Michael Aspel (1933-)

This Is Your Life: Michael Aspel

This Is Your Life


14 May 1980

Surprised by Eamonn Andrews at Teddington Studios


393 editions 1988-2003

related pages...

Michael Aspel

his 1980 This Is Your Life appearance

Behind the Scenes

the programme's best kept secrets

Producing Life

the producers who steered the programme's success


the show's fifty year history

New Lease of Life

the programme's relaunch

Aspects Of Aspel

TV Times interview with Michael Aspel

Michael's busy Lizzie

A TV Times pre-This Is Your Life interview with Michael Aspel

Life as seen by Aspel

Press speculation and announcements on new presenter Michael Aspel

How they asked Aspel

TV Times interviews new presenter Michael Aspel

Yes, This Is Our Life!

Woman's Own interviews Lizzie Power - wife of Michael Aspel

A programme with a life of its own

The Independent profiles the programme's history

Just A Few Words Of Thanks

Michael Aspel's weekly TV Times column

This Is My Life by Michael Aspel

What's on TV magazine interviews Michael Aspel

Michael Hands Over His Secrets

TV Times feature on Michael Aspel

My kind of day - Michael Aspel

Radio Times feature on Michael Aspel

Me, calm? I couldn't be more nervous

TV Times interviews Michael Aspel

This is my life...

Radio Times interviews Michael Aspel

Mr Cool Needs To Turn Up The Heat

Daily Record interview with Michael Aspel

This is your new life

Radio Times interviews Michael Aspel

10 Things You Didn't Know About... Michael Aspel

Coventry Evening Telegraph feature

The Great Survivor - Michael Aspel

Birmingham Evening Mail interview with Michael Aspel

Rocky start to Aspel's career

The Western Mail interviews Michael Aspel

Aspel Takes It All In His Stride

Belfast News Letter reports on Michael Aspel's 15 years on This Is Your Life

My Life in Their Hands

The Mirror interviews Michael Aspel

I have cancer but I'm feeling fine, says Aspel

Press coverage of Michael Aspel's health

End of an era as Aspel closes his big red book

Press coverage as Michael Aspel quits This Is Your Life

Eamonn Andrews

Bobby Charlton

Phil Collins

Simon Cowell

Gloria Hunniford

David Jacobs

Nigel Mansell

Des O'Connor

Michael Parkinson

Claire Rayner

Mickey Rooney

Nobby Stiles

Terry Wogan

Michael Aspel was born in Battersea in London on 12 January 1933 but grew up in the Earlsfield area of Wandsworth after his family moved into Isis Street while he was still a baby.

During the Second World War, he was evacuated, along with his brother and sister, and spent five years in the Somerset town of Chard.

Returning to his family home after the war, Michael won a grammar school scholarship and, at the age of 11, enrolled at Emanuel School in Battersea, where he joined the operatic society and made his first appearance on stage - as the Snow Maiden.

Michael was a keen cinema goer, and as a youth, his ambition was to be an actor, or failing that, a writer or a cartoonist.

His working life began as a tea boy in the London offices of the William Collins publishing company before being posted to Germany with the King's Royal Rifle Corps in 1952 as part of his National Service.

Michael later said of his National Service:

"it was a bore and a waste of time."

After leaving the army in 1954, he found work as a bed salesman at a department store in London, which allowed him to fulfil at least one of his ambitions:

"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, written by John Darran and broadcast live every Wednesday afternoon as part of Children's Hour on the BBC Home Service. It was a part that allowed him to demonstrate his ability with accents and voices.

Having eventually left his sales job in the department store, he took a series of menial jobs, including gardening, while continuing his weekly stint in Counter Spy and gaining work in other radio dramas.

"It was an interesting and varied life, but I didn't know where it was going to lead...

I'd been brought up listening to Children's Hour with Uncle Mac, and they were all frightfully posh, and I was this working-class little boy listening while I was an evacuee in them days. Never dreamed I could be part of that, so to be on the radio was enough. There was no such thing as a television personality because there was no such thing as television. And it would never have occurred to me to be such a thing."

He joined the Cardiff Drama Repertory Company as an actor, earning £10 a week:

"I didn't really think I needed to look any further."

In 1954 he was invited to test as a guest announcer on BBC Television at the Lime Grove Studios in London:

"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."

By 1958 he was a regular member of the BBC's news reading team:

"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."

Michael Aspel newsreader

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

After eight years of reading the news, Michael began to feel frustrated by the 'stuffiness' of the job and wanted to break into entertainment.

"Eventually, I wriggled and wriggled like a chrysalis until someone said, 'We'll offer you an early evening chat show, and we'll give you Crackerjack! and Family Favourites' - so I thought that's a nice little package deal to risk going freelance."

In 1968 he began presenting several other programmes for the BBC, including the children's series Crackerjack! (which had previously been presented by Eamonn Andrews), the ballroom dancing competition show Come Dancing, and in 1970, his own show Ask Aspel.

"I came to Crackerjack after eight years of television news, and you can't get more of a contrast than that. It was an education."

Michael Aspel Ask Aspel

Ask Aspel: Michael's postbag would be full each week of viewers' requests 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 regularly compered Miss World, the Eurovision Song Contest and the BAFTA awards, and appeared as a guest on several BBC television comedy shows, including Morecambe and Wise and The Goodies.

Michael described himself during this period as:

"...a general useful dogsbody. I could be quite useful when everything was collapsing around me."

And of his compering duties for Miss World:

"I did it for laughs."

From September 1974, Michael broadcast a three-hour mid-morning weekday music and chat programme on Capital Radio in London - fulfilling the radio station's brief of "a smoothie to woo the housewives" - which ran for ten years, and attracted up to five million listeners a day.

After leaving Capital, he moved to LBC Radio for the remainder of the 1980s.

In 1982 Michael signed an exclusive contract with London Weekend Television to present several programmes, including The 6 O'Clock Show, Child's Play, and his own talk show, Aspel and Company.

Aspel and 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 became 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 of the hugely popular ITV game show Give Us A Clue. And it was during the recording of one particular edition - on the 8 May 1980 - that Eamonn Andrews surprised Michael for 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 said he believed, as many others did, that the programme would end when Eamonn died - as the two were synonymous.

But Thames Television, who produced This Is Your Life, announced they wanted to continue 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.

Although Michael Aspel was included in the initial list of contenders, he soon dismissed himself as a runner due partly 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 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 19 September 1988 - the day Michael recorded his first 'Life'.

The subject was rock star, Phil Collins.

Phil 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 to retain the surprise element for the viewers. The subject was Hollywood legend, Mickey Rooney. The Phil Collins edition was shown the following week.

Michael Aspel with the Big Red Book

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

Michael handled the Big Red Book with ease, bringing his charming and affable style to the show's presentation.

The writing and presentation seemed more relaxed, even a little tongue-in-cheek, with Michael's quick wit contributing to the new style.

On one memorable occasion during his first series as host, he 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."

With Michael at the helm, the show continued its success, despite a rapidly changing television landscape.

The programme returned to the BBC in 1994, produced by the newly independent Thames Television production company. It reached the milestone of 1000 editions in 1999 when Michael hosted a special celebratory edition, The Night Of 1000 Lives, broadcast on 15 January 2000.

Announcing his retirement from This Is Your Life in June 2003, Michael closed his final Big Red Book after recording the edition featuring the music executive Simon Cowell.

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 eight years earlier.

"It is interesting that I have taken over shows - I mean, I took over from Eamonn Andrews on Crackerjack and This Is Your Life, but I was particularly scared of Antiques Roadshow because you're entering a very rarified atmosphere there and a treasure that must not be damaged."

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

Awarded the OBE in 1993 for his services to broadcasting, he was later inducted 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 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.