The deuce of a job getting Ginny's jigsaw to fit
TV Times
21 October 1978
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Producing Life

the producers who steered the programme's success

The Big Red Book

the programme's icon

Dan Maskell

Angela Rippon

Virginia Wade

by Joyce Robins

Set-backs, last-minute panics, weeks of round-the-world sleuthing are all routine for the This Is Your Life team. They're used to living on a knife-edge until the final moment Eamonn Andrews springs the big surprise and the cameras are rolling. But producer Jack Crawshaw admits that "Project Sixteen" was extra-special. Bringing the pieces of that particular jigsaw puzzle together brought so many headaches, it's branded on his memory for ever. When he called the vital first conference of the new season, on July 18 1977, one name was top of everybody's list: Virginia Wade, who had just battled through to win her first Wimbledon singles title. They all agreed it was the hottest story they could find to launch the new series on November 23. Secrecy, as always, was paramount: if the secret was broken, the show was off. So from that moment on it was known as "Project Sixteen" – for Virginia's 16 tries at the Wimbledon title. The months of work began...

JULY 22, ENGLAND: Researcher Debbie Gaunt spent a day with Virginia's parents in their rambling old house in Kent. Ginny's sister Judy and brother Chris, on leave from working in Saudi Arabia, were there, too, so she picked up lots of childhood stories, old snaps from the family album, clues for other contacts.

It all sounded great – until she hit one big snag. Virginia was now living in New York, and wouldn't be in England again before the crucial date.

Back in London, there was a hasty meeting. Could they afford to lose the biggest story of the year? They decided they couldn't. Instead, for the first time, they would take the whole show to New York. They would turn everything on its head: instead of flying overseas guests in to London, they'd be flying all the English guests to America.

AUGUST/SEPTEMBER: Debbie's job was to contact everyone who could tell her anything about Virginia – any throw-away or chance remark could turn up an important lead.

There was Virginia's former headmistress Marjorie Hazell; the obvious top names from tennis – friend and rival Billie-Jean King, doubles partner Francoise Durr, commentator and coach Dan Maskell - and scores of others.

The real detective work started in South Africa, where Virginia spent her childhood.

At the age of 10, she won her first tournament in Durban. Debbie tracked it down by contacting every club in Durban, then set off on the trail of Virginia's old friends there.

A routine call to other old friends, still living on the Queenstown farm where Virginia spent her early school holidays, turned up the biggest scoop. "Auntie Gertie" Filmer had vivid memories of little Virginia on the tennis court – after all, it was her husband Jim who first put the racquet in her hand when she was seven. Jim Filmer, at 82, was frail and too deaf to talk on the phone so Debbie collected his reminiscences second-hand through Gertie. But, frail or not, he was game to travel if it meant seeing Virginia again.

Debbie had found two of the show's key guests.

OCTOBER 1: Jack Crawshaw, Programme Associate Kay Bird, director Royston Mayoh, engineer Mike Coxill and Debbie flew to New York, setting up headquarters in the Hilton Hotel. Within the week they had fixed a studio, got in preliminary drawings for a set, arranged cars to ferry guests around, hotel rooms where they could hide out, even arranged to lay on an audience of tennis fans.

OCTOBER 3, AMERICA: Crawshaw tracked down Bob Howe from Dunlop, one of Virginia's sponsors, en route from California to London, and had a secret meeting in New York.

Through Howe they planned to spring the big surprise. They mapped out every step: Howe and Virginia were to meet for lunch in mid-November in a glass-sided restaurant in Central Park. Cameras set up on a park-side skyscraper would zoom in on the scene, ready for Eamonn Andrews and his red book to pop up from behind the sweet trolley.

OCTOBER 4: Debbie fixed a chilly rendezvous in Central Park with Mary Lou Mellace, who was working on a book with Virginia. It was the safest place they could find; at the Hilton they might be spotted; at Mary Lou's flat Virginia might drop in.

Squirrels scattered hastily every time Debbie's bleeper – signalling her within 60 miles of the hotel when an important phone call came through – shrilled through the air.

OCTOBER 6: Debbie rang from Cleveland, Ohio, and told Crawshaw it was all off! All their careful plans went in ruins.

She had discovered that Virginia was in the running for the Daily Express Sports Personality of the Year award. She would be flying into London for the ceremony and flying back a few hours later.

The ceremony was in mid-November. It made nonsense of the idea of flying family and friends out to America just a couple of days later.

OCTOBER 7, ENGLAND: Crawshaw and Kay Bird, flying back to London overnight, arrived at 7am, went straight to the office for an emergency meeting. They phoned Canon Eustace Wade to find the official Daily Express invitation had just arrived and he was sending it on to Virginia.

They spent two days of frantic telephoning – Chris Wade in Saudi Arabia, the Filmers in South Africa, the English guests who were busy getting American visas, planning American holidays – saying: "Hang on, we're in trouble!"

Then they waited for a miracle while Debbie went on a whistle-stop tour of America, still lining up guests for a show that might never happen.

OCTOBER 7, AMERICA: The top women tennis players assembled for a tournament in Atlanta, Georgia. Debbie slipped quietly into a dressing room and collected Billie-Jean King's and Francoise Durr's memories of matches against Virginia.

OCTOBER 8: Debbie flew from Atlanta to Dallas, where she had fixed to see Maureen Connolly's husband Norman Brinker. No programme about Virginia would be complete without memories of Little Mo, her friend, coach and advisor, who died eight years ago.

That same day she was back at the airport for a flight back to New York, but not before she'd kept a rendezvous – at the third pillar on the left past the coffee shop – with a clergyman who had known Virginia as a child.

The next day, after a long chat with Little Mo's daughter Cindy, at University in Virginia, she flew back to London.

OCTOBER 14, ENGLAND: Jack Crawshaw, after a week of worry heard that Virginia had entered the Bremar Cup tournament at Crystal Palace, London, in early December. It wasn't a miracle – but putting out Virginia's story later was a lot better than nothing. Jack cancelled all American arrangements and rescheduled the whole thing to take place on December 7, in London.

OCTOBER 15-18, AMERICA: Billie-Jean King had entered the Bremar tournament – but Francoise Durr hadn't. Debbie, ringing her home in Phoenix, Arizona, found she was on a world tour. Debbie rang her in Bali only to find she'd left for Singapore. In Singapore they said she'd gone to Hong Kong first. It was three days before she tracked her down and waited with bated breath while Francoise flipped through her diary. December 7 she would be in Dehli – but yes, she would fly to London specially for the programme. Debbie heaved a sigh of relief.

OCTOBER / NOVEMBER: There was still another great tennis name Crawshaw and Co. badly wanted to add. Russian player Olga Morozova was one of Virginia's closest friends, but Olga was back behind the Iron Curtain and in the early stages of pregnancy.

The Russian team organiser in Atlanta had done her best to help: Debbie came away with a list of officials to contact and telex messages translated into impeccable Russian. Billie-Jean's husband Larry managed to get a message to Olga, but telexes, phone calls and letters failed to melt official hearts. Russian rules were strict: pregnant sportswomen were not allowed to travel – ever.

NOVEMBER 25, ENGLAND: A camera crew filmed a special tennis match at the Wade's Kent home, with Virginia's six little nephews and nieces as the players. None of them had the faintest idea what it was all about, but they all enjoyed themselves tremendously anyway.

DECEMBER 2: Filming the pupils of Virginia's old school in Tunbridge Wells giving her a rousing cheer, when they didn't have any idea what they were cheering for, wasn't quite so easy. But if any of them guessed the secret, they kept it to themselves.

DECEMBER 6: Everything was running smoothly. Chris Wade had landed on schedule from Saudi Arabia. The Filmers had arrived from South Africa with 82-year-old Jim looking fit and sprightly. Norman Brinker from Dallas and his daughter Cindy from Virginia were already at the hotel. All the English guests – the Wade family, headmistress Marjorie Hazell, Wightman Cup colleagues such as Winnie Wooldridge and Christine Janes – were safely on their way.

At 1.30pm the phone rang. The driver meeting Franciose Durr at Heathrow Airport in London reported that she hadn't arrived. She had been paged through the airport loud-speakers; Debbie stood by, ready for emergency round-the-world phone calls. Ten minutes later the phone rang again: "What's happened to the driver?" asked Francoise from the airport. Everybody breathed again.

DECEMBER 7: At 5pm, Angela Rippon – who had been tipped off in advance by Jack Crawshaw – was to make a special Jubilee presentation to Virginia on court at Crystal Palace. At a given signal from director Royston Mayoh, Eamonn Andrews, who had been smuggled in through a private entrance, was ready to sprint through the crowd on to the court.

But the schedule ran late and Virginia's 'thank you' speech went on and on. By the time Eamonn stepped forward with his famous words, "Virginia Wade – this is your life," it was approaching 6pm with a live show due to go out to 20 million viewers in little more than an hour's time.

Then came the agonising slow crawl through rush-hour traffic, with Andrews and Crawshaw pale and shaken as 7pm edged nearer.

They arrived at the studio with five minutes to spare. To the watching millions it all looked so easy; another smooth-running show, with all the ingredients of drama, laughter and tears we've come to expect from This Is Your Life – as you can see on Wednesday when the team spring another surprise of a lifetime...