your Life article
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Leonard Sachs

Mr Crawshaw... This is your nightmare

By Peter Knight

The Edwardian bus edged its way round Marble Arch in the scramble of the rush hour, eventually inching itself into a mews well tucked away from the traffic. Inside, the passengers and crew, all dressed in Edwardian costume, breathed a sigh of relief that they had reached their destination on time. Now all they had to do was wait.

In a few minutes, if all went according to plan, out from one of the houses would stroll Leonard Sachs, genial chairman of "The Good Old Days." They would quickly surround him and the bus conductor would amble forward and with a smile of triumph greet him with the words. "Leonard SachsThis Is Your Life."

It would be another coup for Eamonn Andrews, and a programme which prides itself on always – well, almost always – getting its man. But on this occasion, just before the unsuspecting Mr Sachs was about to leave the house where he had been talking with his agent, something went dreadfully wrong. The gremlins had got at the television equipment, hidden away waiting to film the encounter.

A quick phone call was put through to the agent telling him to make what excuses he liked but at all costs to keep Mr Sachs there a little longer. It took just five minutes to get the equipment working, and, as viewers who watched last Wednesday's programme will know, the meeting was duly chronicled for all time as part of television's folklore.

But for Jack Crawshaw, the programme's unflappable producer, it was one of the longest five minutes he has spent lately. After producing the programme for three years he is no stranger to suspense and last-minute drama, but this was the closest call he can remember for some time.

Looking back on it, he can manage a wry smile, but at the time he had visions of months of hard work being ruined. The impact of that first meeting when Mr Andrews casts aside his disguise and emerges from the shadows is the big surprise of the programme. Without it, whatever follows must be a bit of an anti-climax.

For surprise is the one essential, dominating ingredient. If the subject gets the slightest whisper that the hot seat is being prepared for him, the project is immediately scrapped.

Recently Derek Nimmo was lined up, with everything arranged to the last detail. It seemed that nothing could go wrong. But it did. Some jolly joker wrote to Mr Nimmo warning him to beware of the coming Wednesday. The programme was cancelled.

Each show is born out of meetings held every Thursday at Thames Television's studios in Euston Road, London. The gestation period may take several months. At these meetings everyone from researcher to director, script secretary to programme consultant, Mr Andrews to Mr Crawshaw chips in.

They pick on, say, Joe Bloggs – who is immediately given a code name to protect the secrecy (Mr Sachs was known as "Variety") – and Mr Andrews is "Fred" in all discussions outside the meetings.

A researcher is detailed to make preliminary inquiries. His first job is to contact someone close to Bloggs – wife, mother, best friend – to find out if they think he would have any objection. Although being chosen is reckoned these days to be something of an accolade, there are still some people who jib at the idea of having their life's history paraded for the curiosity and delight of 20 million viewers.

"We are not in the business to force ourselves on people," says Mr Crawshaw. "If we are told that the person is not one who takes kindly to surprises or tributes then we drop the idea at the start. After all the whole idea of the programme is to give the person a party in his honour and if he is not going to enjoy it then there is little point in giving it."

But if Bloggs is reckoned to be a suitable case for treatment then the researcher goes ahead and prepares an outline on a programme. If everything looks reasonably secure, with people available and Bloggs himself nicely lined up for the rendezvous, then a date is fixed.

It sounds simple, but a hundred-and-one things can go wrong between this decision and the programme reaching the screen. Everyone taking part is sworn to secrecy.

Then there is the problem of getting everyone to the studios and quietly hidden away so that Bloggs catches no glimpse of them when he eventually arrives.

The first time Mr Crawshaw allows himself a sigh of relief is when the credits finally roll at the end of the programme.

"Even when you have everything planned and prepared in the studio, everyone there ready to go on, you never quite know what might happen. It is, after all, a once-in-a-lifetime situation for everyone and you can never really predict how people are going to react."

But usually everything goes off with clockwork precision. Bloggs enjoys his moment of self-centred glory, has a drink with his relatives and friends after the show and picks up a nominal fee of £50 for his trouble. He also gets the book that is handed to him at the end – after Mr Andrews's script has been replaced by pictures taken during the show – and a tape recording of everything said on it

The guests receive only their expenses, on the principle that it would be wrong to pay them fees: some suspicious people might suggest that they would not say all those nice things if it was not for the money.

And it is all those nice things that some sceptical viewers find hard to take, criticising the programme for being soft-centred and showing only the good side of a person. But Mr Crawshaw is unrepentant: "We try to present a celebration of a person's achievements rather than an assessment of them or a comprehensive biography. To throw in unhappy memories or embarrassing moments from his life would be most unfair."

"After all, the whole programme is built on trust between those who make it and those who appear on it. People take part because they trust us and it would be quite wrong and unethical if we betrayed that trust."