Is This The Best TV Can Do?
The Stage
4 December 1958
The Stage This Is Your Life review
Eamonn Andrews presents the This Is Your Life book to Ted Ray, who was one of the 'victims'
related pages...

2. This Is Your Life

This week WILFRED ALTMAN takes a look at another TV programme which he considers falls below standard. A programme which doesn't rely on artists can only be harmful to the profession.

I suspect a single thought fortifies millions of good and simple-minded men and women who wake up Monday mornings suffering from "the blues." This is the thought, normally reserved for over-lusty infants, that before the day is through there'll be tears. To be precise, what stimulates and sustains them is the certain knowledge that "tonight I'll have a good cry."

And indeed, as sure as Sunday night is Palladium night, Monday night is the night of television's own favourite tear-jerker – This Is Your Life.

Week after week, some unsuspecting personality will be hauled to the BBC studios on one pretext or another, to be subjected to a cruel bout of publicly exposed dissection. In the process, even the most hardened professional performer seldom retains his composure, and many lesser victims crumble completely, overwhelmed in turn by shock and fear and the prospect of making utter asses of themselves.

And how the public revels! The more the shock, discomfort and embarrassment displayed by the victim, the more they love it. The odious recollections of a happily forgotten friendship, revived memories of unhappy adolescence, painful relationships long cast out of mind – all these incidents re-lived on the screen are gobbled-up and gloated over.

The spectacle of a fellow human being's embarrassment or sign of emotion, trembling or joy appears to offer the best devised show yet for mass-exploitation of morbid curiosity.

There is, of course, the added attraction of Mr Eamonn Andrews, who see-saws brilliantly from the suave and the slick to the shockingly brash, including such inept reminders as "at this stage you had T.B." and "that was the time when you couldn't have children."

What I find saddening about this dreadful tearjerker which the BBC stages in the name of entertainment is that its intricate humanism evokes the very feature so many other programmes lack: the knock to arouse a definite reaction – emotion. It doesn't encourage viewers to think, to enjoy, to laugh. Rather it arouses sentimentality, sympathy and snobbism.

It's a curious fate of irony that such an exhibition should provoke so much feeling while writers, producers and actors plod on relentlessly to create some such effect.

But let there be no doubt at all that much of the appeal of this programme lies in its ability to draw on viewer's insatiable addiction to shockers, shocks and the shocking.

When I saw an unsuspecting housewife brought on to the programme one recent Monday, I wriggled uneasily in my chair as I watched her extreme amazement and utter discomfort at being on the programme at all and at the pretext which brought her along. "But this is cruel," she exclaimed in a horror-stricken voice. "...please." She seemed half inclined to march straight out and very nearly did. Apparently, she'd been invited to broadcast on amateur dramatics during the afternoon, and did in fact ask for tickets to watch the transmission of This Is Your Life. An odd coincidence. However, she was told there was some doubt whether tickets would be available. Heaven knows what would have happened if at this stage she would have disappeared, collected her hat and coat and caught the next train home.

But she stayed; we watched her enter the studio, blinded by the piercing light and, despite protests, bravely face the public dissection of her life. A matron, an old friend of the victim, came in first – presumably to help her regain confidence and composure. Then a war-time A.R.P. warden, an A.R.P. boy and a former employer took their turn to pay glowing tributes, and they were followed by a formidable lady who knew something of the victim's work in amateur dramatics.

It was all very flattering, moving and above all embarrassing. I don't think the subject of This Is Your Life (as Mr Andrews repeated over and over again, like a brainwashing process) fully recovered from the shock of not knowing who might turn up next until her husband came along, sat by her and relieved her of incredible tension. Not to mention embarrassment.

Yet therein lies the programme's appeal!