The Secret Agent Who Made The Big Red Books

This Is Your Life's Big Red Book

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Derek Fowlds

George Shearing

Simon Weston

The craftsman who secretly made the big red books for This Is Your Life was well qualified for the job.

Clive Verney had previously signed the Official Secrets Act when he worked on government security work, so keeping the names of the programme subjects under wraps wasn't a mission impossible. 'They said it was a security job and that's how I treated it,' he told me. 'I knew what would be involved.'

Clive had his own book bindery business until joining Walter Phillips (Perivale) Ltd in 1987 and becoming bindery manager. Over the years, from workshops in Perivale, Berkhamsted and Amersham on the outskirts of London, Clive worked stealthily behind-the-scenes for ten years, creating luxurious keepsakes for the show's guests. The first book he made in 1990 was for Simon Weston, the British Army veteran who made a remarkable recovery after suffering severe burns during the Falklands War.

Clive Verney

Clive Verney created big red books for This Is Your Life for ten years

'I made around 300 books in all but a few programmes got cancelled and new ones had to be made for other people,' he recalled. 'We worked about six weeks ahead of the recorded programme but I didn't know which order the shows would go out in. The names never came in bulk. It was always one name at a time. My workshop was separate from the rest of the staff - I couldn't even mention the name to my wife, Rita.'

One day Clive had a surprise himself when the name he was about to block in gold turned out to be someone he'd gone to school with – the actor Derek Fowlds. They'd also been in the same Scout troop and had worked as apprentices at the same printing firm.

Close to the recording, Clive swiftly contacted the production team to see if he could appear as a guest. But as the show was being filmed in Leeds, it wasn't logistically possible. Years later, at a school reunion, Clive was able to tell an amazed Derek Fowlds how he had been the one who had made his This is Your Life book.

Once the name of the subject was disclosed to him covertly, Clive Verney had just 24 hours to produce the book. 'They each took about an hour-and-a-half to make but I also had to wait for some materials to dry,' he said. 'The book cost several hundred pounds to create. It was made of goat's skin. A special red dye was manufactured especially for us and we had to buy it in bulk. You won't find that shade of red listed anywhere. It doesn't even have a name. You could only describe it as a "This Is Your Life red."'

'I would start off with a large piece of leather, already cut to size, which would then be lined with a very thin piece of card with enough spacing for the spine. Each year I had a series worth of 26 books waiting, partly blocked with the words This Is Your Life. When the name of the subject came in, it would be set with a hand-blocker, then I would pull down a lever and carry on making up the book. Using sponge padding, I'd produce the whole frame with pre-prepared flanges. The book was then lined out and completed with a velvet finish. Blue insert pages for the script were added by the programme team after they received the finished product. They were blue so that they didn't reflect the studio lights. And, by the way, there was real gold lettering on the book.'

'I had to make one book in braille which was a different technique altogether. That was for the blind British jazz pianist George Shearing.'

Clive also had to design a presentation box for each red book which was then sealed in wrapping paper with the name of the subject in code on the front. George Shearing's was Velvet.

Hand book-binding is a specialist occupation and a dying trade. If the programme were on air today, the production team would be hard pressed to find an experienced artisan. 'I felt I had a very prestigious job,' Clive told me. 'My mother was very, very proud that I was the one doing the big red book. She used to tell everyone and they would all want to know who was going to be next. But she couldn't tell them because she didn't know any of the names. Sometimes I didn't know anything about the subject whose book I was preparing so I would tune in to find out all about them.'

'My wife and I were invited to the recording of one show and at the party afterwards I was introduced to Michael Aspel as the man who made the books. "Very good job, sir," he said. I think there was a mystique about the programme. There was nothing else like it.'

In his career as a binder, Clive did other work for film studios. He once had to embellish in leather a German book for the 1983 James Bond movie Octopussy which an actor later pretended to read on set. 'I had to make it look like it was worth £3,000 pounds, even though it was only on screen for ten seconds.'

It was Anthony Phillips who held the original This Is Your Life franchise in the days when Eamonn Andrews presented the show. This was the era before fax, email and even private video recording. An earlier version of the book had a sleeve at the back for an LP recording of the show.

Peter Phillips

Phillips Direct Ltd made all the big red books from 1969 - managing director Peter Phillips says "We were honoured to have been involved with This Is Your Life"

'Securicor would arrive on a Tuesday evening and it was all very cloak and dagger,' Anthony's son, Peter explained. 'In the old days, a security man would rush in with a little envelope and take it to the binder who was standing behind a private curtain, away from the staff, waiting for the name of the week to arrive. He would produce the book on overtime when no one was around. Everyone in the factory was anxious to find out the name of that week's subject but lips were sealed. Securicor would turn up again on the Wednesday morning to collect the book.'

Phillips Direct Ltd now specialises in a range of presentation products and is located on an industrial estate in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, tucked away between the Euston to Manchester high speed rail track and the gentler Grand Union Canal.

'We were honoured to have been involved with This Is Your Life,' says Peter Phillips, now managing director. 'We made all the books from 1969 onwards. I still remember when my father would watch Eamonn presenting the book to the subject at the end of each show. He would always exclaim: "We made that! We made that!" I think he was really proud of what his company had achieved.'