This Is Your Life by Eamonn Andrews
10 May 1958
Weekend Magazine This Is Your Life article
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We thought he might have a heart attack – so we had a doctor standing by in the wings, just in case...

Here for the first time – the secrets of the famous TV programme.

'Some would have us believe that Anna Neagle was so prostrate after her programme she couldn't eat or sleep. In fact, we spent the evening laughing and joking about the happy memories the show had revived'

Weekend Magazine: This Is Your Life article
A tearful welcome from Diana Dors for her father, but we were wondering what she'd say to the Hollywood photographer who was supposed to have pushed her into a swimming pool

Some people who don't like the programme keep watching it, I know, in the hope that one day when I say the magic words: "This Is Your Life", the unsuspecting subject will slug me on the chin, and reply: "Not on your life."

I don't think it will ever happen. The programme is not only popular, but appreciated by those it brings into the spotlight.

This Is Your Life is MY life at the moment – and that's why I'm writing about it in WEEKEND.

I spend more time on it than on any other programme – whether it's the hectic Sports Report or Crackerjack or the placid but unpredictable What's My Line?

All week we search out stories, reading biographies and autobiographies, sifting press cuttings, holding conferences, alienating our wives by keeping secret the names of our subjects, and rehearsing the only show in the world that prepares without the principal actor.

Comedian Benny Hill once told me: "Everytime I see the words This Is Your Life zooming out at me from the screen, I automatically reach for my handkerchief."

But, believe me, we don't do all this work on the programme to make you cry.

We believe publicly what more people should believe privately. If you've something good to say about people, say it now – not wait until they're dead. If you can praise them, tell it to them personally.

But that's not the main reason for the programme.

We put it on because it's the most exciting television programme we know. It's not adapted from radio, theatre or cinema. It's pure television.

Weekend Magazine: This Is Your Life article
Anna Neagle was in tears during the programme. Viewers protested that it wasn't fair to put her to such an ordeal

Weekend Magazine: This Is Your Life article
Susan Ryder hated being in the limelight. Afterwards, she told Eamonn she was glad of the publicity given to her cause

Why is secrecy an essential part of the programme?

Why did we catch up with air-ace Colin Hodgkinson in a pub, drive blind David Bell on to the stage in a bubble car, surprise naturalist Peter Scott on a darkened stage, stop a pantomime in Edinburgh for Louie Ramsay, break down a boxing ring for Jack Petersen, interrupt a recording session for Anna Neagle... ?

Because, firstly, many of our modest subjects would have to say "no" if they knew we were about to pay them a public tribute.

Secondly, because it is a tribute – and a tribute is always better when it comes unexpected. If we suspect that the surprise might cause shock, we check the subject's doctor beforehand. In fact, once we learned that a subject – a famous person – suffered from heart attacks. We intended to cancel the show immediately, but his doctor urged us to go on, assuring us that the man would come to no harm.

We went ahead, but we took the precaution of having a doctor in the wings, just in case. The man enjoyed himself – and has never had a heart-attack since.

We don't always succeed in keeping our plans secret. Then we just have to cancel the programme and start thinking again.

There was a famous film actor who had a great wartime story to tell. We talked to his sister and asked her help on a programme that was almost ready.

"Give me a day to think," she asked. "I'm not sure it's a good idea."

We finger-tapped for 24 hours and called her back.

"No," she said, "I knew it wasn't a good idea. I checked with my brother and he's against it."

Her brother was only the man whose story we wanted to tell!

It's not always the subject that gives us the worries. When we told the story of Diana Dors, we flew in the photographer who was supposed to have pushed her into the swimming pool in Hollywood. After that incident, you may remember, Dennis Hamilton cracked him one on the chin!

Before our show the photographer, naturally, began to get nervous.

"I'm still sticking to it. I did not push her in that pool," he said.

The moment of tension passed. There were no more fisticuffs. But as he went off, slightly moist on the brow, he turned to me and said: "Next time you're over – drop in..."

This is our third series, but we have not yet had one person in the programme complain. In fact, all the subjects have told us how much they enjoyed seeing so many old friends again.

I know the feeling. I've not forgotten when Ralph Edwards came over from Hollywood and threw the 'book' at me. Admittedly, I was a hurried choice because the secret had slipped out about Stanley Matthews.

But since that day I've known how it feels when people from the past pop out from behind that curtain.

Despite the jokes we make, we never present the income tax collector, the hostile mother-in-law or the man who stole your best girl. Just friends and colleagues.

The only other times a man or a woman meets so many friends all at once are at weddings and funerals.

Weekend Magazine: This Is Your Life article
Norman Wisdom, whom we cornered for one programme, tries to laugh it off with David Nixon

Weekend Magazine: This Is Your Life article
At last, Lady Barbirolli can share the joke with her husband, conductor Sir John Barbirolli. She kept the BBC's secret for 16 days

Weekend Magazine: This Is Your Life article
The Reverend Brian Hession meets the man who helped to save his life – Dr John Howard Payne, flown specially from America

Maybe you think I was exaggerating when I said no one ever complained. Well, there were two apparent exceptions...

The first was Susan Ryder, that heroic girl who devotes her life to helping those refugees who are still in their thousands trying to find homes in Europe and about whom, to our shame, we have stilled the voice of conscience.

She hated the limelight.

But when she found that thousands were hearing about the problem for the first time and that hundreds rushed to offer help she changed her mind. She realised that in our own way we were trying to help, too...

We've been friends ever since – and none was prouder than the team of This Is Your Life when she was awarded the OBE a few months ago.

Then there was the Reverend Brian Hession, who made a seemingly miraculous recovery from cancer, and who devotes much of his spare time to the promotion of cancer research.

He was obviously reluctant to come on the stage. Afterwards, he said he was disappointed that he hadn't had the opportunity to say what he felt should be said.

But two hours after the show he rang me up at my home. He was having dinner with the old friends he'd met.

"People are telling me I looked annoyed when you brought me on stage. I'd like you to know this isn't true. And I want to say thank you because I know the programme is bound to do a lot of good."

Early in the series we presented the story of Ted Ray. He was invited to meet some Australian radio executives who were supposed to be discussing the purchase of British shows.

Every clock in Lime Grove was pushed on half-an-hour. So when it was casually suggested that the Australians might like to see the theatre, any suspicions Ted might have had were allayed by the time which showed This Is Your Life was already half over.

When he walked into the theatre, of course, we were only just starting.

You can't work this trick twice. We've had to get out of London several times to maintain the surprise element – to Manchester for Sir John Barbirolli, Norman Wisdom and Matt Busby.

We went to Queens College, Taunton, to tell a 'Mr Chips' story. Retired school master 'Dapper' Channon was the subject and the whole programme came from the school assembly hall.

Two hours later he came up to me at the party in his honour and I could hardly believe what he was saying.

"This was a great night. But I thought it was just put on by the school to mark my retirement. I've just been told we were on television! What a surprise!"

And what about Anna Neagle...? Some would have us believe she was so prostrate after the programme she couldn't eat or sleep.

In fact, Anna and her husband, Herbert Wilcox, came home with me afterwards late that night. My wife prepared coffee and sandwiches and we stayed up until the small hours chatting and talking and (believe it or not) laughing over the happy memories the programme had unlocked for this lovely lady.

So don't be fooled by tears.

Don't forget we've had more laughs on the programme than I'd care even to count.

There was the day the late, great C B Fry, full of beans for all his 80 odd years, stopped me in full eloquent flight with: "Young man, do you mind if I get a word in?"

Remember the boxing ring in South Wales with a famous old time referee paying tribute to the former British boxing champion Jack Petersen?

The words escaped him. So I nudged him on with:

"What about Jack as a heavyweight?"

He was off again with:

"Jack would've been the greatest heavyweight in the world today – if he were still alive!"

This is MY life. I'm pleased to share it with you this time.

The one that got away

Trust Gilbert Harding! We had a surprise programme set up for him – and at the last moment he found us out!

We knew we'd never succeed in getting him to the theatre unawares. So producer Leslie Jackson hit on a brilliant idea.

We'd film the programme immediately after What's My Line?

I'd stand up, walk across to Gilbert and pin him to his desk with This Is Your Life.

But we reckoned without a former pupil of Gilbert, who, as you probably know, used to be a school teacher.

The young man, who came from Cyprus, didn't quite understand the programme.

So, days before we were ready to start, he rang up Gilbert to check with him some of the points he intended to make on the programme.

It was pointless to go on.

Luckily, we were able to make a switch.

Circus king Billy Smart was the celebrity on What's My Line?

Shortly after the programme was over and before the audience had left the theatre, we had a press photographer call Billy back on to the stage for a picture.

I was waiting with the all-important book...