This Is Your Life
Daily Mail
30 July 1993
This Is Your Life Big Red Book
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It has been the most enduring of all television programmes. It's been killed off, moved from channel to channel, suffered endless embarrassments and some disasters, but it has never died.

Now, after 38 years This Is Your Life is returning to the BBC, where it was first launched, under an £800,000 deal. A new 26-week run will begin in the autumn, so in anticipation we open the Red Book on the programme. This is your life, . . . This Is Your Life.

It all began in 1955, and your first host was Ralph Edwards, an American who had devised the format for American radio. The first victim was Eamonn Andrews, who took over as presenter a couple of months later.

In 1964, the BBC killed you off after nine years and 255 programmes. If you'll remember, you had run out of subjects because you were not allowed to feature controversial public figures, and the supply of do-gooders, war heroes, showbusiness stars and very old actors was soon exhausted.

BUT just four years later, you got the kiss of life - rather belatedly, it is true - when Eamonn took your format to Thames TV, then a new London-based commercial station.

Thames's first victim was Des O'Connor, who was trying to sing at the London Palladium when the big Red Book was thrust under his nose.

Many of your planned programmes had to be scrapped because the 'stars' found out about them beforehand. But after you abandoned the planned programme on Derek Nimmo, believing he had been tipped off about it, you found out that he had not known a thing and the show could have gone ahead after all.

Some stars were dropped for more regal reasons. In 1960, the Queen's dressmaker, Norman Hartnell, had to be dropped from the programme on the advice of the Lord Chamberlain, who said that appearing on the show could threaten Hartnell's Royal Warrant, granted to him in 1940.

Only two people have refused your advances. In 1961, Tottenham Hotspur Captain Danny Blanchflower made a dash for the door screaming 'Let me Out' when Eamonn appeared with his Red Book.

And in 1974, Richard Gordon, author of Doctor In The House, said, after hearing Eamonn's signature words 'This is your life': 'Oh balls, it's not.'

Six weeks later, Danny Blanchflower managed to set another precedent for you when he became the only person whom the programme makers actually asked to appear. He still refused.

His agent later explained it was because Danny didn't actually like you as a programme, and nor did he like the notion of looking into a person's past.

The show is the source of at least one romance. After appearing together to pay tribute to the warden of the Aberlour orphanage where they had grown up, orphans Danny and Ethel Morris fell in love and were married a year later.

You may remember unorthodox soldier Colonel Alfred Wintle, who showed more aplomb than some other of your 'victims'. Wisecracking all the way through the show, his jokes peaked when Aly Khan appeared on the television screen from Monte Carlo saying piously: 'I wish I could be there.' 'Well,' said the colonel, 'why aren't you? You can afford it, after all.'

Nineteen years after he became your first victim, Eamonn became the second person to be featured twice on the show. In 1974, he was lured to the studio under the impression that he was to make a guest appearance on a David Nixon show. 'When David Nixon threw the book at me, I thought for several minutes it was a gag,' he recalled later.

The first person to be featured twice was Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby, who was featured on his retirement in 1971, 13 years after he was first told 'This is your life.'

Eamonn's diplomacy was brought to good use more than once. He needed all his skills the night that the man picked to be that evening's 'hit' walked into the hotel bar where the show was to be filmed with his mistress, while his wife and family were hidden away in another room for a last-minute run-through.

Even worse was the time you had the wrong man. Remember the time you were planning to feature a war hero who was the star of his village in Scotland, when, two weeks before the show, you realised the real hero was the man's twin brother - now dead - and that your 'hero' had been pretending to be his brother for the last 40 years.

Your policy is never to show the skeletons in your subject's cupboards, a tradition which has brought you equal amounts of scorn and respect.

But you never expected the policy to backfire quite as badly as it did when you featured actor Alec McCowen but diplomatically kept quiet the fact that he was gay and that his lover, Geoff Burridge, had died of AIDS.

McCowen was furious at the omission and insisted the show be scrapped, saying it was a 'sham and an insult'. It was saved only after the producers agreed to insert a short tribute to Burridge at the end of the programme.

The ages of your victims span seven decades. The youngest to appear was Twiggy, who was featured when she was 20, drawing complaints that she was too young to have had a life. The oldest person to be featured was Dame Eva Turner, who appeared when she was 91. [ 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. And a 100-year-old cricketer, Joe Filliston, became the show's oldest subject in April of the same year, 1962.]

Eamonn used to affect the most imaginative disguises to get close to his subjects. He was tied up in a sack to surprise David Nixon, he dressed as an airline steward for Shirley Bassey, an astronaut for Patrick Moore, and an Arab - complete with camel - for former Desert Rat and Coronation Street star Bill Roache. Embarrassingly, just as Bill stepped out of the Rover's Return, the camel broke wind.

That was the time, too, that it was proved that the famous Red Book is really an empty vessel. As Eamonn waited for Bill Roache, he realised he had lost the book. At the last minute, producer Malcolm Morris found a red accountant's ledger, so they used that instead - it worked just as well.

Your most bemused victim was Lord Mountbatten who, when Eamonn leapt on him with the infamous words, replied: 'What do you mean?' It transpired he had never heard of the show.

Eamonn made more than 700 episodes of This Is Your Life before he died in 1987.

In 1988, Michael Aspel took over the show, earning £15,000 per appearance for the initial 20-programme run. Noel Edmonds, Leslie Crowther and Michael Parkinson were other contenders.

Aspel's first show was nearly a disaster when his 'guest', actor Barry Foster - star of the ITV Dutch series Van der Valk - refused at first to appear, screaming: 'You know what you can do with that book!'

In the end, Foster was persuaded to continue with the show, and all the nasty bits were edited out. [ editor: Actually Michael's first show featured Mickey Rooney; Barry Foster was surprised in 1991!]

Gary Glitter's reaction was even more dramatic when Michael approached him on stage at the end of a successful concert. Gary burst into tears and raced from the stage, but was later persuaded to return.

In 1989, a planned This Is Your Life on jockey John Francome had to be scrapped at the last minute after he separated from his wife, Miriam, and rumours began about her involvement with trainer Charlie Brooks.

Frankie Vaughan is the only star to have appeared on the British and American versions of the show. He appeared in the U.S. after making the movie Let's Make Love with Marilyn Monroe.

In 1986, you involuntarily helped police with their inquiries after a chief suspect, a young teenage burglar, appeared as a guest on the show when his grandmother, East End romantic novelist Lena Kennedy, was being featured.

As you know, Michael Aspel will host ITV's last 26 week run in the autumn before you transfer to BBC1. We wish you all the best. This Is Your Life.