The Independent Archive; A programme with a life of its own -1 June 1988

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As Michael Aspel takes over `This is Your Life', Peter Dunn examines what it is that makes the show so popular

EAMONN ANDREWS died last November but Malcolm Morris occasionally talks of him as though he were still alive. Mr Morris has produced This is Your Life for Thames TV for 20 years and memories of his Irish front man linger confusingly. "It's difficult to realise he's gone sometimes," Mr Morris explains sadly. "Eamonn was a great friend of mine. I've stayed at his home, I've been on holiday with the family."

This autumn the programme, which Mr Morris refers to as The Life, returns to ITV with its new presenter, Michael Aspel.

Mr Aspel recognises that Andrews will be a difficult act to follow. Eamonn Andrews had done more than 700 episodes of The Life, first for the BBC in the early Fifties and then for ABC TV and Thames. Confronting the famous and the lesser-known, script tucked deferentially under his arm like a wine-list, the self-effacing presenter became more revered than any of his guests.

"Yes, I feel nothing but qualms about it," says Aspel. "It was my first reaction that the show was an institution and so was he. I think, though, that its appeal is greater than its presenter. It's got a life force of its own. I'd have to try pretty hard to ruin that."

The Life began as an American radio show in 1946. Forty years on it still attracts audiences in excess of 11 million, outliving many of its detractors.

"The first criticism people make is that it's embarrassing," said Mr Morris. "I've got a rude piece on the programme from 1954 which said it's an embarrassing programme and we'd never last and furthermore Eamonn Andrews was over-exposed. The policy of the programme has always been very clear. In a negative way we knew what we didn't want to do and that was a documentary.

"People say, `Why don't you have this period of his life when he had a divorce or went bankrupt?' I always answer the same. `If you're giving a surprise party for someone would you invite someone they didn't like? Would it make their evening if we produced a prison warder or his ex?'

"First of all people watch it to find out who the subject is. Once they see who it is their curiosity's aroused and so is ours because in these parties we give we're in an unrehearsed situation. Where else on TV these days, except in the news, is there a programme which isn't cut and dried and you know is safe?

"There are people, very famous people, who've said to their wives, `If ever Eamonn comes up please say "No".' And they don't even mean it. I mean, I think Leslie Crowther didn't want to but his wife didn't believe him and said `Yes' and we did it. And he absolutely loved the programme.

"It's only happened once that someone has refused on the pick-up. Everyone says Danny Blanchflower told Eamonn to get lost and swear they saw it on air, though it never went out. In fact Eamonn turned round to Danny, opened his mouth and Danny was gone. He left his coat over the chair and ran out of the studio and down the road hotly pursued by Eamonn.

"People say we don't do ordinary people but that's not true. The most memorable show would have to be a lady called Mary Fisher, a foster-mother from Milton Keynes. We had a photograph of her sent in with 50 of her foster-children. Such a lovely photograph. She got on well with her husband. Such a lovely romance. We took the photograph, blew it up to about 25ft by 12ft and put it right across the top of Liverpool Street station ready for the pick-up. When she came to town to do a bit of shopping and saw this 25ft photograph out of her album it blew her brains completely."

Mr Morris considered the people whose lives The Life had yet to touch. "I'd do the Pope if I could get him," he said, brightening visibly at the thought. "A good story there. Ex-actor, playwright. He's done a lot of things.

"I think the show will run and run. When my wife was giving birth to our son, I remember the obstetrician, in the middle of the birth, trying to relax everyone and saying to me, `When are you going to run out of people?' I said, `If you keep delivering them I'll keep doing the show.' "

From the Media page of `The Independent', Wednesday 1 June 1988

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