When a life hangs in the balance
TV Times
12 October 1985
TV Times: This Is Your Life article TV Times: This Is Your Life article TV Times: This Is Your Life article
Eamonn Andrews springing surprises on footballer Pat Jennings in 1983 and Des O'Connor on the first ITV This Is Your Life in 1969, with Lonnie Donegan
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By Cordell Marks

There was a scream. Not fear. Delight. A wife had said 'yes'. A new codeword would be required, past lives would be turned over, a pick-up point arranged. Softly, softly catchee the subjects of This Is Your Life, which starts its 17th ITV series on Wednesday night.

The scream was from a secretary in the programme's production office. The wife of a public figure, whom the 22-strong team of This Is Your Life had been trying to feature for years, had agreed to lure her husband to the programme. All that remained were those nail-biting weeks of setting up a surprise of a lifetime. Would the subject finally appear on This Is Your Life or would the secret be blown and the show scrapped?

Brian Klein, associate producer of the programme, says he feels like jumping off window ledges when the secrets go prematurely public. All that work, all that intrigue, all for nothing.

How does a secret get blown? Sometimes it is because of jealousy – a 'why should they be on the show?' attitude of a subject's colleague. Sometimes it is because a friend or relative feels that a potential subject will not enjoy all the emotion that goes with appearing on the show. But usually it is plain, painful bad luck.

A M15 man would be proud of the This Is Your Life set-up. The office is housed away from the main television company of Thames TV; the fewer people who know what is going on, the better the security.

Operations do go horribly wrong, though. Spike Milligan's This Is Your Life went wrong. A researcher was tailing him on the day he was to be on the programme, to ensure that Milligan made all the moves that the team had planned for him. Late in the afternoon there was a phone call from the researcher to the Life office – from a police station. Spike Milligan had complained to the police about being followed. The researcher had been forced to confess all. End of programme. [Bigredbook.info editor: Actually the programme did go ahead - read more about this incident here]

Somebody, to this day no one knows who, wrote on a dressing-room window at a theatre where Derek Nimmo was appearing, the words: 'Beware, Eamonn Andrews next week.' Nimmo, out of fairness, told the production team and the programme was cancelled.

Bernard Braden, set up to be a subject, received a phone call which he thought was from an acquaintance, but was, in fact, from a researcher, inviting him for an evening of cards the following week. 'Are we free that night?' he called out to his wife Barbara Kelly. 'No,' said his grandchild who was also in the room with him. 'You're on This Is Your Life.' Window-jumping time again for Brian Klein.

Ronnie Barker opened a drawer in his wife's dressing table, and found a man's business card tucked among the underwear. He phoned the number on it, and ended up talking to another This Is Your Life researcher and rubbing out weeks of work.

'Directly a subject has an inkling that they are going to be on the programme,' says Klein, 'that's it. We scrap it.'

Occasionally, the luck is with them. Des O'Connor's This Is Your Life came from the London Palladium where he was doing a season. Just before his stage show he walked out of the theatre for a breath of air and half thought he had seen a coach full of his old friends and relatives. He thought he was dreaming and forgot about it.

Afterwards, when the truth came out and he realised what he had seen, he said it was like the sensation you're supposed to feel when you're drowning and all your past life flashes by. 'All my past life,' says Des, 'went rushing past in a coach!'

Football goalkeeper Pat Jennings was 'done' the night he played for Arsenal against his former club, Spurs. At the end of the game Eamonn Andrews was supposed to walk on the pitch and confront him. But 20 minutes before the whistle, Jennings was involved in a sickening clash and seemed injured.

Would he have to be stretchered off? No, Jennings was fine. He wasn't aware of it, but he had saved a goal and a programme.

Kathy Staff, famous as Nora Batty in BBC's Last of the Summer Wine and for her appearances in ITV's Crossroads, was taken by a friend to Harrods for her confrontation with Andrews. The plan was for the friend to guide her to one of the two lifts and out would pop the man with the red book.

Panic. The friend was walking her towards the wrong lift. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Brian Klein signalling like a windmill. She moved to the correct lift. The programme was saved.

The researcher who worked on Elaine Stritch's planned This Is Your Life almost jumped out of the window with Klein. He phoned London's Savoy Hotel where, at the time, she had a permanent booking, asked for her room and someone with a deep voice answered the phone and gave the correct room number. The researcher presumed – always a mistake with this show – that he was talking to her husband and explained how he needed his help for a This Is Your Life on his wife.

'This,' said the deep voice, 'is Elaine Stritch.'