The Round Ball on the Square Box - Part One: This is Y0ur Life/Piers Morgan's Life Stories

This is Part One of a New Series based around the representation of Football on TV and Film. The first part centres on football-related appearances on ‘This is Your Life’.  The show first hit the British screens on the BBC in July 1955 and was based on an American show of the same name.  The show had a sports connection from the off, in that its original host – Eamonn Andrews – started his career on Ireland’s state radio station Radio Éireann as a sports broadcaster before crossing the Irish Sea to work for the BBC in 1950 and while hosting ‘This is Your Life’ also presented BBC’s Sports report, then on the Light Programme.  He also commentated on major Boxing bouts for the BBC and also previously won the Irish amateur junior middleweight boxing championship.

Andrews was actually the very first guest on the show, the host for this one-off edition had been the host of the American version – Ralph Edwards.  Eamonn Andrews was already contracted to present future episodes of ‘This is Your Life’ and was led to believe the subject was to be his friend, boxer and ‘Six Five Special’ host Freddie Mills.

The guest of the first episode was initially to be Blackpool and England footballing legend Stanley Matthews.  This however had been cancelled at the last moment the programme, after a national newspaper leaked the story.  Elaborate plans made by the BBC which included flying Blackpool’s 1953 FA Cup-winning team down to London had to be scrapped.  Matthews however turned out to be guest on the ninth episode of the show, the following February.


‘This is Your Life’ was a show which was rarely repeated due to agreements in place with the TV companies and the Equity Union.  As a result, many episodes were wiped due to the fact that a lack of ability to show repeats and that the cost of video tape and archiving at the time meant that the tape was of more value to the TV companies than the actual recording.  Footage of the Stanley Matthews episode seems to be one that no longer exists, however his daughter Jean explains the experience in the video below.  The show includes guest appearances from footballers Stan Cullis, Tommy Lawton and Arsenal’s Eddie Hapgood.

The next football guest on the show would be Man United boss Matt Busby in early January 1958.  Again, footage did not escape from being wiped.  The BBC persuaded Busby to go to their Manchester studios to take part in a mock Sports panel show.  Football guests on the programme included Frank Swift, Joe Mercer, Johnny Aston, Billy Liddell and Man United Secretary and former boss Walter Crickmer.  The show took place just a month before the tragic Munich Air Crash, in which Busby survived but suffered great illness.  Among the many fatalities of that air crash had been two of the show’s guests – Frank Swift (in his capacity as a journalist covering United) and Walter Crickmer.

The next football related appearance on ‘This is Your Life’ came in May 1959, in the shape of music hall star and the first host of ITV’s ‘Sunday Night at the Palladium - Tommy Trinder.  Tommy was also Chairman of Fulham Football Club and effectively sounded the death kneel for the maximum wage era by making Fulham’s Johnny Haynes Britain’s first £100 a week Footballer in 1961.  Also in 1961, the very first person who refused to appear on the show after Eamonn Andrews had sprung the red book on them was a footballer - Tottenham Hotspur skipper, Danny Blanchflower.


Luckily for the show, it was not recorded live but one hour before it was scheduled to be aired.  It did however leave the BBC inconvenienced, needing to issue a statement, explaining that it had: ‘hoped to tell the story of Danny Blanchflower. Unfortunately, he felt unable to take part in the programme and, as a result, the BBC transmitted a programme which told the story of Dr Robert Fawcus, of Chard, Somerset’.  Blanchflower explained that: ‘It was a split-second decision and I would do it again. I had a feeling and I acted instinctively….Basically, I did not want to expose myself to the public without the right to say yes or no. You get shanghaied into this situation where you are suddenly exposed to something. Had it been before the studio audience and not for a telerecorded introduction, I would still have said no’.


Blanchflower’s decision was backed by The Guardian newspaper at the time, whose editorial stated: ‘He was entirely justified in choosing to take no part in these proceedings, and to remain a private person in all respects, except upon the football field’.  The paper also said of that the show: ‘has never been one of the BBC's more likeable programmes. In part an impertinence, in part a fraud, it has always been more in the vein of the American studios….than in the decent tradition of Broadcasting House. There have been some subjects, mainly those with long experience of the limelight, who have thriven in its atmosphere of garish emotion and have given as good as they got. There have been others who were clearly embarrassed and distressed to find themselves tricked – there is no other word – into a parade of their private lives before the cameras’.

The Show’s host Eamonn Andrews however, in describing the incident stated: ‘it is necessary in show business to regard the unexpected as the expected. Otherwise you would die before your time or go through life a nervous wreck….it was one of the few occasions when I wasn’t worried at the beginning of a programme. I knew Danny, not only as the star footballer he is, but as a radio and television performer. He had written about himself, and by no stretch of the imagination could I imagine him as adverse to publicity’.  Eamonn added that, as a result of Blanchflower’s refusal: ‘Weeks of preparation had gone by the board; hundreds of pounds in fares and a theatre full of people had to be told they could go home….never again have I relaxed until our guest of honour has sat on the stage, and the programme is rolling’.

After Spurs won the double the following May, the BBC broke with the Show’s tradition and approached Blanchflower again about the possibility of appearing on the show.  Blanchflower turned them down again for a second time, refusing to change his stance.  Instead, the show sprung the red book on former England skipper Billy Wright, who being married to one of the Beverley Sisters was more used to the limelight.  The only other person close to ‘doing a Blanchflower’ during the show’s history was Richard Gordon – author of the ‘Doctor’ books and subsequent LWT comedy series – in 1974. 

As Andrews sprung with the red book live on air, Gordon asked: ‘Are we on now?’ Eamonn responded with ‘Yes…this is live.’  Richard Gordon then shouted ‘Balls!’ and turned to dash out of the building.  Eamonn remonstrated with him, stating that: ‘We’ve got a lot of guests waiting to see you’.  Gordon stated: ‘I didn’t invite them’.  The TV station were instead forced to show a pre-recorded edition featuring another guest.  Unlike Danny Blanchflower however, Richard Gordon later agreed to proceed with the show, which went out the following week. 

Also in 1961, the show also featured former Sheffield Wednesday striker Derek Dooley, whose career was ended eight years prior when after a leg break had to have his leg amputated after a gangrene infection set in.  In his autobiography, Dooley rather modestly claimed: ‘all I had done was play football and lose my leg. There didn’t seem much of a story to tell!’

The first run of ‘This is Your Life’ on the BBC ended in April 1964, when Eamonn Andrews defected to ITV franchise holder ABC Weekend Television.  Andrews then went on to host ‘World of Sport’ - ITV’s equivalent of the BBC’s ‘Grandstand’ on Saturday afternoons, until 1968.  The Independent Television Authority (who regulated ITV) had forced ABC Weekend Television to merge with Associated Rediffusion to form Thames Television that same year.  It was Thames who decided to reprise ‘This is Your Life’ for the ITV network a year later, again with Eamonn Andrews as host.  The Stage newspaper however were scathing of the decision, stating: ‘You’ve got to hand it to Thames. When it comes to picking up the BBC’s cast offs, there’s no one to beat them. Pinky and Perky, Sooty and now This Is Your Life!’


The first guest during the Thames years had been entertainer Des O’Connor, who briefly played professional football for Northampton Town.  In the second episode the following week, it was the turn of Man United and England World Cup hero of a few years prior, Bobby Charlton.  A touching period within this piece is Bobby breaking down in tears when Matt Busby discusses the Munich Air crash of eleven years prior (@3.09).

Next up in late March 1970 was the incumbent Man City boss Joe Mercer.  During the course of the show, with Mercer’s City team in attendance, Eamonn announced the inclusion of four Man City players – Colin Bell, Francis Lee, Mike Summerbee and Alan Oakes – in the England Squad for the Mexico ’70 World Cup.  In January 1971, came the turn of England’s World Cup winning captain Bobby Moore.  At the time, Bobby had been in hot water with West Ham, due to him breaking a curfew along with Jimmy Greaves, Clyde Best and Brian Deer in Blackpool the previous weekend.  The following day, the Hammers lost 0-4 to Blackpool and exited the FA Cup in the third round.

Apparently, Hammers boss Ron Greenwood was so incensed that he wanted all of the players involved to be sacked.  Jeff Powell explained in Bobby Moore’s biography that: ‘while Greenwood plunged into a round of meetings with the club’s directors, BBC television Thames Television were making their usual secretive arrangements for that Wednesday night’s This Is Your Life programme, with Moore as the surprised subject….West Ham delayed announcing their verdict on Moore and company until Thursday therefore allowing Thames Television to go ahead with their programme unembarrassed’.  Moore was fined by West Ham, but remained with the Hammers, though his relationship with Ron Greenwood never really recovered.

The first person to make a second appearance on ‘This is Your Life’ had been Matt Busby in May 1971, who around this time was set to retire from football management for the second time, after standing in as caretaker boss of Man United after Wilf McGuiness was relieved of his duties around Christmas time of 1970.  Eamonn had presented the big red book to Busby immediately after his final game on the pitch away at Maine Road against Man City along with City boss Joe Mercer (as seen from the pic above), as United ran out 4-3 winners.  The start of the third series for Thames, the following November saw Man United’s George Best featured.  Just three weeks prior, George had received death threats from the IRA.  They had threatened to shoot him on the pitch at Old Trafford if he played for Man United against Newcastle.

He was offered the day off by United, but still chose to play and even scored against the Magpies.  Newcastle United boss Joe Harvey had rather insensitively joked: ‘I wish they had shot the little bugger’.  George remarked in his 2002 autobiography: ‘things got even more surreal a few weeks after the death threat incident when Eamonn Andrews jumped out at me with his little red book on This Is Your Life’.  A recording of the George Best episode has been uploaded to YouTube and can be seen below.

In March 1972, England’s World Cup winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks was to feature on the show, less than a year before he was forced to retire from the game after losing an eye in a road traffic accident.  Fourteen months later it was the turn of another retiring 1966 World Cup hero.  Eamonn Andrews sprung the big red book on Jackie three days ahead of Leeds United’s FA Cup Final appearance against Sunderland (of which Jackie would not feature and Leeds crashed to a shock 0-1 defeat).  Jackie quit playing to take over as boss of Middlesbrough that summer.  Jackie guided Boro back to the top flight as Champions of the old Second Division, though in his absence his old side Leeds United ended the season as League Champions and losing only four games all season. 

That term was manager Don Revie’s final season in charge at Elland Road before taking over from Alf Ramsey as England manager.  Twelve months on, Don Revie would be the next recipient of the big red book from Eamonn Andrews.  Aside from appearances made by the Leeds United side, there had also been Yorkshire sporting legends Cricketer Fred Trueman, Showjumper Harvey Smith, as well as Football managerial legends Bill Shankly and Matt Busby in attendance.  Retiring from the game that summer was also Denis Law, who relegated Man United with the final kick of the season at Old Trafford, while turning out for Man City.  In February 1975, Law was rewarded with his own edition of ‘This is Your Life’.  Among those paying tribute in this edition was Jimmy Greaves and pop star Rod Stewart.

In March 1976, came the turn of Spurs and Fulham’s Alan Mullery.  The show featured Bobby Moore, Jimmy Hill, Bobby Robson, World Cup winner George Cohen and Bill Nicholson.  There were also filmed tributes from Fulham fans such as Top of the Pops and Radio One presenter ‘Diddy’ David Hamilton and actress Honor Blackman, as well as Jimmy Tarbuck, Jimmy Greaves, Frank McLintock and Pele among others.  Meanwhile, in the interim between Christmas and New Year 1977, came a ‘This is Your Life’ tribute to Liverpool boss Bob Paisley, just six months on from winning the European Cup with the Reds in defeating Borussia Monchengladbach.  Bob’s edition included filmed tributes from Matt Busby, Kevin Keegan and an appearance from Bill Shankly.

Keegan himself was next to become the subject of the show in February 1979.  Kev was by this point plying his trade at SV Hamburg in the Bundesliga and was the reigning European Footballer of the Year.  Keegan was in the UK attending a Christening party for his daughter when Eamonn Andrews surprised Kev by jumping out of a cake.  On the guest list for this episode had been Mick Channon, Emlyn Hughes, his football hero Billy Wright and scouse comedian Tom O’Connor.  One year later, Liverpool’s European Cup winning captain Emlyn Hughes (now playing for Wolves) became the subject of his own ‘This is Your Life’ edition.


On the guest list would be his current boss John Barnwell, former bosses Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly as well as George Best. In October 1980, Southampton boss Lawrie McMenemy was presented with the big red book by Eamonn Andrews on his twentieth wedding anniversary.  There were appearances from Kevin Keegan, Jimmy Tarbuck, Don Revie, as well as filmed tributes from Jimmy Hill and Alan Ball.  In November 1981 came another ‘footballing’ appearance in the shape of Ian Botham.  At the time Beefy was renowned for his Cricketing exploits for Somerset and England (particularly that year’s Ashes triumph over Australia). 

However, Botham was also turning his hand to Football during the winter months – first for Yeovil in the Southern League and then Scunthorpe in the Football League (footage below being visual proof).  Botham’s footballing career lasted between 1978 and 1985, but obviously never got anywhere near that of his Cricket notoriety.  

One month later saw former Newcastle United forward ‘Wor’ Jackie Milburn featured.  As cousin to Bobby and Jackie, both of the Charlton brothers appeared, as did Tom Finney and Billy Wright and a filmed tribute from Cardinal Basil Hume.  February 1982 saw the big red book sprung upon Swansea boss and former Liverpool striker John Toshack.  Unsurprisingly, former strike partner Kevin Keegan appeared, as did Bob Paisley, along with Welsh Rugby hero Gareth Edwards.  Nearly a year to the day, Tosh’s successor as Anfield hero – Kenny Dalglish – became the next footballer to feature on ‘This is Your Life’.  Kenny received glowing tributes from Denis Law, former Scotland boss Tommy Docherty and singer Petula Clark (a brief clip from this features on the YouTube video below @26.44).

In November 1983, Eamonn Andrews sprung the red book on Pat Jennings at White Hart Lane, immediately after the finish of a League Cup tie between Pat’s old club Spurs and his new side Arsenal.  Pat’s show featured a plethora of former Spurs, Arsenal and Northern Irish talent, as well as comedians Peter Cook and Jimmy Tarbuck, former Liverpool stars Tommy Smith and Kevin Keegan, as well as a recorded message from Pele.

In late November 1984, Cricketer Viv Richards had the red book sprung upon him by Eamonn Andrews.  Like Botham, Richards also dabbled in both sports and had also played international Football for Antigua and Barbuda.  In January 1985, Man United and England skipper Bryan Robson featured on the show.  Guests for Robbo’s edition included Bobby Charlton, Denis Law, England boss Bobby Robson and his Newcastle United hero Wyn Davies.


Meanwhile, the following October would feature Gerry Marsden, lead singer of Merseybeat group Gerry and the Pacemakers.  The show would feature Gerry’s links to Liverpool FC, the club’s adoption of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and his work with The Crowd’s Charity record for the Bradford Fire disaster that same year.  It also featured several of the Liverpool side of the 1960s.

On New Years’ Eve of 1985, the subject of ‘This is Your Life’ would be ‘Rockney’ musical duo Chas and Dave.  The finale of the edition being the introduction of the Spurs side and the featuring of the duos two Cup Final songs made for Spurs in 1981 and 1982.

In March 1986 England Keeper Peter Shilton would be sprung at Waterloo Station with five North London based England stars - Arsenal’s Kenny Sansom, Tony Woodcock and Viv Anderson, as well as Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle of Spurs - disguised as British Rail porters.  They were joined by several of Shilton’s Southampton and England team mates, as well as his former Leicester boss Matt Gilles and Gordon Banks, whom Shilton’s ousted as Leicester keeper in 1967 despite many believing the latter to be the World’s number one keeper.

In February 1987, former Middlesex and England Cricketer and Football star Dennis Compton appeared as guest on ‘This is Your Life’.  Unlike Botham and Richards, Compton’s Footballing career was far more distinguished, having been a regular for Arsenal during their 1948 League Championship season and played in the 1950 FA Cup Final.  Appearing on the show would be the England captain of the time Mike Gatting, pointing out the links between him and Compton in that he was a Middlesex Cricketer, while his brother Steve played also Football for Arsenal.  Dennis Compton would be the final Football related guest on ‘This is Your Life’ during the period in which the show was hosted by Eamonn Andrews.  On 5th November 1987, the Irishman unexpectedly passed away at the age of sixty four as a result of heart failure. 

Taking over duties would be Michael Aspel.  The first footballer to appear on the show during the Aspel era would be the ‘Preston Plumber’ Tom Finney.  Among his former England colleagues appearing on the show would be Neil Franklin, Laurie Scott, Johnny Haynes, Wilf Mannion, Joe Mercer and Ivor Broadis.  There were also filmed tributes from Omar Sharif, Tommy Docherty, Stanley Matthews via telephone, John Barnes, Bryan Robson and Tory cabinet member Cecil Parkinson.

The first Football related ‘This is Your Life’ guest during the 1990s would be former Wolves and England captain Billy Wright in January 1990, joining the select band of people to have appeared on the show twice.  In November 1991, England World Cup winning midfielder Nobby Stiles would get his chance to appear on the show.  Meanwhile, also in the autumn on 1991, Thames Television – who had been producing ‘This is Your Life’ since 1969 - received the news that they had lost their franchise bid to Carlton Television and so would cease to broadcast after 31st December 1992.  From thereafter, Thames Television continued to produce the show for ITV, but as a company independent of the ITV Network.

The next Football guest to appear on the show would be former Bolton and England star from the 1950s – Nat Lofthouse, with appearances from current day Football stars Gary Lineker, Ian Rush and Paul Gascoigne. 

Many changes occurred within the ITV network during the early to mid-1990s.  Consequently, the tenure of ‘This is Your Life’ on the channel came to an end in July 1994 after nearly a quarter of a century.  The very last footballing guest would be former Man City, Derby and England star Francis Lee in April of that year.  Appearing on Frannie’s special edition would be Northern Working Man’s club comics Little and Large and the not so politically correct Bernard Manning.

Within four months, the show would return, back on the BBC after a thirty year hiatus.  The BBC had received a considerable amount of success reprising former Thames Television show ‘Men Behaving Badly’ that same year and thought that Michael Aspel and his big red book might repeat the trick.  The first football related guest would not be a Football star, but Raymond Gainer - The chairman of the Manchester United Disabled Supporters’ Association – who received tributes from Man United boss Alex Ferguson and Captain Bryan Robson.  Four weeks later, this was followed by an edition featuring former Footballer and ‘Match of the Day’ presenter Jimmy Hill.  Eighteen months later, veteran BBC Football commentator John Motson would also feature on the show.

Less than a month later another ‘Match of the Day’ regular would appear.  Michael Aspel popped down to Arsenal’s London Colney training centre to spring the red book on former Arsenal keeper and Goalkeeping coach Bob Wilson.  The show featured Bob’s BBC Breakfast Show colleague Jill Dando, less than a year before she was tragically murdered, as well as Bob’s hero – former Man City keeper and German POW Bert Trautmann, incumbent Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, singer Johnny Mathis and former British Heavyweight Boxing Champion Henry Cooper.

The final Football guest of the twentieth century to appear on ‘This is Your Life’ would be former Spurs skipper Gary Mabbutt, not long after his retirement in February 1999.  Appearing to pay Gary tribute would be Gary Lineker, Chas and Dave, as well as Lynn Redgrave

The first Football guest of the new Millennium would be former Arsenal hero Ian Wright in January 2000.  Wrighty was then turning out for Celtic and had been the first footballer still in active service to appear on the show since Peter Shilton fourteen years prior.  Michael Aspel sprung the book on him while he was presenting his own Chat show – ‘Friday Night’s All Wright’ on LWT.  Also appearing on the show would be Jeremy Beadle, Dale Winton and Esther Rantzen

At the end of that calendar year, the show would feature an edition on Wimbledon FC star Vinnie Jones, who had just become a film star with the Guy Ritchie directed ‘Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrells’ and ‘Snatch’.  Ritchie appeared on the show along with Kelly Brook and film actor Robert Duvall.  In March 2001 came a ‘This is Your Life’ special on former Man City, Southampton and England forward Mick Channon who had since become a successful racehorse trainer.  Those paying tribute to Mick would be former team mates Alan Ball and Kevin Keegan and from the world of horseracing Jenny Pitman and Willie Carson.  One month later came an edition for John Barnes which featured Brookside actress Sue Johnston, Liverpool team mate Jamie Redknapp and his pop star wife Louise.

‘This is Your Life’ was to continue on the BBC until 2003, when the Corporation decided against recommissioning the show.  To this date it has not yet been reprised.  The very last football guest on the show was again someone who had previously appeared – George Best.  By this point, Best was in failing health after a liver transplant and a continuing inability to beat his alcohol addiction.  Among those appearing on the show would be Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, Boxer Barry McGuigan, singer Paul Young, comedian Patrick Kielty, Michael Parkinson and Best’s son Calum.  George would pass away less than three years after filming this episode.  The axe however fell on ‘This is Your Life’ that same year, with the final episode on 8th August 2003, the subject of which had been singer and TV host Aled Jones.


The show has been mooted for a possible return over the last fourteen years, with Eamonn Holmes (claiming he was named after the original presenter) leading calls for its return.  In some ways, much of the show’s premise has been appropriated by Piers Morgan’s ‘Life Stories’ only minus the surprise element foisted on the show’s subject and the secrecy of those who are queuing up to pay tribute (the guest of Piers Morgan's 'Life Stories' also gets to speak more frequently and they ever did on 'This is Your Life') 'Life Stories' however in its fourteen series life span has only ever featured two footballers – both long retired – Paul Gascoigne and Vinnie Jones (three if you count Ian Botham, who was primarily a Cricketer).  The famous edition featuring Paul Gascoigne (where football 'fanatic' Piers Morgan was under the impression Gazza turned down the 'most successful team in the country in Man United' back in 1988!) can be seen below. 

It’s interesting for example to note that David Beckham was never a subject of ‘This is Your Life’ and has not yet appeared on ‘Life Stories’ (Piers Morgan has previously poured vitriol over the Beckhams and you wonder whether it’s down to them being not likely to ever appear on his show).  When you look back over the halcyon era of ‘This is Your Life’, Beckham’s equivalent with regard to fame (if not talent) was George Best.  Other major names in the game of Football during this time were Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton.  All three were guests on the show.  The most globally famous Sportsperson of the era – Muhammad Ali – also appeared.

‘This is Your Life’ also in its time featured many Hollywood A-listers in the shape of Bob Hope, Joan Collins, William Shatner, Charlton Heston and Debbie Reynolds, yet active professional footballers at the height of their fame after the mid-eighties were seemingly off limits for this show and even Piers Morgan’s similarly themed show.  This fact probably goes to show that in the modern era, the Professional Footballer has morphed into a figure which is far more remote, even among the world of the famous and that the public image of Footballers is far more zealously guarded than anything seen during the ‘This is Your Life’ era. 

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*Published 10th July 2017 (Much of the information gleaned in writing this piece was obtained from a Website called ‘Big Red Book’ – which contains information from every episode of ‘This is Your Life’ from 1955 to 2003)