Secrets Of The Big Red Book
TV Times
26 September 1992
TV Times: This Is Your Life article
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...including the stars who said Not On Your Life!

Not a lot of viewers know this, but former US President Ronald Reagan was once the man with The Big Red Book ... he was a presenter on This Is Your Life.

Back in the days when he was still an actor, the man who would be president hosted two of the shows on American TV.

This Is Your Life, which began its life as a radio show, is the stuff of legend, of drama, tears and laughter.

On one of those early American shows a fight broke out between the man whose story was being told and one of his long-lost friends. It hasn't happened since but, Michael Aspel, watch out that history doesn't repeat itself in the new series you begin presenting on Wednesday!

The drama, however, isn't only on screen. It's there in the setting up of each programme, when friends and relatives are contacted and code-names are used in case subjects are in earshot. 'Queen' for Esther Rantzen, for instance, because her initials are E R, 'House' for the disgraced Robert Maxwell and 'Gale' for snooker's Alex Higgins.

The drama remains even when the show is over, when all those who take part are invited to a backstage party. Researchers once had the diplomatic task of ensuring that the lovers of a female subject didn't realise they were all in the same room!

After Bobby Davro's life had been recorded he proposed to long-time love Zoe Nicholas and announced their engagement.

The programme first began when the American World War Two General, Omar Bradley, suggested to producer Ralph Edwards a programme would raise his troops' morale. It told the life of a disabled soldier called Laurence Trantner and at the end of the show Edwards handed him his brief biography and said: 'Laurence Trantner – this is your life, past and present. Now what will the future be?'

After that the idea became a TV hit with Edwards presenting all the shows apart from the two which were fronted by Reagan.

The BBC and Eamonn Andrews, who died five years ago, introduced it to Britain in the mid-Fifties and ITV took it over in the late Sixties.

From its first episode, the people who should have been the subjects weren't necessarily the ones who appeared. The first British show should have told the life of football great Stanley Matthews. But Matthews was let into the secret, which blew the programme – though no one remembered to tell Eamonn Andrews!

When he read from The Big Red Book whose life it was to be, he was astonished that the name was... Eamonn Andrews!

Years later he was featured again. Dudley Moore is another who has been featured more than once.

The youngest subject, so far, was Twiggy when she was 20. Oldest, at 92, was West End star Cathleen Nesbitt.

[ editor: actually, the overall record holders appeared in the original BBC period (1955-1964): David Butler, who lost his legs in a mortar bomb explosion, was the programme's youngest subject at the age of 17. He was surprised in his headmaster's study in March 1962. A 100-year-old cricketer, Joe Filliston, became the show's oldest subject in April of the same year, 1962.]

Part of the legend of This Is Your Life is the time footballer Danny Blanchflower ran away when about to have The Big Red Book opened on him. Eamonn ran too. A researcher said it looked like the Keystone Cops, but Blanchflower never did the programme.

Doctor In The House author Richard Gordon said no at the very last second too, but went along with the show on another occasion. It was reported that Marlene Lauda, wife of racing driver Niki, let her husband into the secret that he was going to be featured because she knew he wouldn't enjoy it. The show was scrapped. And according to newspaper reports, Van der Valk star Barry Foster recently tried to get out of the show, but was talked into doing it.

Most subjects are delighted to be on This is Your Life. Terry Wogan says it was one of the happiest moments of his career. 'I just couldn't believe my wife had kept it secret for six weeks. We've never kept secrets from each other. I don't know how she did it.'

From the first series, critics have hammered it for being bland, and for not telling the warts-and-all aspects of the subjects' lives. But Malcolm Morris, the producer for more than 20 years, answers that easily 'If you're giving a surprise party for someone, would you invite people they didn't like? Would it make their evening if we produced a prison warder or an ex-wife or husband?'

So, starting this week The Big Red Book is going to be opened again. Gently...

Larry Ashe