Secrets of ‘Life’ – The ones who got away
In 700 programmes, ‘This Is Your Life’ has usually got its man – or woman. But there have been near-misses and some who got away. In the first of a two-part exclusive, producer MALCOLM MORRIS reveals all
Calamities and confusions are a natural, almost inevitable, part of the general untidiness of This Is Your Life. Far from being neat and orderly, it is a dangerous programme, totally unpredictable. Anything can go wrong and most things have.
Each week, at the start of the programme, I have to ask presenter Michael Aspel to bring us to within seconds of the allotted 25-and-a-half minutes, but he cannot know precisely what people are going to say or how long they are going to take to say it. It is nerve-racking and, sometimes, it shows. In a recent programme, Mich-ael had to introduce one of the guests, Paddy Ashdown, the Social and Liberal Democrats’ leader. In one of those classic moments of mental confusion, he referred to him first as Peggy Ashdown… and then as Paddy Ashcroft.
Mostly, these days, the programmes are recorded but, as far as I am concerned, they might as well be live because, if anything goes wrong, we cannot, as with most taped shows, stop and start again. Once we have started, we don’t stop for anything.
In one programme we will be showing soon, we were almost stopped before we started.
We knew that our chosen subject would be travelling by train from Yorkshire to London.
The idea was for the film crew to get on the same train and hide themselves away in the guard’s van. Then Michael, heavily disguised as a ticket inspector with moustache and glasses, was supposed to get on the train when it stopped at Stevenage.
It started to go wrong when half the film crew got on the wrong train, although, luckily, that was sorted out when they were able to join the rest of the crew at Stevenage.
We already knew where our subject would be sitting but, as Michael approached the carriage, the lights went out and we were in total darkness. One of our engineers helped to restore the lights and we really felt we were ready to go. But no…
As Michael was about to enter the compartment, the cameraman hissed: ‘Stop – the tape has jammed.’
By the time everything was working and the lights were on again, the train was pulling into King’s Cross station. The woman – and that’s all I will tell you about her — was just pulling her suitcase down from the rack when Michael presented her with the red book. That was a very hairy one.
Another that had all the makings of being tricky was Phil Collins, the rock star/actor.
We had decided to do Collins before the present series began but were warned by several people that, at the sight of Michael and the red book, he would run a mile.
Another difficulty was that Collins knew Michael well and had recently been on his chat show.
The plan was to lure Collins to Covent Garden by telling him that an American station – one we invented specially – wanted to do an interview to plug the film Buster.
We decided we would have Michael as a busker and persuaded him not to shave for a few days.
We surrounded him with other ‘buskers’. Phil Collins quickly recognised Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, but Michael was able to get close enough to present the red book and say: ‘Phil Collins, this is your life.’
Collins, as it turned out, was delighted and agreed to do the show. Had he refused or ‘done a runner’, he would only have been the third in the programme’s long history.
Soccer star Danny Blanchflower, in fact, continues to hold the record as the only British This Is Your Life subject who refused to be on the programme when he had been nabbed by Eamonn Andrews.
That was in 1956, a year after the BBC had inherited the series from America, where it originated. The BBC brought the series to an end in 1961 – something I am sure they have lived to regret – after successfully netting about 200 subjects. ITV restored it in 1968, since when we have screened a further 500 programmes.
Author Richard Gordon became the second subject to walk off. His response to being confronted by Eamonn was one five-letter expletive.
It was live then and I was directing. We faded out the picture and screened an alternative, recorded programme on the actor Sam Kydd. While that was going out, Eamonn was able to persuade Gordon to continue with the programme we had prepared and it was transmitted later.
Weeks of work go into tracking down all the people we want to have on a particular programme. Secrecy is of paramount importance.
We even have codewords for our subjects and I’ll let you into the secret of some of those next week.
But every so often, for one reason or another, the programme has to be scrapped because the subject has found out beforehand and the element of surprise is ruined.
The first programme in Britain went out on 22 July 1955, and we learned all those years ago that This Is Your Life rarely runs smoothly it had to be replanned at the last minute.
Ralph Edwards, the American deviser of the programme had flown in from Los Angeles to supervise and the presenter was to be the 32-year-old Eamonn Andrews.
Eamonn, who sadly died in November 1987, was then presenting What’s My Line? and had seen the programme in America. He persuaded the BBC to do a British version.
The first guest was to have been the soccer idol Stanley Matthews. A week before the programme went out, Matthews read in his morning paper – the Daily Sketch – that he was to be honoured by the new This Is Your Life programme and the whole thing was dead from that moment.
Panic. An alternative programme had to be devised. Ralph Edwards told Eamonn the ‘new’ subject would be boxing champion Freddie Mills.
Eamonn brought Freddie to Shepherd’s Bush and sat in the audience with him. Ralph had given Eamonn the red book, which had a cover on it, hiding the name of the subject.
When Eamonn pulled the cover away he read the words outloud: “This Is Your Life… Eamonn Andrews’ and received the book from Edwards, compère of the original US series.
Incredibly, in all the programmes we have done, only about 20 of our subjects have been lost.
In 1985, when the legendary American dancing star Cyd Charisse was in London, she was staying at a hotel with her husband Tony Martin.
Final details of the programme were being discussed with Martin when Cyd picked up the extension and learned that she was to be the next subject. Another Life had been killed.
In 1979, a researcher telephoned London’s Savoy Hotel, where husky-voiced Elaine Stritch was living with her husband. Perhaps a little overeager, the researcher announced himself immediately. ‘Hello, Mr Stritch, I’m from This Is Your Life and we are thinking of doing a programmes on your wife. What do you think?’
The silence lasted six seconds. A lifetime. ‘I think that’s great, honey,’ came the famous voice. ‘But this is Elaine Stritch speaking. My husband is out at the moment.’
These days, if anybody answers the telephone in the office, they do not announce the fact that it is where This Is Your Life comes from. And that lesson was learned from an incident in 1979.
Ronnie Barker’s wife, Joy, had been putting the telephone down quickly whenever Ronnie happened to appear in the room, telling him it was a series of wrong numbers.
Soon, Ronnie became more and more puzzled. Was it, perhaps, a lover? One day, Ronnie saw Joy hide a card in her underwear drawer. He had to look. On the card was a telephone number and a man’s name. Ronnie called the number.
A man answered. ‘Hello, This Is Your Life office here. Can I help you?’ For us, it was worse than a lover. It was another cancelled programme.
Every so often, the news of our plans gets out and none of us knows how it happens. We planned to ‘do’ Jimmy Young in 1983 and were waiting for a particular head of state to become available to appear in the programme.
We went ahead with the rest of the programme and it was over my morning coffee, days before we were to go on air, that I read in the gossip columns: ‘This Is Your Life sets up to do Jimmy Young.’ I’m quite sure the top politician had been able to keep a secret, but somebody else hadn’t.
Derek Nimmo was another ‘nearly ran’. We did all the research, made all the telephone calls, had a very interesting programme prepared and were just a few days away from telling his story when somebody slipped a note under the door of his theatre dressing-room in London, where he was appearing.
The note read: ‘BEWARE WEDNESDAY… THIS IS YOUR LIFE.’ And it was goodbye to our programme.
Malcolm Morris was talking to STEWART KNOWLES
About the author
Malcolm Morris (1932-2016) held various roles at Tyne Tees and Thames, including Controller, Programme Department (Administration)
1 thought on “Secrets of ‘Life’ – The ones who got away”
I remember seeing Richard Gordon bottle out of This Is Your Life!