Vince HILL (1934-2023)

Vince Hill This Is Your Life

programme details...

  • Edition No: 431
  • Subject No: 428
  • Broadcast date: Wed 3 Mar 1976
  • Broadcast time: 7.00-7.30pm
  • Recorded: Wed 25 Feb 1976
  • Venue: Euston Road Studios
  • Series: 16
  • Edition: 17
  • Code name: Vale

on the guest list...

  • Anne - wife
  • bandsmen of the Royal Corps of Signals
  • Joe Lee
  • Mick Burchill
  • Keith Swallow
  • Cliff Purves
  • Ralph Donnell
  • Lily - mother
  • Eve - sister
  • Valerie - sister
  • Jack - brother
  • Denis Holroyd
  • Billy Carroll
  • Pat Frolish
  • Alan Mile
  • Teddy Foster
  • Len Beadle
  • Johnny Worth
  • Jackie Lee
  • Athol - son
  • Eve - mother-in-law
  • George - father-in-law
  • Brian Mather
  • Filmed tributes:
  • Ken Dodd
  • David Nixon

production team...

  • names above in bold indicate subjects of This Is Your Life
related pages...

A Song For Life

it's the singer not the song

The Night of 1000 Lives

a celebration of a thousand editions

The Audience

the applause, laughter and tears

BBC axes This Is Your Life

Press coverage of the BBC's announcement

Ken Dodd

David Nixon


Vince Hill recalls his experience of This Is Your Life in an exclusive interview recorded in March 2010

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Screenshots of Vince Hill This Is Your Life - and Vince Hill photographed at his home with his big red book in March 2010

Vince Hill autobiography

Vince Hill recalls his experience of This Is Your Life in his autobiography, Another Hill To Climb...

After retreating from the duck's wine pile I decided to do an exterior inspection of Sagamore. Early twentieth-century property is much sought after, but you have to keep your eye on it - and I'm proud of the fact that I've always done so.

I scanned the roof, shielding my eyes from the brightness of the sky, and was pleased to see everything was as it should be. Then I turned towards the river, distracted by a nearly new medium-sized cruiser heading upstream. I could see a young couple on board, obviously in love and enjoying each other's company. She was heavily pregnant. It reminded me of how blessed we were to have eventually had Athol, but I also reflected on the miscarriages that poor Annie had suffered along the way.

After one particular ghastly experience her doctor insisted she got away from it all, and packed us off on holiday to Sierra Leone. We arranged with Annie's wonderful mum Evelyn, known affectionately as Evie, and my father-in-law George to move into our house and look after Athol for a couple of weeks, so Annie really could get away from any distractions. The doctor had given explicit instructions that we were to be incommunicado other than in extreme emergency, so you imagine Annie's panic when two days into the trip I took a call in our room from London. I barely managed to say 'Vince Hill' before getting disconnected. 'Athol, Mum or Dad's had an accident - I just know it,' she wailed.

Unfortunately the telephone system in that part of the world was fairly primitive back then, so it wasn't just a matter of dialling back. Then Lady Luck took a turn. Conservative MP Sir Philip Holland was staying at the same hotel, and when he heard about Annie's dilemma he offered assistance. 'Come with me to the British Embassy,' he said, 'and I'll see if I can get you a line via the diplomatic link.' To say we were delighted was an understatement and off Annie went with Sir Philip to pull a few strings.

I didn't know, and Annie had forgotten, that the This Is Your Life team had decided to have me as one of their subjects, and were well into the planning. The production team was in place and Annie was well into the research, but the whole thing had to be a complete secret, of course. Apparently a problem with the broadcasting date had come up and they wanted to put it back a couple of weeks - so they wanted to discuss this with Annie. When Annie got through to her mum she was full of apologies, but under the circumstances she'd had no choice but to give the production head our telephone number. When I answered he'd hung up, to avoid giving the game away. So now all Annie had to do was explain to me what had happened when she got back to the hotel - and with Philip Holland's help she managed to do this superbly. One good thing came out of the whole episode: Philip and his wife Jo became firm friends.

The holiday was over all too soon, but naturally we were pleased to get home to Athol - and of course Annie had clandestine This Is Your Life work to do. I was blissfully unaware of everything, although I had the occasional niggling thought at the back of my mind. Annie was my business manager, and while she conducted this with a minimum of interference from me, I pretty much knew what was going on. Then suddenly she needed to go places alone or with our secretary. If this wasn't worrying enough, when telephone calls came in she'd walk out of the room, blaming the sound from the television - but this had never created a problem before. Was Annie having an affair?

On one occasion, while I was doing a week at Caesar's Palace in Luton, I finished early and arrived home ahead of schedule. As I walked into the hall I heard a great deal of shuffling from the front room, and as I entered Annie and a strange man were hurriedly getting up off the floor to sit on the settee. I noticed at once that his flies were undone. I forgot quite how she introduced him, but the fact that he was outrageously camp distracted me from my shotgun. With the benefit of hindsight there were other obvious signs that nothing sinister was going on, but I never cottoned on and the whole thing remained a secret to the end. As part of Annie's role she had to go through reams of pictures, cuttings and brochures for the producer, whose attention to detail was acute. All this had to be achieved without me having the slightest indication of anything untoward, and I realise now that the strain on her must have been enormous.

Three dates were set initially, and they were all deferred for one reason or another. Finally the This Is Your Life production team together with Annie put a booking in my diary for a charity event for Help the Aged at the Daffodil Club in Bethnal Green, as part of a purported documentary by ITV. In reality this was where I was to be surprised by Eamonn Andrews and the Big Red Book.

It was much later that I heard of the great excitement that went on the night before, around which the most preposterous yet extraordinarily clever subterfuge was arranged. The This Is Your Life team had a bogus invitation put together inviting Annie to the Metropolitan Police Flying Squad Ladies Night, in order that she could attend the final planning meeting at Thames Television's studios. I recall her being very excited when she received the invitation, and thinking that it was an unlikely event for her to be so thrilled about. When she arrived it was with a mixture of relief and pleasure to find that all the guests had arrived safely, some from other countries, so that the director could go through the script, plan the running order and answer an enormous number of questions.

One hilarious moment came when Billy Carroll, who'd been my pianist at the Prospect at Margate, revealed he was going to tell how we shared a bed for a week during the talent competition there. I'd won the first prize, which was a week's engagement at the Prospect, which included accommodation. I'd thought this would be at the pub too, but it transpired that Billy would be putting me up at his place. Now Billy was as camp as a row of tents and lived in a one-bedroom flat. Aged fifteen I'd never heard of homosexuality, and when I was tipped off that he was gay I replied, 'Yes, he's a very happy chap.'

It's probably not widely known that what the guests say when they're introduced is usually scripted by professional writers, but Billy had prepared his own piece. Eamonn Andrews had the greatest difficulty explaining to him that he couldn't be openly gay and then announce in front of millions that he'd shared a double bed with me for a week without it leaving innuendo in its wake. After a very funny half hour Eamonn eventually made his point, and a somewhat bewildered Billy agreed to keep the story to himself.

Finally all the rehearsals were completed, and the production team was happy. Now all Annie had to do was tremble over the night itself.

The big day arrived... for them at least. I was in the vegetable garden, covered in mud and planting my potatoes. Naturally I was wearing my oldest trousers and boots, and so engrossed in my activity was I that it didn't seem odd that Annie was interested in the state of my fingernails. I remember commenting that I thought it unlikely the Help the Aged fraternity at the Daffodil Club in Bethnal Green would mind me singing to them with the odd broken nail, but promising to scrub and file them. Even so, I did wonder momentarily about the number of trips she made to the vegetable garden that afternoon.

Ultimately Annie convinced me that as the evening's event was being recorded I should make an extra effort and put on good clothes, rather than arriving in casual dress. This made sense, so I got ready a little earlier than I might have done usually.

Bethnal Green and the Daffodil Club were as far east of the centre of London as we were west, so we allowed a couple of hours to make the journey. Annie was on edge and I thought perhaps she was unwell. When I suggested she should stay at home I received short shrift, and we headed east in silence.

'Turn left for Bethnal Green.' Annie's voice snapped... and I whipped the wheel around accordingly.

It was obvious it was going to be a serious documentary, because there were enough production vehicles parked at the side and around the back of the club to make a small movie. As soon as I entered the concert room the director introduced himself, and explained he wanted me to be singing one of my songs with Ernie doing the backing, and that they'd pan in and out with a camera over the introduction dialogue. I only got to the end of the first verse before he shouted 'Cut', got into a huddle with some of his staff, looked around furtively and asked me to start again, saying they had gremlins in the equipment. After about five takes I was about to get a bit stroppy when I was aware that a sudden silence had come over the small audience of a hundred or so, and people were looking round in different directions. I commented to Ernie that it was a strange set-up, and he nodded - although he didn't seem fazed in the least.

Now we've all probably experienced the sensation of someone standing in the shadows, imaginary or otherwise, and suddenly I became aware of a presence behind me. I spun round and there, complete with his red book... was Eamonn Andrews. I managed one word only. 'Christ!'

'Vince Hill, you thought you were here at the Daffodil Club in Bethnal Green tonight to sing a few songs for a TV documentary, but in fact, Vince Hill... This Is Your Life.'

It's hard to describe the emotions when the whole of your professional career is played out before you, not just as a tribute but in your honour. I've always been a perfectionist, and as a result I've never been completely satisfied that I couldn't have done better; the effect of this is a tendency to feel unworthy. I found the experience terrifying, humbling and ultimately completely overwhelming, and I concede that this recognition from my peers was the highlight of my life.

After Eamonn's surprise appearance I was chaperoned by researcher, later producer, Maurice Leonard and taken by car to a venue called The White House, near the television studios at Euston Road. Meanwhile Annie and Ernie travelled straight to the studios. I was treated to champagne while the final touches were made, and then went with Maurice to the studios.

Annie was the first to appear, followed by the Royal Corp of Signals Band who played an introduction, then old workmates from my coal-mining days and from a bakery I'd worked at. Ken Dodd came out of the shadows, closely followed by the magic of David Nixon (the most famous magician in Britain in his day), then my mum, dad and brother and sisters. My brother Jack was introduced in a particularly sensational fashion. Jack, no mean entertainer himself, worked as a dustman by day, and they ran a film of him on his rounds, interrupting him to say a few words to me on film. 'Do you remember singing this with me, our kid?' he said, and broke into song:

There was once a farmer who took a young Miss

In back of a barn where he gave her a... lecture

On horses and chickens and eggs.

And told her that she had beautiful... manners

That suited a girl of her charms.

A girl that he wanted to take in his washing and ironing

And if she did they would get married

And raise lots of... Sweet Violets...

I joined in, and so did some of the audience. It ended in mirth, and, surprise, surprise... Jack too came in from the shadows.

Julie Rogers [ editor: Julie Rogers does not appear in the broadcast version] was followed by The Raindrops, and Len Beadle - who'd been married to Jackie Lee, of course. He gave Jackie a kiss and remarked that he had 'once known this young lady'. Incredibly she had flown in from Canada. Next my old mates Johnny Worth and Teddy Foster appeared, and, to bring it to a close, my best friend from army days, Brian Mather, at whose wedding I'd been best man and who played trumpet with the Royal Signals Band.

Then we adjourned to a celebration party. It was superb, and crowned an unforgettable adventure.

Series 16 subjects

Ronnie Dukes | Ray Milland | Mike Hailwood | Frank Windsor | Magnus Pyke | Bill Tidy | Gladys Mills | Andy Stewart
Windsor Davies | Ray Reardon | Patrick Mower | Alberto Remedios | Susan Masham | Betty Driver | Henry Davies
Gwen Berryman | Vince Hill | Arnold Ridley | Beryl Reid | Alan Mullery | Percy Thrower | Gareth Edwards
June Whitfield | Terry Fincher | Richard Dunn | Norman Croucher