Soccer Star Dodges TV Trap

All is forgiven: In 1981, Blanchflower (centre) appeared with Andrews on Michael Parkinson's chat show
All is forgiven: In 1981, Blanchflower (centre) appeared with Andrews on Michael Parkinson's chat show

by Ray Setterfield

February 6, 1961 — “This Is Your Life,” television presenter Eamonn Andrews announced on this day to footballer Danny Blanchflower. “Oh no, it’s not," the star player thought to himself, and in a move admired many times on the field, swiftly side-stepped Andrews and left him standing as he bolted for the door. He became the first celebrity who refused to appear on the popular live show.

The format of the programme, which ran on and off from 1955 to 2003, involved the presenter cornering an unsuspecting celebrity with the words “This is your life,” then leading them to a studio where family and friends would be waiting to recall events in the subject’s life.

Blanchflower said later: ”I consider this programme to be an invasion of privacy. Nobody is going to press-gang me into anything."

At the time, highly respected Blanchflower was one of Britain's most popular footballers. An Irish international, he was captain of Tottenham Hotspur, where in the 1960-61 season he led his players to the League and FA Cup double, a triumph not achieved since Aston Villa did it in 1897. In 2009, he was ranked by The Times newspaper as the greatest player in the London club's history.

Andrews's autobiography called This Is My Life was published in London in 1963 by Macdonald. In it he wrote at length about the Blanchflower affair.

"We knew we had no hope of getting Danny to the theatre without his suspecting something," Andrews wrote. "So we set up a preliminary taping session at another venue half an hour before the programme was due to start.

"We would have a fast car to get him to the theatre, where we would show the opening all over again to the theatre audience and the viewing millions and then carry on with the programme and the surprises we had in store for him.

"I had done several broadcasts with Danny on football and nothing was more natural than that Angus Mackay, the BBC's Sports Editor, should arrange a discussion for yet another. Danny agreed.

"The date and place was arranged. The set-up was perfect."

Andrews, who always presented the subject with a big red book inscribed This Is Your Life when the surprise was sprung, had hidden it on this occasion under a table.

He recalled in his autobiography: "I bent down to pick up the book, saying as I did so: "Tonight, Danny Blanchflower, this is your . . ."

"As I straightened up and turned to present him with the book, there was no Danny. He had headed for the door of that studio like a greyhound from a trap. Angus lunged forward to try to stop him, caught hold of his coat and Danny wriggled out of it, went through the door in his shirt sleeves and I could hear him pounding down the steps, shouting: "Let me out! Let me out!

"When he got to the bottom of the steps – and by now, I was in hot pursuit – the door was locked and he couldn't open it.

"Danny was white and taut. I told him to relax; there were no cameras on him. He didn’t want to know, just demanding his coat back. Outside, I tried to persuade him, but his mind was made up: he wasn’t doing the programme and that was that. The theatre was full, I said. Backstage, many of his friends were waiting to greet him. That was our concern, he said. He hadn’t invited them."

Years later, writer Gus Smith interviewed Blanchflower for his book, Eamonn Andrews: His Life (WH Allen/Virgin Books, 1988). The ex-footballer told him: "I never cared for the programme and felt that if anyone wanted to say no he was entitled to do so. I suppose I resented the air of secrecy around it, the way I had been lured to the studio under false pretences and taken through a back door to meet certain people.

"I wasn't dressed for the occasion and felt I was being imposed upon. Anyway, I wasn't interested in seeing my life reconstructed in these circumstances.

"I would do exactly the same thing again if I was approached by a This Is Your Life presenter. I've no regrets."

Only three people have turned down This Is Your Life in the history of the programme. Apart from Blanchflower, Richard Gordon, the author of the Doctor in the House books, told Andrews live on air in 1974 to "p*** off" – but was persuaded to change his mind and eventually did the show.

Then in 2001 Bill Oddie, the comedian who became a noted ornithologist and conservationist said no, but was persuaded by his family to appear.

After months of illness caused by a virus contracted during a plane journey Eamonn Andrews died from heart failure in November 1987, aged 64. Blanchflower died of pneumonia in 1993, aged 67.

Published: January 16, 2018

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