This Was Their Lives: TV’s Sycophantic Celebrity Biographies

A selection of classic episodes from the UK edition of This Is Your Life.

For a long time, This Is Your Life was a mainstay of British television. While the US version that it was based on only had sporadic runs – from 1952 to 1961 originally, then a couple of brief revivals in 1971-2 and 1983, the British show had an initial decade-long run from 1955 to 1964, and then from 1969 to 2003. For TV viewers, it was a burst of glamorous celebrity at the start of the evening, as host Eamonn Andrews would surprise some unsuspecting star of variable fame with his Big Red Book, and then sit them through a somewhat whitewashed version of their lives to date, with colleagues and family members turning up to surprise them and tell bland anecdotes about them. Essentially, it’s like a Roast if everyone involved was painfully sycophantic.

As you might expect, the level of celebrity varied wildly, and as the show went on and Andrews died, the guests surprised by new host Michael Aspel would become rather more prosaic – soap stars, footballers, passing nobodies and the like that ITV knew would appeal to their increasingly downmarket audience became the standard, with only the odd guest who would be recognised outside the UK making an appearance. Still, imagine what the show would be like now – it’d be nothing but twenty-something turning reality TV contestants.

Anyway, here are a collection of episodes from the show’s peak period, with a mixed bag of  ‘victims’ including Christopher Lee, Patrick Macnee, a decrepit-looking Ian Hendry, wrestler Big Daddy, Diana Dors, Susan George and George Best. Oddest of them is Richard Beckinsale, then just 29 years old and seemingly with his life still in front of him; but of course, Beckinsale would die of a heart attack just two years later. It’s almost as though they knew…

And as a special bonus, here’s Angie Dickinson having a less enthusiastic to being picked for the US version of the show.

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