Torture, Treacle, Tears and Trickery
Birth-of-TV website
unknown date
This Is Your Life Big Red Book
related pages...

Eamonn Andrews

a brief biography

The Big Red Book

the programme's icon

Ralph Edwards

the man who created it all

Birth of Life

the genesis of the programme

A Life Refused

those who said 'No'

Anna Neagle

by Su Holmes

The Controversy Surrounding This Is Your Life in the 1950s

Discussion of controversies in British television history have more often focused on the 1960s, and more specifically, the genres of drama and docudrama. But there are also a whole host of other programmes which troubled critics at the time - in fascinating and often surprising ways. The popular celebrity-biography show, This Is Your Life (hereafter TIYL) (BBC, 1955-1964, ITV, 1969-1993, BBC1, 1993-2003) is one such example, as it generated considerable controversy from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s. TIYL may appear to be an unlikely candidate for such controversy. Offering a highly reverential treatment of celebrities and the ceremonious presentation of the 'Big Red Book', the format saw the subject surprised by the presenter, with the narrative of their life retold through the testimonies of friends, family and colleagues. But in its early years TIYL was perceived as an 'unpardonable intrusion into personal privacy', and its reception tells us something about television's impact on the circulation of celebrity culture, as well as the medium's role in re-shaping the boundaries between public and private.

The emergence of This Is Your Life

TIYL was originally an American format. Devised and hosted by Ralph Edwards, it began on US radio in 1948, and transferred to network television in 1952. In 1955, the BBC agreed to take out a two-year option on the format, and with Irishman Eamonn Andrews as the host, it began on British television on 29 July, 1955. In its early years the programme took both celebrities (from spheres such as sport, cinema, music and theatre) as well as 'ordinary' people as its subjects – particularly 'do-gooders' or people who had displayed outstanding bravery during the Second World War. It rapidly became an extremely popular show with 12-13 million viewers. Critics perceived that the format had been adopted to compete with ITV, and it rapidly came to be discussed as the epitome of 'commercial' programming - an example of when the competitive ethos might mean for 'taste' and 'standards' in British television. The American roots of the format only served to fuel this debate, particularly in a climate where fears concerning the 'Americanisation' of British television were high on the agenda.

Causing a Stir...

Much of this debate is highly familiar to us today, particularly with the emergence of genres such as talk shows and Reality TV. In fact, what is striking about TIYL is how closely it anticipated many of these debates, particularly when it comes to claims about the 'tabloidisation' of television. In discussing TIYL, one critic noted in 1961 that:

The English are reputed to show no emotion, they hate Peeping Toms; and their home is their castle. Obviously, however, while they resent one single prying look on the part of their neighbour, they welcome a chance of crying in public, weeping before an audience, or discussing their emotions, religion and sex-life within sight and earshot of 12 million neighbours.[1]

In a more general sense, there were strong objections to the ethics of the programme, and discussion circled around two key features: a concern over the 'ambushing' of the subject, and its subsequent invasion of their privacy. In the absence of prior consent from the subject themselves, these spheres were seen to be closely linked. The following comment is highly typical:

[This programme] now heavily underlines a problem to which I... urge the BBC to give immediate and critical attention. There is something ethically wrong in luring people to the stage by subterfuge and planting them in front of the cameras to unfold their private lives to the gaze of strangers... This peering, prying programme is a flagrant invasion of privacy.[2]

Critics went on to insist that the format was akin to torture and victimisation, and often claimed 'This is Torture by TV'.[3] There was also urgent discussion about the potential relationship fostered between programme and viewer. TIYL was variously described as 'gobbled up and gloated over' and as 'the best-devised show yet for the mass exploitation of morbid curiosity'.[4] There also emerged the suggestion that the programme was unbearably sentimental, its approach causing critics to report physical symptoms of nausea. (It was 'sickly and vulgar' and 'a revolting emetic')[5] Lastly, there was also the insistence that it was 'utterly UnBritish'.[6] Various assertions regarding the national character were advanced to support this view, but these primarily circled around the suggestion that Britain was a 'private, self-derogatory, shy, modest and honest nation... [comprising of] people of the grunt and understatement'.[7] Although it also created controversy around privacy in America, it did seem to be more pronounced here.

Caught in Close-Up

But while the emphasis was on the programme's intrusion into privacy, the programme in fact revealed very little about the subject's off-screen life – even when measured against the standards of the time. The BBC were careful to 'police' and censor the material which made up the 'Life' narrative (as it was called), and they often revealed little more than a biography or magazine interview. Rather, the controversy seemed to circle around the visual - and the imaging of the subject by the television apparatus, and its transgression of the boundaries of public/private. Critics recalled the unfolding of the surprise within the visual language of television, particularly the 'exploitative', intimate and 'intrusive' range of the close-up. While many 'Life' narratives emphasised happiness and joy, many involved tears, and critics were appalled by the spectacle of celebrities and 'ordinary' people weeping on television in public view. The most controversial edition here featured the British film star, Anna Neagle. With headlines such as 'Anna Neagle Weeps Before TV Millions',[8] critics talked for days of the:

[Un]necessary spectacle of an adult, mature woman being moved to tears, trying to hide her face from the relentless cameras which... would not spare her the discomfort of being exposed... and us the sensation of being made into impertinent snoopers.[9]

Danny Blanchflower: The 'Refusal'...

It was not until the early 1960s that the moment the critics had been waiting for finally came. After being confronted by the host, the footballer Danny Blanchflower was the first subject to refuse to participate in the show. Blanchflower's actions received a great deal of media coverage, although the programme had just transferred to film, so it was never actually seen on television. The Daily Mail featured a cartoon in which the footballer kicked 'a television cameraman out of his house', with the camera sporting the label 'TV intrusion'.[10] It was at this stage that the BBC finally took action, deciding to minimise the element of surprise in the show – which had of course been so integral to its appeal. (As the BBC Board of Directors enquired: 'Would it not be possible to consider informing the victim in advance, while keeping secret what will actually happen in the programme?').[11] It was ultimately agreed that the opening confrontation between host and subject would be filmed at an earlier date, so that when they came to the studio, they did so will full consent. But this seemed to happen rather after the fact. The controversy around TIYL was closely shaped by the risks and power of live television, speaking to a moment which, by the early 1960s, was passing. But in anticipating a number of debates which circle around television today, we might suggest that rather than belonging to an earlier era, TIYL appeared before its time.

[1] Sunday Telegraph, 14 May, 1961. Box 670. BBC Written Archive Centre.

[2] The Daily Mail, 8 February, 1961. Box 670.

[3] The Western Mail, 25 March, 1958. Box 663.

[4] Stage, 4 December, 1958. Box 663.

[5] Daily Mirror, 6 January, 1959. Box 670.

[6] Daily Mail, 30 July, 1955. Box 771.

[7] Sunday Telegraph, 14 May, 1961. Box 670.

[8] Daily Express, 18 February, 1958. Box 663.

[9] Manchester City News, 4 April, 1958. Box 663.

[10] 'General Press Comment on This is Your Life', T16/590.

[11] 'TV Policy, This is Your Life', undated memo, T16/590.