This was his life
The Stage
4 July 2002
The Stage: Eamonn Andrews article
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Eamonn Andrews

a brief biography

The Legend That Was Eamonn Andrews

a celebration to mark the presenter's centenary year

A Life Remembered

tributes to the original presenter

Maurice Leonard

the researcher's story

Barbara Kelly

Joe Loss

Dinah Sheridan

Always a consummate professional Eamonn Andrews was sometimes difficult to handle but forever loved by those who knew him well, recalls Maurice Leonard.

In his heyday Eamonn Andrews had a weekly television audience in excess of 15 million, had fronted nearly 1,000 episodes of the top rating This Is Your Life and had introduced What's My Line? to British television. When panellist Barbara Kelly dropped an earring down her cleavage, it made headlines – the show was that big.

Born in 1922 in Dublin, Andrews was the son of a carpenter. Sport was the first love of his life and, like many a poor lad before him, he boxed his way to fame, becoming the All-Ireland Amateur Junior Champion. This led to a job as a sports commentator with Radio Eireann.

Then his second great love arrived – the acting bug – and, after a few walk-ons, he enrolled at the Gaiety Theatre School of Acting. He wrote a play, The Moon Is Black, put on at Dublin's Peacock Theatre and even played the lead. This was a bit incongruous, however, as the part was for a frail tubercular lad and there was Eamonn, the picture of health and sporting a few bruises as a practising boxer.

It was not acting that shot him to fame but his golden voice. As his producer on What's My Line? and programme associate on This Is Your Life, I frequently heard it at production meetings. The sound might have been melodious but when things were not going to his liking what he was saying could sometimes jar. I would just switch off from his actual words and listen to the sound, like an Irish harp.

Actually, it was hard not to laugh on those occasions if his adored wife Grainne was with us – a dead ringer for Elizabeth Taylor, rocks and all – as she would see the funny side and would be digging me in the back at the time. He could be a hard taskmaster but there was not one member of the team who did not love him, as some journalists who have written adversely about him could testify.

His break came at the vast Theatre Royal cinema in Dublin, in the days of cine-variety – the stage show between the movies – when Eamonn fronted Double or Nothing, an audience participation quiz. The Joe Loss band came for a two-week engagement to Dublin and Loss spotted the young Irishman and took him on a British tour, featuring the quiz as a break from the band.

As a cub reporter he broke into the big time by interviewing film star Dinah Sheridan. He adored her and, after that, he always referred to her as "that exquisite creature", even when he did her This Is Your Life.

From then on it all happened. He fronted the BBC radio quiz Ignorance Is Bliss, auditioning at the Aeolian Hall, and shot to national fame. He hosted What's My Line? Crackerjack, The Eamonn Andrews Show and Life, even getting into the Top 20 with a record called, The Shifting Whispering Sands. It featured his narrative spread over a heavenly choir. The apex came when he did a song and dance routine on TV with the immortal Sophie Tucker.

I worked with him for more than 15 years. We would record What's My Line? on a Monday at the Thames Studios in Teddington and he would arrive on the preceding Sunday. I would go round to his Chiswick flat to spend the evening with him until the next day's show, with a few convivial Irishes in his 'satsuma suite', so called by the team because of its shrieking colour.

His premature death in his early sixties from heart disease in 1987 was a terrible and unexpected blow. We knew he was ill but expected him to recover. Eamonn was unassailable; we had grown up with him on the telly. His was the first face I had seen on a flickering 9in screen.

On the last show I did with him, I had to get him a chair to sit on in the wings before going on – something unheard of for this former boxer – and he had summoned all his energy to walk unaided, through the applause, to his What's My Line? desk. Then the pro took over and few suspected he was even unwell, the famous lop-sided grin to the fore. He wrote me a letter afterwards thanking me, something he had never done before. We never had the chance to do another show. I will never forget him – he taught me techniques of the trade that are still valid today.

I was with him once, in the foyer of Thames Television as he was about to interview The Jackson Five, of which the youngest, Michael, was the star. As the group entered the building some over-enthusiastic fans got hold of young Michael, about to sweep him away. I strode out, Arnie Schwarzenegger style – there the similarity ends – and brought him back, holding him above my head.

"Well done," said an unflappable Eamonn. I'd like to return the compliment.