Michael Aspel (1933-)

This Is Your Life: Michael Aspel

This Is Your Life


Subject:

14 May 1980

Surprised by Eamonn Andrews at Teddington Studios


Host:

393 editions 1988-2003


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Michael Aspel was born in Battersea, London on 12 January 1933.


During the Second World War he was evacuated and spent nearly five years in Chard, Somerset.


After the war, and back in London, he passed his eleven-plus and attended Emanuel School.


His working life began as a tea-boy in the office of William Collins publishing company in London, then, after National Service in the army in Germany, as a bed salesman at a department store.


This led to the start of his broadcasting career -


"I started my professional career working for a London bedding firm that sent me to a department store in Cardiff to learn the retail trade.


While I was there I joined an amateur dramatic group and boldly banged on the door of a leading Welsh actress to ask how I could get into broadcasting.


She was terribly kind, thought I had a good voice and arranged a BBC audition.


I was on the radio the very next week in a BBC Children’s Hour serial."


Michael played James ‘Rocky’ Mountain of the FBI in a series called Counter Spy. It was written by John Darran and was broadcast on the BBC Home Service.


Michael moved from acting to doing radio continuity announcements at the BBC's Park Place studios and in 1957 moved into television.


"In those days the radio shut down at the end of the afternoon, so I was asked to be a guest announcer on TV in the evening at Lime Grove in London. They only had one dinner suit for us all, and it was enormous. I had to have a peg in the back of it to make it fit."



Michael Aspel newsreader

By the early sixties, Michael had become one of four regular newsreaders on BBC national television



"I only got into news broadcasting because Richard Baker had a cold one day and I was asked to pop up for that weekend and ended up staying for eight years, until 1968. But that was because it was such bloody good fun with such a wonderful team which made me so thoroughly happy."


At the BBC he began presenting a number of other programmes including Crackerjack (Eamonn Andrews had been a previous presenter), Come Dancing, and his own show, Ask Aspel.



Michael Aspel Ask Aspel

Ask Aspel: each week Michael's postbag would be full of requests from viewers asking to see repeats of their favourite clips from BBC programmes



"I suppose the show people come up to me and ask me about more than any other is Ask Aspel, which was a very cheap and cheerful children's show on the BBC. It was nice, I suppose, because it was my own show."


He appeared in celebrity guest spots on BBC television’s top comedy shows, such as Morecambe and Wise and The Goodies, and was also a regular host on Miss World, a commentator on the Eurovision Song Contest and presenter of the BAFTA awards.


Michael also broadcast a three-hour weekday, mid-morning music and chat programme on Capital Radio in London for ten years from September 1974, before moving to LBC for the remainder of the 1980s.


He entered into an exclusive contract with London Weekend Television in 1982 to present several programmes, including The 6 O’Clock Show, Child’s Play, and his own talk show, Aspel and Company.



Aspel & Company titles

Michael's chat show, produced by London Weekend Television, ran for 115 editions from 1984 to 1993



Seen as a rival to the near-legendary status of the BBC’s Parkinson, the Saturday night show was a ratings winner, attracting such high profile guests as the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher – giving her first non-political interview, a flirty Elizabeth Taylor, and a unique post-Beatles reunion between George Harrison and Ringo Starr.


From 1979 to 1983 Michael was chairman on the hugely popular ITV game show Give Us A Clue. And it was during the recording of one particular edition - on the 8th May 1980 - that Eamonn Andrews sprung his surprise and Michael found himself the latest subject of This Is Your Life:


"Of course, you feel tremendously flattered – and slightly alarmed. It is probably the strangest thing I have ever experienced. It certainly never occurred to me that one day I would step into Eamonn’s shoes."



This Is Your Life Michael Aspel with Eamonn Andrews

Eamonn Andrews surprised Michael Aspel for This Is Your Life in May 1980



"Truly a strange and amazing experience. But I'm delighted Eamonn gave me that Life experience, because now I know what might be going through the minds of the people I surprise."


Following the untimely death of Eamonn Andrews in 1987, there was uncertainty about the future of This Is Your Life. Michael has said that he believed, as many others did, that when Eamonn died the programme would die with him - believing the two were inseparable.


But the producers of This Is Your Life, Thames Television, made it known that they wanted to continue with the programme. The press was soon rife with speculation on who would become the replacement host for the top rated programme - then thought to be one of the top presenting jobs on television. Contenders were said to include Terry Wogan, Michael Parkinson, Des O'Connor, David Jacobs, Noel Edmonds, Gloria Hunniford and Nick Owen.


Michael Aspel’s name was included in the list of contenders, but was soon dismissed by Michael himself, due in part, to his long-term contract with London Weekend Television, producers of his Saturday night chat show.






New Lease of Life

the programme's relaunch






However, in what has since been described as a ‘cloak and dagger’ operation worthy of This Is Your Life itself, John Howard Davies, then head of Light Entertainment at Thames Television, carried out a series of secret talks involving LWT, Michael’s agent and Michael himself.


The outcome of these talks was revealed in March 1988, when the official announcement was made, that Michael Aspel would become the new host of This Is Your Life.


Michael Aspel recalls taking over as the new host of This Is Your Life in an interview originally broadcast in October 2002



TV Times cover featuring Michael Aspel

Michael Aspel tells of the ‘cloak and dagger’ way he became the new presenter of This Is Your Life



Eamonn’s widow Grainne was at the time reported as saying:


"I certainly didn’t feel that the programme should have been stopped after Eamonn’s death. It is, after all, an institution and I felt sure Eamonn would have wanted it to go on and would have been pleased to think that Michael Aspel was taking over. I had heard other suggestions, of course, but he seemed to me the right person. Eamonn, of course, had met him several times and liked him."



This Is Your Life Phil Collins with Michael Aspel

Michael recorded his first This Is Your Life as presenter in September 1988



And so the daunting task of taking over a long running, hugely successful show began on 19th September 1988 - the day Michael recorded his first ‘Life’.


The subject was Phil Collins (pictured above).


The rock star was surprised by a heavily disguised Michael in the middle of London’s Covent Garden, amid huge crowds of onlookers.


A press tip-off led to pictures of the surprise making the next day’s newspapers.


Therefore the new series opened with a different name on the Big Red Book, so as not to dampen the big surprise element. The subject was Hollywood legend Mickey Rooney. The Phil Collins edition was shown the week later.



Michael Aspel with the Big Red Book

Michael Aspel presented 393 editions of This Is Your Life between 1988 and 2003



Bringing his charming and affable style to the presentation of the show, it was not long before Michael was comfortable handling the Big Red Book.


The writing and presentation seemed more relaxed, even a little tongue-in-cheek.


Michael’s quick wit contributed to the new style.


On one memorable occasion during his first series as host, Michael introduced himself as an on-screen contributor during the life-story of journalist and broadcaster Claire Rayner!


Michael soon made the show his own, as TV critics confirmed:


Daphne Lockyer, Today:


"It was Eamonn Andrews’s skill… never to steal the limelight, but to train it on whoever appeared on his show. And Aspel has quite brilliantly taken over that mantle."


Daily Mirror 17 April 1991:


"For those of us who can still remember the way Eamonn Andrews presented this show with a cheeky twinkle, it has taken some time (since November 1988) to be convinced that anyone else could really do the job… But Michael Aspel has made it his own, bringing professionalism combined with a charming lightness of touch. It can’t be easy to suddenly whip out that famous Big Red Book, tell unsuspecting victims that their whole lives are about to pass before them, and then go on to keep the whole thing bubbling with just the right amounts of humour and nostalgia."


The show, with Michael at the helm, continued its success, despite a fast changing television landscape. The programme returned to the BBC in 1994, and achieved the milestone of 1000 editions in 1999. A special celebratory edition, The Night Of 1000 Lives, was broadcast on 15th January 2000.


Michael closed his final Big Red Book after the recording of Simon Cowell’s ‘Life’ and announced his retirement from This Is Your Life in June 2003.


He later confessed:


"I left This Is Your Life because they were messing around with it and I wanted to go before the 'Aspel axed' headlines."


Michael continued to present another BBC institution - the long running Antiques Roadshow until 2008, having taken over from Hugh Scully in 2000.


Also in 2008 he filmed a five-part documentary series, Evacuees Reunited, which took him back to his wartime home of Chard, Somerset, before announcing his retirement from television.


He was awarded the OBE in 1993 for his services to broadcasting and was voted into the Royal Television Society's Hall of Fame for outstanding service to television.




Roy Bottomley This Is Your Life book

In 1993 Roy Bottomley published the book - The Story of Television's Big Red Book. Roy was a former national newspaper journalist, TV news editor, producer and writer of TV comedy, drama and documentaries, and had been involved in the production of every 'Life' since the series was revived by Thames Television in 1969.


Michael provided the following Foreword to the book:


When I was a National Serviceman it was explained to me that saluting an officer meant that we were acknowledging the pips on the shoulder rather than the man himself. I think the same applies to This Is Your Life's Big Red Book. The theatre audiences that erupt as they see the star being crept up on from behind are reacting to that familiar ledger with its gold lettering; the man carrying it could be wearing a barrel for all they care.


Having said that, I must admit that I was one of those who believed, when Eamonn Andrews died, that the programme would die with him. After so many years the two, it seemed, were inseparable, and anyone else uttering that famous phrase would sound a very pale imitation. I knew how much Eamonn loved the show. I had helped him more than once to spring the surprise, and had seen the glee that seized him, the joyful anticipation of the subject's reaction. Indeed, the morning that Eamonn died, there was a letter on my hall table waiting to be posted to him - my response to his letter thanking me for being part of a recent Life.


I was flattered and slightly alarmed to be asked to take Eamonn's place. I had followed in his footsteps before with other, lesser programmes, but this took some thinking about. I was persuaded, and so began some of the happiest days, so far, of my professional life. The team I inherited were an awesomely skilled bunch, working in that fast, confident way that only years of experience, and success, can bring. They were remarkably welcoming and patient as they showed me the ropes. One of the first things I learned was that the person whose tribute we were preparing was always referred to as the subject, never the victim.


There are people who see This Is Your Life as an embarrassing intrusion, and there are people who regard it as the ultimate accolade. Nigel Mansell has said that the three things he wanted most were the World Championship, the OBE and the Big Red Book. He got all three, and I was there to see the strong man with a tear in his eye.


I now know how Eamonn felt all those years: the nervous tension, the exhilaration of a successful 'hit', the satisfaction of the moment when, after weeks of planning, all the strands have been drawn together, the story has been told, and everyone goes home happy.


I've also learned the mixed pleasures of impersonating Sooty, a British Rail ticket-collector and a Chinese magician - just a few of the disguises that the devilish production team have dreamed up for me.



This Is Your Life Nobby Stiles with Michael Aspel

It was the 25th anniversary of England winning the 1966 World Cup, so Michael's venue was Old Trafford and the book was for one of those World Cup heroes, Nobby Stiles - watched by another former Life subject, Manchester United and England's Bobby Charlton

I have now come to love the show and the team who work on it, but my devotion was tested, to say the least, when producer Malcolm Morris informed me that we were going to record a programme on Nobby Stiles, of Manchester United and England fame, on the same day as the Rugby Union World Cup Final, England v. Australia, for which I had tickets. I gave Malcolm one of my hard looks and shook my head emphatically. As a result, at the very moment that England kicked off at Twickenham, I stepped on to the pitch at Old Trafford where a pre-match assembly of veterans was gathered, and said, with a brave smile, ‘Nobby Stiles, this is your life.’ My last defiant words to Malcolm had been ‘If he says no, I'm going to kick him all round the park.’ But Nobby said yes, and we made a fine show. (England, without my support, lost the Final.) That, as they say, is… Life.


No one is better qualified to write the history of This Is Your Life than Roy Bottomley. He has written almost every word of each series throughout the years, without losing an ounce of his enthusiasm. He has ransacked the archives and his own phenomenal memory to bring you a vivid account of the creation of one of broadcasting's institutions. Let's hope we all continue to enjoy it for the rest of our natural.