Eyes On Camera Four
Radio Times
20 November 1959
Radio Times This Is Your Life article
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Producing Life

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Venues and Sets

the studio look and locations

Bill Evans takes you behind the scenes of one of television's most popular weekly programmes This Is Your Life

The ticket-holders file into the BBC Television Theatre. There's that Monday-evening expectancy as they take their seats for This Is Your Life. Many imagine that behind the scenes, as the minutes tick by to 7.30 a weekly panic is being enacted. They are so wrong.

Since the series began in 1955, there have been only three subjects who have not arrived on the dot. Four years of precision timing have given producer T Leslie Jackson and his team the confidence that suggests they rehearse each show for months. The 'witnesses' – those old friends and relations who walk in and surprise the subject – have in fact been rehearsed. For every This Is Your Life is born five weeks before it reaches the TV screen.

Let's say the subject is a fictitious footballer called David Dodd. He's used to being marked – but here is one planned attack he hasn't seen coming. One of five research writers travels the country investigating David's background, talking to people he has known at different turns of his life. These writers are usually working on a basis of facts accumulated over weeks by a busy preliminary researcher who keeps dozens of 'stories' moving.

So Monday afternoon sees a small party of nervous yet excited people at the theatre where, under studio conditions – minus an audience – they practise their lines. Eamonn Andrews is there – looking relaxed in sports coat and flannels – but he's just as serious for it's his rehearsal too. Scripts prepared from interviews that witnesses have given the writer come to life as Eamonn asks key questions. He and producer Jackson (known as 'Jacko' to all in BBC Television) put the witnesses at their ease – soon they forget they are rehearsing for a show to be seen by millions.

Meanwhile a sports-columnist friend of David Dodd is on his way to meet him – the last link in a pre-arranged plan to lure David to Shepherd's Bush to see another show.

It is 7 o'clock and in the next half-hour the theatre's atmosphere transforms from that of small-town repertory to West End first night. The audience is seated... lights flood the stage... men wearing earphones appear... cameras swing into position.

Production assistant David Askey welcomes the audience and introduces 'Jacko,' a zestful Lancastrian who, surprisingly when so much is at stake, shows no nerves and even raises a laugh with his patter.

Backstage the control-room is warming up. Technical Operations manager Bill Poole takes his seat – fourth at the end of a panel. Next to him is vision-mixer Nellie Southcott, her job is to press buttons and pull switches, cutting from camera to camera so that viewers see the best picture. Two seats away, and with about five minutes to go, they are joined by 'Jacko's' secretary, pretty Barbara Buxton, who has been busy up to that moment caring for the comfort of the 'cast'.

With less than a minute left 'Jacko' coolly takes his chair, watches a monitor screen showing the end of the News Summary, calls 'Cue Telecine' and the programme's title flashes on-screen.

The moment of tension comes as all eyes fix on the picture from Camera 4 – the picture on which the whole show depends. For tonight Camera 4 is concealed in a mock watchman's hut at the side of the theatre to catch David Dodd's arrival.

Having introduced the show, Eamonn Andrews is now outside, chatting to passers-by – would they like to be in This Is Your Life?... people are buying evening papers from a nearby news-stand. The seconds tick away... no David yet.

Suddenly Eamonn spots the sports columnist 'contact'... there's David behind him. Unbeknown to David the car they came in was hired specifically; the 'chauffeur' being a crack driver who knew the exact time it would take to reach the theatre.

Eamonn, introduced to the still unsuspecting David, reveals that the tickets he has for that other show are specially printed fakes! 'This,' he tells the bewildered David, 'is really your programme – for tonight, David Dodds – this is your life.'