One of the defining figures in the history of British broadcasting, the legendary Michael Aspel was a permanent fixture on our screens for over half a century and remains in an elite pool of television hosts to take the prestigious title of a TV icon. Joining the BBC in 1957 as a continuity announcer first in Cardiff before moving to Lime Grove, Aspel’s eloquence made him the perfect candidate to preside over the evening’s programming. Beginning his career as a radio actor, offered the young Michael a grounding in the slightly lighter side of broadcasting which would ultimately set him apart from his later contemporaries. He considered himself more of a light hearted entertainer than a straight broadcaster and this was a vital part of both his appeal and longevity. However, as his career took off, his link to Light Entertainment would come into its own.
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In 1968 Aspel’s ability to entertain put him on the radar of children’s television producers and was offered the opportunity to join the cast of Crackerjack. This was the first time he had been associated with a hugely popular show which made him a recognisable face. Suddenly, taxi drivers, milkmen and passers by would shout the immortal catchphrase “It’s five to five, it’s time for Crackerjack” which was a new experience for the former radio actor and continuity announcer. Over the years, a plethora of Britain’s best entertainers from Leslie Crowther to Ronnie Corbett inherited the famous catchphrase but Crackerjack always thrived upon mayhem which was the biggest pull of the show. This spurred Michael onto bigger and better things.
Such a capacity to uphold proceedings while allowing the audience to see more of a cavalier side to his personality made him the perfect candidate to preside over a panel show. In 1979 Michael launched the latest offering to the panel show format Give Us a Clue based on the parlour game Charades where two teams of celebrities battled it out in the ultimate acting competition. The cheeky twinkle in his eye always allowed him the opportunity to get involved in the high jinx environment which the series encouraged. As a presenter, he thrives on the ability to be silly with his fellow performers rather than merely being a passive observer to his proceedings and this aspect helped to set him apart from his contemporaries. This ability made him the perfect chairman for Give Us a Clue and was a factor in making the show a substantial hit. Despite presenting the show for five years until 1984, Michael always felt frustrated with merely being the straight talking chairman and yearned for the opportunity to play the game himself. Therefore when it was time to hand the series over to Michael Parkinson, he believed that it may have been good timing.
Despite Television Centre being the venue of some of the highlights of his career, it also stirs up emotional memories for Aspel. On the 14th February 1969 he made an impromptu visit to the building to announce the sad death of the much loved comedian and broadcaster Kenneth Horne who had died whilst on stage at the Dorchester Hotel where he had been hosting the annual Guild of Television Producers and aDirectors Awards. With little time to prepare, Michael presented the programme live from TV Centre just hours after Horne’s death and in the era before rolling news, this style of broadcasting seemed pioneering. Beyond the tragic circumstances, this broadcast helped to bring Aspel into the broadcasting elite and for the next forty years he became one of Britain’s most enduring and trusted faces. Therefore whenever he thinks of TV Centre, in amongst the glitz, glamour and happy memories, Aspel shall forever remember delivering this highly emotional announcement surrounding the tragic sudden death of a comedy legend.
Throughout the 1970’s the perfect barometer for stars to calculate their own status within the entertainment fraternity was obtaining the prestigious invitation to appear on the all conquering Morecambe and Wise Show. This became the ultimate seal of approval for any household name and certified your status as a bonafide star. As a former radio actor, Michael was used to being out of his comfort zone with the ability to perform which offered him an advantage over his peers. In 1977, on what became Eric and Ernie’s final show at the BBC, Michael appeared alongside fellow BBC presenters in a tribute to Rodgers and Hammestein’s There’s Nothing Like a Dame from South Pacific alongside Frank Bough, Eddie Waring, Peter Woods, Kenneth Kendall, Barry Norman, Philip Jenkinson and Michael Parkinson. It was here that Aspel realised the enormous effect that TV Centre had on Eric and Ernie and despite having success elsewhere, Wood Lane offered them the opportunity to think big. Although they had been successful on ATV and would later triumph at Thames, Television Centre offered Eric and Ernie a hub where they could shine and Michael was lucky enough to witness this firsthand.
Just like Morecambe and Wise, Michael spread his wings further afield than London’s White City and experienced other television houses throughout the country. In 1982 he became main anchor on LWT’s Six O’Clock Show alongside Emma Freud and Danny Baker. Working alongside Baker made Michael realise the extraordinary talent of the writer, journalist and broadcaster and remains in awe of his unique abilities as a communicator. The Six O’Clock Show came live from the London Studios on the capital’s Southbank every Friday evening with a host of stars and feats of wonder. This again appealed to Aspel’s propensity for fun and mayhem in making the show have a free-flowing atmosphere which became a component to its success.
Whilst with LWT, Michael followed in the footsteps of his colleagues when he landed his own Saturday night chat show to fill the gap of Parkinson’s fifteen year hiatus. Despite running for nine years until 1993 and featuring the biggest names in entertainment, the accomplished host never warmed to his role as television interviewer in the midst of powerful PR companies and a barrage of celebrity endorsements which took away from the glamour of the interview. In the era of Wogan and Des O’Connor Tonight, Michael felt that Aspel and Company lacked the individualism which would have set it apart from its competitors. However, his association with celebrity culture and surprises were far from over.
In 1987 Aspel replaced the legendary Eamonn Andrews for the second time when he inherited the famous big red book and uttered the immortal phrase This is Your Life. Taking over from a figure who had been so synonymous with the programme since its very inception in 1955 wasn’t an easy task and he often would hear the gentle Irish tone of Andrews in his head when he went to say those iconic words. Therefore Michael realised the requirement for him to stamp his own personality on the show as opposed to merely attempting to replicate Andrews’ style and tone. Throughout his career, he’s been able to rely on a great propensity to be quite silly and this proved vital as the pranks and surprises to give his subjects their big red book became more and more elaborate. Whether it was Charlton Heston in Hollywood or Britain’s longest serving milkman, This Is Your Life always took delight in charting the significant achievements of people who had made an indelible mark on public life.
From 1994 until its climax in 2003, This Is Your Life was recorded from Television Centre and became the unrivalled home of the series. From Bob Monkhouse to Jane Rossington, the show always held a mirror up to the fads and fashions in entertainment and in celebrating individuals, it was also an opportunity to showcase the showbiz fraternity as a whole. Each subject was presented with a leather bound red book together with photographs and the accompanying script from the show which was the perfect keepsake. In the era before television trickery, it’s so reassuring to learn that the great Michael Aspel was actually reading verbatim out of the big red book which we saw on camera and for me, this has made the legend of This Is Your Life all the more powerful.
The climax of such an iconic show came in January 2000 when a star studded celebrity audience gathered in TC1 of TV Centre for the prestigious Night of a Thousand Lives. This offered Michael the opportunity to reflect and celebrate the many subjects which had been celebrated during the show’s long history. From stars of the fifties to post millennial viral sensations, this was the ultimate celebration of pop culture through the eyes of our most prominent television faces and TC1 proved a perfect setting to celebrate. Sportsmen, comedians, actors, entertainers, singers, dancers, writers, musicians, authors and broadcasters all gathered in this historic venue to celebrate the show which had touched all their lives. Ever the accomplished host, Aspel acted as the linchpin on which stars shared memories and told the next chapter of their story. This wasn’t only a celebration of some remarkable life stories but also offered Michael the opportunity to commemorate his own association with the beloved show.
A celebration of BBC Television Centre wouldn’t be complete without the opportunity to feature a figure whose career has spanned the entirety of its reign as the spiritual home of British television. More pragmatic about televisual infrastructure than previous guests, Aspel is all too aware of the political forces behind the corporation shedding their flagship production house. Yet a combination of his unrivaled broadcasting integrity, a sharp wit and a significant role in the development of British broadcasting has made the legendary Michael Aspel just as iconic as this London landmark. Just like Television Centre, his career is now behind him and he can now enjoy a long and enjoyable retirement safe in the knowledge that his contribution to public service broadcasting will live long in the memory of the British television viewer. It was a real honour to spend the morning with one of my TV heroes and may he and Television Centre reign over the TV landscape for many years to come.