As part of National Novel Writing Month, (#NaNoWriMo) I've set myself the goal of writing a 50,000 word novel, consisting of short stories about my memories of primary school. Today I'm writing the introduction to my book. Just so that you know, all names of people have been changed. Each story is based on my own memory, so may not be an exact representation of events, especially since I am writing this over 40 years after things happened! But I hope you will enjoy each story all the same, and that perhaps it will spark your own memories of life at primary school.
Introduction: This is your life (1975-1984)
When I was at primary school, there was a show on the telly on Wednesday nights called ‘This is Your Life’. If I was very good, my mum and dad would let me stay up late to watch it. At the start of each show, the male host would put on a false beard, or some cunning disguise, and just as the celebrity was being all serious and performing on stage at the theatre, the host would jump out from his hiding place and surprise them with a microphone and a big red book that read 'This is Your Life'. Sometimes the host's fake beard was stuck on so well, that no matter how hard he pulled it, it would stay stuck to his face, but he had to carry on with the show, so as not to ruin the surprise.
At first the surprised celebrity usually looked annoyed. Like they were thinking 'how dare this person walk on to the stage in the middle of my show. How dare they, don't they know I'm a world famous celebrity!'. But as soon as the host pulled off his disguise and revealed the big red book in his hand, the celebrity would quickly catch on, and anger would turn to laughter and squeals of delight. Or the celebrity might clap their hands together or slap their leg in disbelief. Worst case, the celebrity might go all quiet and pale and the audience would wonder if they were about to have a heart attack from the shock, or maybe they were about to get really angry because they didn’t like being surprised live on national television. Thankfully in the whole fifty or so years of the show, only a few people refused the big red book, and luckily the show stopped being filmed live in 1983 after one of the celebrities swore so much that people sat at home wrote in to complain about all the swear words.
The big surprise was my favourite part of the show, because you never knew how the celebrity would react. I wondered what would happen if they did get angry, or refused to play along, or if the show producers had an old film lined up to show the viewers at home, just in case the celebrity refused to take part. And what about the live studio audience, sat in the theatre waiting for the celebrity to arrive? Surely they would all want their money back if the celebrity didn’t want to take part in the show? The suspense was wonderful.
I used to dream that one day it would be me who was the celebrity. If the man came to me with the big red book and said ‘Sarah Weldon. This is Your Life’ I would be perfectly angelic and not swear or scream, and I would play it all cool. Then there would be dramatic music, and trumpets and drums, and as the music played I would be whisked away in a chauffeur driven limousine, put into some posh clothes and make up and have my hair done. A few seconds later the host would walk me through the big stage doors, onto the set, in front of the live audience, and all my friends and family and teachers from school would be sat there with the stick microphones, waiting to spill the beans on what I was like at school before I became an amazing, world famous explorer.
As soon as the applause and dramatic music stopped, the host would escort the celebrity to their chair, and the celebrity kissed and shook hands with all the people they could reach near them who had managed to keep the whole thing a secret. And the show proper would begin now that everyone had caught their breath and their hearts had stopped racing.
The host told the audience things about the celebrity: “Mr Celebrity, you were born on the 24th December 1942, at St Peter’s hospital in London, to parents Imelda and Dave, on a snowy evening. You were one of five children, and you had a dog called Fido”. And on the screen on the wall there would be photos to go along with what the host said. Everyone would ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ and applaud as they saw photos of the celebrity as a baby, or looking a bit goofy in their old school photo. The host would go through the celebrity’s whole life. Stood up in front of everyone, reading from the pages of the big red book. He would read about the good things and the bad things, and every so often, there would be a recording played of a mystery person telling a story about the celebrity, and everyone would turn their head to listen closely as they tried to guess who the mystery voice was. Would it be a teacher or a neighbour or another famous person who was friends with the celebrity?
The celebrity would look puzzled as they listened to the recording, and then suddenly you knew from their face that they had recognised the mystery voice, and they would clap their hands together in joy as they realised that person was about to walk on to stage to meet with them after not seeing them for seventy years or however long it had been since they last met.
Usually the mystery voice person would enter through the stage doors, and they would be elderly and all dressed up in sparkly clothes because they were so excited to be on telly and have their five minutes of fame. And they would take all the credit for that person being so famous now. They usually looked a bit awkward because you could tell they weren’t used to wearing high heels or glamorous clothes and you hoped the host would hold their hand to stop them tripping over and interrupting the show. The host would ask them a question and they would give their well rehearsed line into the stick microphone the host was holding.
Once the whole story of their life was gone though, the host would say something like ‘Sarah Weldon. This IS Your Life’. The music would play, the host would give the big red book to the celebrity to keep forever, and as the camera panned out and the credits started to roll, all the people would get up from their seats and go up to the celebrity, smile, shake hands, kiss, hug, or say hello. I imagined that there would be some fantastic parties once the show had gone off air, and I wondered whether all the smiles turned to tears or frowns once the cameras stopped filming, because actually the celebrity couldn’t stand their teacher or maybe the mystery voice guest was just pretending to know them so they could be on telly or go to a nice party with all those famous people.
You could always tell if the show had run over time, by how much of the kissing and hand shaking you saw at the end of each episode and sometimes they would have to hurry through the giving the red book to the celebrity part. I liked that part too.
One of the reasons I loved that show so much, was because you got to learn more about what that celebrity was really like as a human being, and you could trace their journey from being a regular person in a regular life, to becoming a celebrity who was rich and successful. What kind of training did they have, and how did they get their big break into showbiz? Were they a nice person or a not so nice person in real life? What difficulties did they have and how did they overcome them? That was the part that I found most helpful, and it made me feel better about myself, because if the celebrity could achieve their dreams through hard work and determination, then so could I. It was very inspiring to watch especially if they came from a poor or difficult background.
My favourite celebrities were the ones who did things to improve the lives of other people, or who were involved in charitable work, and I was curious about what they might be like as a parent or husband or wife, or as a daughter or son, or as an ambassador for a good cause, outside of their regular celebrity job.
It was a great example of how television could be used to cheer people up, especially back in the 1950s after World War Two when people were feeling very down. Back then, the show was American, but instead of having celebrities, they had people who had fought in the war, pilots and soldiers and people who had been injured or lost an arm or a leg. They told their life stories, not just in the war, but before that. It was hoped that the show would cheer everyone up, and it certainly made me feel warm and happy, and to always do my best to make the people around me feel happy and special. But they stopped making that show in 2003 in Britain, so I'll never get my own big red book now, instead I'll just have to write my own. I hope that you enjoy learning about all the silly and funny and sad things that I did at primary school and that you'll write your own 'This is Your Life' book too.