Stanley Matthews should have been on the first This is Your Life
Look and Learn Online
3 July 2013
Look and Learn Online: This Is Your Life article
related pages...

Eamonn Andrews

a brief biography

Birth of Life

the genesis of the programme

Eamonn Looks Back

first-hand recollections

Producing Life

the producers who steered the programme's success

Ralph Edwards

the man who created it all

Venues and Sets

the studio look and locations

Gale Pedrick

Obituaries for This Is Your Life's first scriptwriter

Eamonn Andrews

Ben Lyon

Stanley Matthews

Freddie Mills

This edited article about BBC Television originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 315 published on 27 January 1968.

"From somewhere in Great Britain we've selected someone to whom we're going to pay an unusual tribute. That person is here in our BBC Theatre in London. He - or she - does not know that behind this archway are the friends and family who helped to shape his, or her, life. Whose life? Well, it could be anybody's. It could be you – or you – or you!."

Eamonn Andrews BBC Television, Friday, 29th July, 1955.

Eamonn Andrews relaxed with a sigh of relief. It had, he reflected, been a rather nerve-racking day.

The expectant chatter of the audience around him in the BBC's Television Theatre was reassuring. Even more so was the presence, next to him, of a burly, broad-shouldered man – his friend, Freddie Mills, former heavyweight boxing champion.

The live television transmission was due to start in a few minutes. Nothing could go wrong now.

The BBC was putting on, for the first time in Britain, the much-talked-about, top American television show, This Is Your Life. The idea behind this was that an unsuspecting person, whose name was kept secret until the night, was confronted in the studio with friends and relatives who built up an intimate picture of his or her life.

"When I saw the programme for the first time, in America," Eamonn told me, "I liked it. It was great television, and I thought there and then that I would like to do something like it here."

The subject for the first programme was chosen. The research was carried out, the script written.

"Then," Eamonn remembered, "the whole thing exploded in our faces."

Two days before the programme was due to go out, there was a "leak." The secret that Stanley Matthews was to be the first "victim" was reported in the national Press, for everyone – including the famous footballer himself – to read.

The programme's essential element – surprise – no longer existed. There was no alternative but to cancel the programme and prepare another "life."

A conference was quickly called. Names were discussed – and discarded. Then Eamonn Andrews's help was asked. Would he arrange for Freddie Mills to be in the studio audience?

"But," said producer T. Leslie Jackson, "don't tell him why."

"Sure," Eamonn grinned, "I'll fix it."

The next forty-eight hours were spent in feverish activity. Investigators set out to gather background material, while writer Gale Pedrick sifted the material as it came in and prepared the script for this new life.

From mid-day on the Friday on which This Is Your Life was scheduled in the evening, Eamonn did not let Freddie Mills out of his sight.

"We set up a fake sports programme at Lime Grove in the afternoon," he told me. "Mills agreed to be on the panel with two or three other sportsmen, and I was Chairman. It was very realistic, with producer, cameras, lights, and so on." The purpose of this was to keep Freddie so busy that he would not realise that any of his friends were absent and preparing for the show.

Freddie was then taken for dinner with Eamonn and his wife, Grainne, at their Lancaster Gate flat. Afterwards, all three went to the Television Theatre to see the opening night of the new series.

In the foyer, the first person Eamonn caught sight of was Don Cockell, whose brave defeat at the hands of world heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano had been reported direct to England from San Francisco by Eamonn in his role as sports commentator.

"I nearly had a fit," Eamonn told me. "If Freddie caught sight of Cockell, he was bound to think he might be the 'victim'."

Eamonn hurried over.

"Get out, Don," he told him. "Get out of here quick, and go around to the stage door. You're not supposed to be in here!"

Don Cockell slipped away, and Eamonn and Freddie Mills made their way to seats in the stalls.

At 1945 hours, transmission began, and the first edition of This Is Your Life was being watched not only by the studio audience but by millions of armchair viewers.

Whose life story was about to be unfolded?

Ralph Edwards, the American master of ceremonies, went among the audience welcoming Boris Karloff, Bebe Daniels, Ben Lyon, and other well-known guests.

The suspense was unbearable.

"Then," said Eamonn, "Ralph Edwards was in the aisle by our seats." The cameras were focused on Eamonn as he made the introductions. "I could hardly stop grinning at the surprise old Freddie was in for."

Ralph Edwards handed Eamonn the book containing the script – and the secret.

"Here," he said, "will you read the name that's on the cover of this book?"

Before Eamonn had ripped off the wrapper that hid the name, he began reading aloud: "This Is Your Life..."

Then he read the name... EAMONN ANDREWS.


For once, this fluent Irishman was at a loss for words.

"It's all right," Edwards said. "You're not seeing things. We really turned the tables on you, for tonight. 'This Is Your Life', Eamonn Andrews."

The secret had been well-kept. Eamonn had no idea he was the person whose life was to be featured.

It was a perfect double-bluff. Freddie Mills laughed – he was enjoying the joke hugely, for he had known all the time. He had been keeping an eye on Eamonn, and had prevented him from looking in while the show was being prepared.

He had had one nasty moment. He, too, had glimpsed Don Cockell in the foyer before the show started, and had wondered: could this be a double-double bluff?

"Talk yourself out of this," he whispered, as Ralph Edwards led a dazed Eamonn on to the stage.

"I was absolutely shattered," Eamonn told me. "And stayed that way for the whole of the programme. I didn't really recover until well afterwards."

Edwards' first question was, "It was perfectly natural for you to be here, Eamonn, but tell us how you happened to bring Freddie Mills along?"

During the thirty minutes that followed, Eamonn was confronted by childhood friends, and stars of radio and entertainment. His brother and three sisters appeared – and so, to his astonishment, did his wife, who had been in the secret all along. He hugged and kissed his mother, who had been flown over from Dublin.

Overcome with emotion, he wiped the tears from his eyes.

"The BBC must have had an awful job stopping her from 'phoning me" he told the listening millions. "I haven't seen her for a few years."

Then the last guest appeared on stage – Don Cockell!

Everyone gathered round. Ralph Edwards presented the book to Eamonn.

"This Is Your Life, Eamonn Andrews," he said. "You have shown us that a man may try many things before he finds his rightful place in the world – and that perseverance and hard work can triumph in our times, as they always have in the story-books of old..."

Eamonn still keeps that volume as a lasting souvenir of the occasion.

"It's bound in red," he told me "and contains 'stills' used in the programme, together with photographs of the people who took part, and what they said."

The show was an unqualified success and became a not-to-be-missed date with viewers for several years.

And the master of ceremonies all that time? Who else but Eamonn Andrews?

"I found my own experience invaluable," he said. "I knew precisely how people felt when they got this surprise."

By the way, I can vouch for the truth of this story. I was one of the handful of people who were in on the secret from the beginning.