Secret names that have special meaning
TV Times
15 November 1986
TV Times: This Is Your Life article TV Times: This Is Your Life article TV Times: This Is Your Life article
This Is Your Life victims are codenamed - to ensure anonymity. Donald Sinden was called Butler, a reference to his role in Two's Company
TV Times: This Is Your Life article TV Times: This Is Your Life article
Chas n Dave (top) were codenamed Couple during the research stages of This Is Your Life. Eamonn Andrews presented them with the Big Red Book last year. In April this year, Eamonn paid a visit to the London Palladium to surprise celebrated actor Denis Quilley, codenamed Pen, star of the hit musical La Cage aux Folles
TV Times: This Is Your Life article
1974: Eamonn Andrews had the tables turned on him by David Nixon
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Secret names that have special meaning

Eamonn Andrews and the This Is Your Life team are masters at not letting the cat out of the bag. They have to be. David James Smith explains why, and reveals the secrets behind TV's most secretive show.

Working on This Is Your Life does not require Special Branch training or the signing of the Official Secrets Act, but it does demand a reasonable flair for subterfuge.

Letting cats out of bags or spilling beans will not bring down governments, but it might ruin a programme, spoil someone's special night, and waste a lot of Thames Television's money.

The secrets of This Is Your Life, on ITV, Wednesday, are, of course, the identities of the subjects of the shows. Until Eamonn Andrews pops out from behind the rubber plant clutching a big red book and uttering the time-honoured words, no one outside the production team, or the invited guests, must know the name of the subject. (Andrews and the Life team prefer the word 'subjects', rather than 'victims'.)

'I think everyone now realises,' says Andrews, 'that it really is a secret, and the subject never knows in advance. It has to be that way; the programme wouldn't be so much fun if it wasn't.'

Each show takes anything from two months to a year to prepare, and involves the team in all manner of furtive research, such as clandestine meetings and phone calls with the subject's partner, who is invariably the key to the programme. As a result, Andrews says, the subject's suspicions are sometimes aroused – but often misdirected. 'One showman was very close to ending his marriage before we sprang the surprise. He thought his wife was being unfaithful.'

When Lionel Jeffries' life was being prepared, Andrews recalls, a researcher went to his home, expecting the actor to be out. 'Jeffries answered the door, so the researcher said. "Oh, er, just checking the gas". "Well, I don't know what you're doing here, we're all electric," was the reply.'

'These things don't mean much at the time, but if they happen more than once, people can become suspicious. There may be strange phone calls, wrong numbers, and only afterwards the subject will say, "Ah, that's why I thought my partner was having an affair".'

It doesn't happen often, but if the subjects do find out, the programme is dropped instantly. 'I think the days of the vindictive secret breakers are gone.' says Andrews. 'People realise they will only spoil things; spoil what we hope will be one of the memorable experiences in a person's life. I can remember someone telling Bernard Braden and Derek Nimmo, and though the first was innocent, the second was malicious.'

'When we work on a programme we tell the people involved that we're planning a tribute which will be lost to their friend or relative if they blow it.'

From the beginning of the research, each subject is given a codename, and only ever referred to by that name.

'We do it to protect against anyone who would maliciously or innocently give the game away. Obviously, with so much to do, the name is being used constantly. If somebody overheard the real name, it would be tempting to pass it on, or easily let it slip.'

Normally, it is the researchers who invent the codenames. Usually they are a simple pun or word association. So Bob Geldof became Mice (from Boomtown Rats), Denis Quilley was Pen, Richard Vernon was Pools, Chas n Dave were Couple, Donald Sinden was Butler.

Andrews says he is presented with a list of codenames at the start of work for a new series, and has to carry around a code-breaker list, because he often forgets who is who. Andrews himself used to be referred to as Fred (and maybe still is – but that's a secret).

While this story was being prepared Eamonn Andrews delved back into the This Is Your Life files to discover what his codename had been when he was the victim, sorry, subject.

'My name was Miracle, meaning it would be a miracle if they could pull it off without my finding out. And they nearly didn't: I came into the office unexpectedly one day, and in the very next room, they were planning my programme, with photographs of me laid out all over the desk.'