Me, calm? I couldn't be more nervous
TV Times
29 January 1994
TV Times: Michael Aspel article TV Times: Michael Aspel article
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Michael Aspel

a career review

Michael Aspel

his 1980 This Is Your Life appearance

The Big Red Book

the programme's icon

Gary Glitter

Me, calm? I couldn't be more nervous

By Larry Ashe

Whether on his chat show or surprising victims with the Red Book, Michael Aspel isn't always as in control as he appears.

It's difficult to imagine smooth Michael Aspel in a state of nervous agitation, but that's how he was as his ITV chat show, Aspel & Company, neared its end last May.

Real conversation on the show became rare. Stars wouldn't appear unless they could plug their products and finally it seemed as though the guests thought of the show as just another advert. This was never more so than when Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger came to plug their new London restaurant, Planet Hollywood.

'My nerves before a show grew increasingly worse,' says Michael, who announced he was quitting the chat show host's chair in September last year after 10 series. 'I don't sweat or twitch, but I go into a catatonic trance. My dressing-room door would be opened and there would be me – looking like I'd been dead for three months.'

'I'd feel so low I'd have to get up and dance about, shadow-box, anything to get the blood moving. It wasn't fear of being overwhelmed by the guests, but fear of whether anything worthwhile was going to happen.'

'When the series finished – and, I hasten to add, the decision was mutual – the sense of relief was enormous.'

Michael is honest and capable of self-mockery. How does he see himself? 'As a bright, young star,' he answers, but the presenter of ITV's This Is Your Life laughs as he says it.

He celebrated his 61st birthday in January and has been broadcasting for more than 40 years. He is astonishingly frank about his career: 'I don't have a memorable face. I don't have a big hooter or a flourishing moustache, and I'm not big and imposing. I once said people never get tired of me because some of them couldn't remember seeing me in the first place!'

'But I'm still terribly interested in what I do. There are some new programmes, apart from This Is Your Life, coming along that I'm involved in and I've discovered abilities that I didn't know I possessed.'

'The label "bland" has sometimes been used about me and it used to make me writhe with annoyance. Now I accept it's quite true and there's no harm in that.'

'It's not a pleasant description, but I see people's point of view. I mean, I'm not a naturally excitable person. I underplay things, and so people don't notice I'm capable of cracking a joke or saving programmes which are on the point of collapse. People only see this rather inoffensive bloke and think, how boring.'

'But that's their problem. I don't go along with the idea that I'm a soulless personality. I have a great conceit of myself, really, otherwise I couldn't do what I do.'

He laughs again as he says he thinks he is still fairly young for his age. 'I'm shocked when I look in the mirror, but I still feel young.'

'I have a young family now [sons Patrick, 13, and Daniel, nine] and we have silly fun together and I have great times with them as I did with my grown-up children.'

Michael, married to actress Elizabeth Power since 1978, has two sons, Gregory and Richard by his first wife Dian, and twins Edward and Jane by his second wife Ann. The success of his career has been weighted by sadness though. Patrick has cerebral palsy and, tragically, Gregory died of cancer five years ago at the age of 29.

'I've sat at too many death beds in the last few years, and I don't just mean family, but once you reach a certain age people start to go. But I think I'm still fairly genial, I stay optimistic...'

Things are looking up for Patrick at the moment – he recently began attending a college equipped for his special needs.

A tabloid newspaper played up a quote from Lizzie saying she and Michael 'crept out of the building feeling like two murderers' after their son became a boarder.

Michael won't be drawn into commenting on the story. He and Lizzie quietly want to do the best for their son. Patrick comes home every weekend and is making good progress. 'He's got a great facility for languages,' says his father. 'In spite of his disability he could be a fine broadcaster.'

About his wife, Michael says, 'Lizzie became more famous in 18 months in Eastenders as Mrs Hewitt than I did in 30 years, and that's great. I couldn't be more happy for her.'

Right now, Michael is enjoying himself once again opening the Red Book on This Is Your Life – now in its 39th year. Here again, his calm exterior hides an anxious man. When he pounces on a victim, he sometimes has to wear a disguise. But he suffers from claustrophobia and if he has to wear an all-enveloping costume, he is likely to be anxious.

He once had to dress up as glove puppet Sooty and had to plead with the costume department: 'Leave the seam of Sooty's thumb undone so that I can get to the zip. Otherwise I'm going to panic.'

Michael doesn't let his worries show through on screen. And he doesn't become twitchy on those rare occasions when 'victims' say they don't want to do the programme.

'If someone didn't want to do This Is Your Life I'd simply say sorry and withdraw.'

'I was once reported as having spent an hour trying to persuade Gary Glitter to do the show after he made out he was reluctant to do it. But the truth is, I wouldn't spend one second trying to get someone to change their mind.'

'I enjoy it enormously,' he says. 'I did so many years of quite serious programmes, but the real me is quite facetious and showbizzy. I like fun. Simple as that...'