The Legend That Was Eamonn Andrews

This Is Your Life: Eamonn Andrews

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Jimmy Cricket

Bob Geldof

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Terry Wogan

The Gentle Father with a Soul of Compassion

By Michael Ford

Although Eamonn Andrews was the consummate professional who kept his broadcasting career firmly on track, as a cautious driver he didn't have quite the same sense of direction.

On one occasion - with his wife, Grainne, sitting beside him in his blue Mercedes and his young children, Emma, Fergal and Niamh, in the back - he couldn't find his way home, so the family ended up lost in a rough area of Dublin.

When the car stopped at lights, it was promptly pounced on by threatening youths who began banging on the bonnet and doors. Then one of the gang happened to peer through the driver's window and instantly recognised the famous face behind the wheel. The atmosphere changed abruptly, as he shouted: 'Aah mister, This is Your Life! It's Eamonn. This is Your Life! Stop!'

So the teenagers halted and began to greet Eamonn like an old friend, even asking after his health. Perhaps they also remembered he'd been a boxer. Such was the respect and affection in which the television presenter was held in the city.

But not only there.

After his death in London in 1987, at the age of 64, a placard near his Chiswick apartment declared simply: 'Eamonn Dead.' Everyone knew who it meant.

Eamonn, whose birth centenary falls on December 19, was Ireland's first major broadcasting export to Britain, a trailblazer for such future stars as Terry Wogan and Graham Norton. At 6ft 2ins, the gentle giant became a national institution on both sides of the Irish Sea. With his trademark big red book on This Is Your Life, Eamonn endeared himself to people of all ages and backgrounds, his resonant tones, natural charm and avuncular manner always in evidence. Viewers sensed he was genuine and trusted him.

They were right to.

For away from the public eye, Eamonn was no different - a deeply spiritual man, in fact, who had once thought seriously about joining a religious order. He loved attending daily Mass, cared deeply for others, wrote to inmates in prison and always believed in giving other people a chance. At weekends, he left fame behind and liked nothing more than tucking into his mother's appetising steak and kidney pie at the Dublin home he'd bought for her.

Family was at the heart of Eamonn's own life. He was devoted to Grainne and their three adopted children.

Eamonn Andrews and family

Eamonn Andrews with his wife Grainne and their children, Emma, Fergal and Niamh

'Growing up with Mum and Dad was bliss, a little piece of heaven really,' says the eldest, Emma, who still lives in Dublin. 'We were so blessed to have ended up where we did. Home was an island, and we were quite private.'

Fergal, who later moved to England, describes Eamonn as 'a great father,' a warm and genuinely affectionate man who loved his wife and children. 'I always felt loved and safe when I was with him. He was also a wise man and always ready to help anyone. He was very approachable.'

When the youngest, Niamh, looks back, 'what immediately comes to mind is what amazing parents they actually were,' she enthuses. 'They led me to believe I could do anything, so I always believed I could.'

As enraptured youngsters, they'd all scramble into their parents' bed in the morning so Eamonn could whisper spellbinding stories into their ears off the top of his head. One day it might be about a magic mouse, the next Larry the Leprechaun. His imagination was so expansive, he should have written children's stories, they suggested.

Emma, now a mother of three grown-up sons, shared her father's love of language, and both wrote poetry. He was such a natural and skilled raconteur that at a Sunday morning drinks party at home, he'd captivate guests with his hilarious storytelling. 'And after lunch on Sundays, I used to hound him to read me stories - I liked to hear his voice,' she remembers. 'If I were running for a school election, such as class captain, I might have to write a speech and Daddy would help me fix it. It would become really powerful. We'd both be in awe of how amazing it was, especially me reading it with his instructions.

As a father, Eamonn was 'a very gentle person, as his own father had been.' Even if he were annoyed, he never raised his voice or threatened any of them. 'He really let us form our own consciences. If we did something wrong, we'd be sent to our bedrooms to examine our consciences. Then we'd come back and apologise. In a way, it taught us how to reflect on our actions and to apologise graciously. Dad and Mum's watchword was always: Be gracious.'

Niamh, a former air steward who works with children with special needs, recollects that her father encouraged her to have more empathy for other people and be more tolerant of them. 'If I said I hated someone at school, he'd say that "hate" was a very strong word. He'd sit me down and tell me to look at it from the other person's side. I do exactly the same with my own children. He gave me the ability to look at the bigger picture, not to rush in with my own feelings, but to stop and take a moment to think why the other person was reacting the way they were. He had so much empathy.'

Whenever Dad donned his blue cardigan, they'd refer to him as 'Mr Professor' as they knew that was a sign he'd be examining their school reports line by line, inquiring what they thought of the grades and the teachers' comments. 'But he did the lecturing in such a nice way,' Niamh continues. 'He was always affectionate. I remember coming home from boarding school one Sunday just as he was getting back from Mass, having stopped to get milk. I appeared and said: "Daddy, I'm home," and he just opened his arms as the milk bottles smashed to the ground. He didn't bat an eyelid. He just swept me up.'

For Eamonn, both body and soul needed to be kept in check.

Along with his spiritual life as a Roman Catholic, he liked to exercise first thing in the morning. 'He was either running or praying, standing or kneeling,' Emma recalls. He liked nothing more than being in the life-giving fresh air, walking along the beach or striding to Malahide along the coastal path. With a boxer's body, he always cut a fine figure.

She also remembers how, when he walked with her and the three dogs, he didn't bring a mandarin for each of them but would produce just one orange from his pocket which he would then peel and share 'so we savoured it more.' He liked his meat cut thinly because he said it had more flavour and tasted better. He always believed in his family looking after their bodies and couldn't abide any form of gluttony. He was also a lover of nature who took pride in his garden, watching plants grow and even cultivating grapes.

Playing sports was another means of unwinding. 'Dad loved his golf - it was his "go-to" method of relaxing,' says Fergal. 'He was a pretty good golfer too. He tried very hard to get me into golf but I was just not interested, though I do play a bit now.'

When in Dublin during the week, Eamonn loved going to early Mass at a nearby Carmelite convent in Malahide. On Sundays, he attended the ten o'clock mass at his local church in Portmarnock. They always went there as a family, and only when the children reached their late teens were they reluctant to attend. 'He tried to get us to go to confession once a month, but we absolutely hated it and would make any excuse not to,' Emma discloses.

Even though he was Britain's highest-paid performer, Eamonn had his reservations about some aspects of the television industry – and did not want his children to work in it. However, he put on record that This Is Your Life had given him 'some of the most wonderful, touching and exhilarating moments I ever had on television.' He expected high standards of his team, especially in the scripting, but never ceased to be astounded at how the show succeeded in gripping the nation week after week: 'Small boys would shout the title at me across the street, waiters murmured it as they pushed menus under my nose, total strangers took dares for rushing up to me in pubs, airports, theatres with anything from a red telephone book to a red handbag and stumble out the magic word,' he wrote. 'Often people wanted to know where I had the book hidden and, just as frequently, well-known people, in the most unlikely situations, glanced over their shoulders, a trifle nervously.'

This Is Your Life: Eamonn Andrews with Ralph Edwards

Ralph Edwards presented the first This Is Your Life book on British television to Eamonn Andrews

Although Eamonn was not terribly fond of surprises himself, he was nonetheless delighted to have been chosen as the show's first subject on British television in 1955 and again in 1974 during the ITV era. On that occasion, entertainer Harry Secombe summed him up with the word 'compassion.' His children, whom he'd taken to school in Dublin that morning, walked on at the end and visibly moved him. 'We still remember it,' they told me. 'It was all like James Bond and we were given false names so the secret wouldn't leak once we were in London. But Dad was really surprised. He said afterwards how easily we had lied to him. He thought he would always know.' Reflecting on the strain of keeping it from him, Grainne told her husband: 'Never again. I wouldn't go through that again, not if you live to be a hundred.'

Fergal Andrews saw at first-hand how popular his father became through This Is Your Life: 'It was lovely as a child when strangers would come up to dad and compliment him. People were very respectful of dad and didn't tend to intrude when we were together as a family in public. I never felt that people treated him as a "star" but more as someone they admired and were fond of.

'When dad would come to visit me at boarding school, I always felt quite special when I noticed how all the other parents, though respectful of him, would be obviously impressed by his presence. I always felt very proud of him and how people admired him. However, on a day-to-day basis, it didn't really impact much as dad was a humble man and consequently a very "normal" dad. It was cool, though, to be able, occasionally, to brag to my friends about some famous person I had met.'

The Eamonn you saw on screen and Eamonn you met off were never at variance. The family might be in the sitting room absorbed in a live edition of This Is Your Life, and the next evening Eamonn would walk in and be 'exactly the same person' they'd watched on the box the night before - there was no mask whatsoever. 'Of course, on television, he was acting in his professional role but the man everyone saw on the screen was the same man at home,' Fergal assured me. Eamonn neither gossiped about the production team nor the stars he'd mingled with at the after-show party (he never stayed long). Nonetheless, were he to view a recording of This Is Your Life at home, he might occasionally complain if the audio were defective at any point. He had a particularly sensitive ear for sound.

Eamonn naturally kept the names of future subjects secret from all the family, including Grainne. This once exasperated Niamh when she discovered from a school friend that the life of Irish pop idol and humanitarian, Bob Geldof, had been transmitted the night before. Why hadn't her father invited her to take a day off school so she could meet her musical heroes of the day? she protested. 'I gave him a hard time over that,' she admits. But Eamonn would never breathe a word beforehand - and commented little afterwards. Home was sacrosanct and precious, so he deliberately avoided work as a lengthy topic of conversation.

It was a huge sacrifice for him to live in London and for his children to be in Ireland. But he wanted them brought up there. Going back and forth on the plane each week between Dublin and London could be exhausting. But, when he came through the door on his return, 'smelling of Aer Lingus,' and getting out presents from the large black Gladstone bag he took everywhere, that was the end of England and family time in Ireland could begin. Nonetheless, the telephone was often ringing as members of his production team had to update him on imminent shows.

Jack Crawshaw was a close colleague of Eamonn at Thames Television, working as a researcher, writer, editor and producer of This Is Your Life. 'Eamonn loved his work with a passion that was second only to his love for his family,' Jack recalled. 'Sure, there were times when, being the dedicated programme-maker he was, he could be a tough task masker to please. But the excellence he wanted was for all of us to share. He was one of life's givers - and the giving didn't stop when the credits rolled. Never a Christmas went by without a special delivery for every member of the team from "himself." Each present was carefully wrapped with a personal message which whether in English or Gaelic was always in the famous green ink - and meant thanks.'

Jack noticed that Eamonn Andrews was never a star to flaunt his success but, on the contrary, was someone who displayed modesty. He remembered Eamonn being touchingly embarrassed on a train journey to South Wales when he spotted one of the team reading a glowing magazine article about him, with spectacular pictures of his home, The Quarry, in Portmarnock.  'I just hope' Eamonn said, eyes lowered and sotto voce, 'they know that it didn't come easy but is the result of 30 years work.'

This Is Your Life: Jack Crawshaw with Eamonn Andrews

Jack Crawshaw, producer of This Is Your Life, with Eamonn Andrews

To this day, Jack's most treasured memories are of the trips he made to Portmarnock. Eamonn was always such a caring host, while Grainne and the children were so welcoming and warm. 'On one visit, Eamonn scoffed at the idea of my hiring a car or taking a taxi from Dublin Airport, but insisted I would be met by his good self and driven home in his beloved old Merc,' Jack reminisced.

'On a walk around the garden, he took me to a neat wooden coop which he had had built to house the family hens. The coop hadn't featured in the glossy mag story but it did in my proud explanation to the team when Eamonn walked into my office a week later to present me with a box of half-a-dozen, freshly-laid, eggs!'

'Eamonn was a very kind and caring person. I still remember the occasion when my parents celebrated their golden wedding, and he made their day with a surprise phone call from Dublin.'

'He was a man we loved and are proud to have known.'

The celebrated writer, broadcaster and chat show host, Sir Michael Parkinson, who was featured on This Is Your Life in 1978, also had high regard for Eamonn Andrews, describing him as 'a good man.' Sir Michael told me that, whenever they met, they never spoke of his spiritual upbringing or family life because they tended to be at TV functions and all the talk would have been about their jobs. Eamonn, who had been a chat show host himself, watched Parkinson at home.

Eamonn Andrews and Michael Parkinson

Eamonn Andrews surprised broadcaster Michael Parkinson for This Is Your Life

'I learnt a lot from watching him in the early days,' Sir Michael said. 'I came to admire his gentle, beguiling style which allowed the viewer to make an assessment of the man asking the questions as well as the person giving the answers. It was something to do with his physical appearance. He was a big man, and television made him look solid and secure; his manner – a gentle, much-imitated, brogue – was of a patient and kind man, a gentleman. That is how he appeared to me, and it was a very attractive and inspiring figure. He wasn't brash; he was, rather, a man with a very attractive personality and a beautiful voice clearly enjoying his job by asking questions on our behalf.'

Sir Michael believed Eamonn had a style all of his own which gave comfort to viewers and inspiration to young journalists like him who one day hoped to walk in Eamonn's shadow. 'Our getting together didn't develop into a long friendship. We liked each other, I admired him greatly and we left it like that. And yet, when I think back over my long career, I see him clearly. He set a style which I learnt a lot from. He lived in all the ballyhoo surrounding television, particularly, but never lost his sense of place, or of who he was.'

As a working musician in his late teens, Fergal saw very little of his father, owing to his constant touring in Ireland, the UK, Europe and the United States. He played bass guitar in the Dublin rock band, Cactus World News, which was signed by MCA records (now Universal Music) and brought out a couple of albums. 'Dad would have much preferred I had found a sensible, secure job in an office but Mum, having come from a theatrical family, was delighted,' said Fergal, now a web developer based in Surrey.

Eamonn married Grainne (daughter of theatrical impresario and outfitter Lorcan Bourke) in November 1951, at Corpus Christi, Dublin. Ebullient and convivial, she relished parties more than Eamonn but he'd still go with her to make her happy, especially if they'd been apart for days and Grainne had been working at home all week. Although they would host their own social get-togethers and go out with friends, they liked nothing more than a meal on their own at their favourite local fish restaurant. Grainne affectionately called him 'Hymie.'

Eamonn Andrews and his wife Grainne

Eamonn Andrews and his new wife Grainne pictured in the early days of their marriage

'Mum and Dad had a lot of love for each other,' says Niamh. 'I could walk into the house and they'd be dancing. They always looked after each other. They were very equal on that. A friend said she could feel the love in our house the minute she opened the door.'

Emma agrees: 'They were a fantastic partnership, lives and hearts intertwined as one. They were perfectly balanced together. While Mum was so vivacious and gregarious, Dad was a little quieter. She would make him laugh, not that he needed much persuasion. She had a brilliant sense of humour and was full of life. They were both very dry, and both had a wicked sense of humour together. Mummy could be quite risqué, Daddy wouldn't. But he'd never be po-faced. He came from a more serious side of the family for whom faith was everything.'

Eamonn was the elder son of William and Margaret Andrews, growing up in Synge Street, Dublin, where George Bernard Shaw had been born. Eamonn had three sisters, Peggy, Kathleen and Treasa, and a brother Noel. Another brother, Kevin, died in infancy. He lost two of his sisters in middle age.

Eamonn's capacity for unrelenting hard work in pressurised environments throughout his life might have eventually contributed to a deterioration in his health. But even though feeling unwell in his last years, he did his best to put on a brave face to his family and did not want to let down the show to which he was devoted – This Is Your Life. But viewers - and subjects – became concerned about his loss of weight. Despite the diagnosis of a serious heart disorder, Eamonn vowed never to miss Mass. In his last days, while chronically fatigued and out of breath, he still managed with assistance to reach the altar of the Brompton Oratory, London, to receive Holy Communion.

The edition of This Is Your Life, which Eamonn watched in a nearby hospital only hours before he died, featured Jimmy Cricket, the Catholic comedian from Northern Ireland. It had been recorded over a month before and was history-making in that the subject had bumped into the show's final guest from Australia in crowded Oxford Street the night before the surprise. However, quick-thinking by her meant he never suspected.

Eamonn Andrews and Jimmy Cricket

Eamonn Andrews surprised comedian Jimmy Cricket for This Is Your Life

When I visited Jimmy at his home, I noticed that his This Is Your Life book was prominently displayed in a cabinet along with his trophies. 'People warmed to Eamonn's wholesome genuine approach because he was filled with an air of goodness and people can read into the soul,' said Jimmy whose son, Frankie, is now a priest. 'He was quite revered and loved, a gentleman who made such a mark in those early television days. The fact that my show was the last one he watched from hospital the night before he died was very emotional to discover and, in reflective moments, I do feel a bond with him spiritually.'

For Grainne, Emma, Fergal and Niamh, the passing of Eamonn was agonising and traumatic; they grieved for a long time. 'It was an awful period when dad died – but then mum followed him 18 months later,' said Fergal. 'I think mum's death had a much bigger impact, certainly on me, but I'm sure Emma and Niamh also. There was no indication that she was unwell and then, within a period of about six weeks, she had been diagnosed with cancer and was dead.'

'After dad had passed away, we still had mum and she was a very strong and loving woman, which helped reduce the impact of dad's death. When she died, I definitely felt that my sisters and I were now essentially alone in the world - not really in that we had many great relatives and friends, but in the sense that a massive part of our family was now gone, leaving a huge hole in our lives.'

'Just how intertwined mum and dad were, was evidenced by the fact that she just couldn't live without him. I firmly believe that it wasn't cancer that took her but an irreparable, broken heart.'

Eamonn Andrews and family

Eamonn Andrews, the family man, with his wife Grainne and their children, Emma, Fergal and Niamh

Emma, Fergal and Niamh think their father left a powerful legacy, coming from humble beginnings as a £5-a-week insurance clerk and climbing to the top of his profession as an influential television star - 'all by himself, through sheer self-belief and confidence.' But they also point out that the genuine affection people had for him has outlived his celebrity status. 'Even to this day, when somebody I have just met finds out he was my father, they genuinely remark on what a lovely man he was and how much they liked him,' says Fergal.

Eamonn, of course, never knew his five grandchildren, but on Eamonn's centenary Johnny will be 29, Jessica, 27, Edward, 26, Jack, 24 and Daniel, 22.  They've all grown up being told stories about their famous grandfather and continue to be amazed at what he accomplished. They look in admiration at his bronze statue outside the RTE headquarters in Dublin. It was unveiled in 1988 by the family and the then Irish Prime Minister, Charles Haughey.

'Although we never met Grandpa Eamonn, his kindness and warmth have shone in stories and photographs throughout our lives,' they say. 'We are in awe of his incredible skill as a broadcaster as well as his achievements in the entertainment industry. We are proud to be his grandchildren. To us, he will always be a legend.'