Shirley BASSEY (1937-)

Shirley Bassey This Is Your Life

programme details...

  • Edition No: 337
  • Subject No: 338
  • Broadcast date: Wed 29 Nov 1972
  • Broadcast time: 7.00-7.30pm
  • Recorded: Wed 1 Nov 1972 7.00pm
  • Repeated: Wed 16 May 1973 7.00pm
  • Venue: Euston Road Studios
  • Series: 13
  • Edition: 3
  • Code name: Cardiff

on the guest list...

  • Sergio Novak - husband
  • Eliza - mother
  • Marina - sister
  • Eileen - sister
  • Iris - sister
  • Ella - sister
  • Henry - brother
  • Dorothy Bennett
  • Terry Edwards
  • George Llewellyn
  • Nancy Llewellyn
  • Josie Darley
  • Eddie Reindeer
  • Liberace
  • Florence Desmond
  • Sharon - daughter
  • Brian Fahey
  • Grace - sister
  • Filmed tributes:
  • Michael Sullivan
  • Count Basie

production team...

  • Researchers: Martin Robertson, Sarah Dickinson
  • Writer: Martin Robertson
  • Director: Margery Baker
  • Producer: Malcolm Morris
  • names above in bold indicate subjects of This Is Your Life
related pages...

Shirley Bassey

second tribute

A Song For Life

it's the singer not the song

Life Second Time Around

surprised again!

Producing Life

the producers who steered the programme's success

The secret life of Eamonn Andrews

Weekend Magazine feature on the show's popularity

This is his life...

Irish magazine RTE Guide reveals some behind-the-scenes secrets

BBC harks back to a previous life

The Guardian reports on the return to the BBC

This Is Your Life

The Daily Mail profiles the programme's history

Florence Desmond

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Screenshots of Shirley Bassey This Is Your Life

Surprise Of Your Life book

Presenter Eamonn Andrews and producer Jack Crawshaw recall this edition of This Is Your Life in their book, Surprise Of Your Life...

I was terrified when Shirley came down the steps of that Trident jet. That hat was threatening to slip down over my eyes and ears. But more worrying than that: I knew only too well what an unpredictable lady Shirley was.

"Good evening, Miss Bassey. Welcome to London Airport". It took seconds, but felt like years. Gradually, she realised it wasn't a steward... it was the red book... it was her Life... it was the big night. She started to move towards the dark of the tarmac behind the plane.

For one terrifying moment I could see her running off and vanishing under some jumbo jet, so I grabbed hold of her. She was like a bird fluttering. Although she comes over on screen and stage with such tremendous power and dynamism she's very feminine. Very gentle. And seemingly sentimental.

Shirley Bassey This Is Your Life

The drive-in from the airport was tense, but fun. I spent a lot of time trying to calm Shirley by chatting about her family. About where we had met before. Very little about where she was going next.

She slipped into conversation as if she were sleepwalking right there in the car heading for the studios. Then suddenly she was awake and wanting to know how it had all happened. How did we know she was on that plane? I gave Shirley the answer I always give in this corner: Questions afterwards. In another hour, everything. Right now, not a word.

It is one of the most difficult parts of the operation, not to be trapped into inadvertently giving away any of the surprises to come by discussing the event to date. And believe you me, even at this point, it had been an event-filled project.

As we sped along the M4 towards London, I was thinking just how lucky we were to have got so far.

Thirty six hours earlier I had taken a worrying phone call at home telling me that, after weeks of planning, some of Shirley's family from South Wales were getting nervous about the idea of appearing on television with their world famous sister.

The immediate diagnosis was a minor bout of stage fright. And stage fright is not uncommon before a programme which is all the more enjoyable because it enables the famous and the lesser known to share equal "billing".

I always find it warming to see someone who has found fame sharing pleasure with those whose natural instinct is to shy away from the limelight. It's always marvellous to see, say, a world champion in a tough sport sitting alongside his gentle and homely mum. Or, as in the case of Shirley Bassey, a singer who has been called "the world's greatest female entertainer" surrounded by the brother and sisters who still live in the hometown where she began her career. And still look upon her with the pride and affection that was nurtured in the tough, but happy, early life they spent together.

It is easy to understand the pre-show nerves of anybody who has been asked to appear on television for the first time, so when the call came through from Shirley's mother, Eliza, telling us about the family's worries there was only one thing to do.

Within an hour, Sarah Dickinson, the researcher who had first met them when she began to piece together Shirley's story months before, was heading for the next train from London to Cardiff. It was the night before the show was due to hit the air.

On arrival in Cardiff, Sarah took a train to Mrs Bassey's home on the outskirts of the city. Over fish and chips she chatted about our plans for the following day, giving quiet assurance that there was nothing to fear. All the family would have to do would be to relax and enjoy the fun. Shirley's mum made a bed for Sarah in the guest room and the next morning the two of them were up at the crack of dawn touring the city by taxi picking up Shirley's brother, Henry, and sisters Eileen, Iris and Ella before getting a train for London.

But while one problem was being solved another was looming large. As Sarah toured Cardiff, I was making my routine day-of-the-show weather check. And as I opened the curtains I was horrified to find myself staring into another curtain – London fog.

A foggy day in London town might bring pleasure to Frank Sinatra fans, but for someone whose whole show depended on Shirley Bassey flying from her home in Lugano, Switzerland, to Heathrow Airport it seemed like a nightmare.

Fog or no fog, the show must go on. And so did the rest of the team. So, hoping the weather would eventually clear, I drove to the studios to meet those guests who had arrived the night before. And while we continued the positive thinking at base, location director Peter Webb kept a waiting watch at London Airport.

BEA, as the airline was then called, in co-operation with the British Airports Authority, had agreed to help us in our plan to surprise Shirley as she stepped from the plane by earmarking an arrival point away from the main terminal.

Waiting on the tarmac was a three-camera mobile unit and crew specially insured for one million pounds. But all the insurance in the world would not be able to save the show if the fog didn't lift.

The tension mounted. By early afternoon, the Trident that was to bring Shirley and her husband, Sergio, from Turin had not even left London on the outward leg of the journey.

As the plane stood on the apron Peter Webb talked to the pilot, telling him of our dilemma and asking him to make the turnaround as fast as possible if and when they eventually got to Italy. Our hearts lightened when the news came through that the weather had cleared and, though she was six hours behind schedule, the plane was on its way. As she winged over the Alps, I made a car dash to Heathrow. Dusk was closing in as I was smuggled through a security gate on the airport perimeter.

Shirley Bassey This Is Your Life

I had changed into the BEA groundstaff uniform and was hiding behind one of their conspicuously bright red and white vans when we got the news from the control tower that the plane was about to land.

As she touched down and taxied along the runway I was whisked across the tarmac to take my position at the foot of the steps.

Moments after the first class cabin door opened, Shirley stepped out into the blaze of instant limelight. Limelight she later shared on the show with her family and friends, including world stars Liberace and Count Basie. And the world stars shared equal billing with another Bassey – Shirley's fourth sister Gracie, who flew in from the United States to complete a full family re-union for the first time in 25 years.

Series 13 subjects

Pat Phoenix | Bill Griffiths | Shirley Bassey | Warren Mitchell | Dudley Moore | Phyllis Calvert | Larry Grayson | Clive Sullivan
Bill Shankly | Willie Carson | Jack Smethurst | Mary Peters | Noele Gordon | James Corrigan | Pat Reid | Diana Coupland
Dulcie Gray | Janet Adams | Rita Hunter | Leslie Crowther | Jimmy Logan | Spike Milligan | Jackie Pallo
John Gregson | Jackie Charlton | Francis O'Leary