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What's My Line?
Programme first broadcast July 16 1951
In the early stages of the game's lifetime panellists also included the international film star Elizabeth Allen, and the noted 'heavyweight Press' columnist, Marghanita Laski. Also comedy actor, and Variety straight-man, Jerry Desmonde who was part of the game's star line-up of panellists, virtually from the show's launch, until his tragic death - apparently by his own hand - less than a decade later.
Among other panellists appearing over the years were Dawn Addams, Cyril Fletcher and Alan Melville
Some of the odder occupations which have been featured on the programme:
An Alarm Clock Muffler
An Artificial Coal Maker
A Brussel Sprout Trimmer
A Bottle Stopper Maker
A Billy Cotton snowball maker
A Billy Roller
A Blanket Emboiderer
A Charlady's Agent
A Cockle Gatherer
A Collar Maker
A Comptometer Operator
A Crow's Foot Splicer
A Crumpet Ladler
An orange sucker
A saggar maker's bottom-knocker
A wet lapping slip lapper
Panel games were making great strides, almost from the very re-emergence of television, in Britain. None was better, or more avidly awaited, than 'What's My Line', chaired by a zestful Irish ex-boxer, and former sports commentator, Eamonn Andrews, with four celebrity panellists, among whom were a balding, bespectacled, florid-faced, irascible schoolmaster, turned policeman, turned broadcaster, Gilbert Harding; a beautiful lady doctor-turned-broadcaster, Lady Isobel Barnett; a TV illusionist-supreme, David Nixon, and the female half of a comedy double act, the dynamic, and effervescent Canadian comedienne and actress, Barbara Kelly.
The idea was for the panel to guess the occupations of ordinary members of the public, when they paraded before them, after standing alongside chairman Eamonn, and giving a clue to what their occupation was, in the shape of a short mime.
If, in answer to the panellists' questions, ten answers of 'No' were returned, then the contender was deemed to have 'Beaten The Panel', and that earned them congratulations from a beaming Andrews, who presented them with a parchment scroll, for their pains.
Unfortunately, on occasions, Gilbert Harding - in particular - was not prepared to let things go, at that: In brief, he played-up !
On at least one occasion, he was so insistent, and so utterly rude, to a simple, and barely articulate contender, that the poor woman fled the set in tears.
Telephone calls flooded the BBC's switchboards, and the Press had a field-day on the following morning. However, it was all put right, the following week, when - at the outset of the show's Sunday slot - a suitably contrite Harding mumbled a few well-intentioned words of apology...and carried on with the nation's most popular panel game.
On another occasion, Harding - who was mistakenly thought, by some, to have been over-indulging in the amber liquid, before taking his place on-set - was heard audibly bludgeoning back-stage staff, for what he described as the 'disgusting state' of the masks, which they, the panellists, were required to don, before guessing the identity of the mystery celebrity: "They are covered in grease-paint", he fumed.
However, for all his faults, and sometimes, intimidatingly ferocious outbursts, poor Gilbert was, in reality, nothing more than 'a grumpy old Teddy Bear'; but, in truth, millions of expectant viewers switched-on, their only available channel, at 8.3Opm every Sunday evening, for the express purpose of witnessing his wrathful outpourings...hanging on to his every over-reaction, as he was, sometimes, baited, like a bear, by panellists and chairman, alike.
Only after his sudden death, after collapsing in the street - gasping for breath, during a severe asthmatic attack, on his way to the studio - did viewers find out that Gilbert, 54, had really been a very sick man, all along.
How many of us, I wonder, felt personal pangs of guilt, when news of his death broke; for, in truth, we all did our share of gloating, when Gilbert the gladiator, was confronted, and often, very sadistically so, in the 'What's My Line ?' arena.
But the show did have its lighter side; and one of the funniest, and oddest, occupations, that ever provoked interest on 'What's My Line ?', was the calling: "A Saggar Maker's Bottom-Knocker"....now, does that jog any sagging memories, out there, I wonder ?
On a quite separate note, one of my childhood heroes: namely, Britain's well-loved, uke-playing movie mega-star, and Variety-king, George Formby - who I later met, several times - died the death, in a painfully unsuccessful try-out as a 'What's My Line ?' panellist. Backstage gossip told how this lovely man - who was 'manipulated' on stage, by his dynamic wife, Beryl - appeared utterly clueless, when he was plunged into a show that, apparently, he didn't understand, and couldn't get to grips with.
Despite Beryl's energetic and audible off-stage prompting, poor George just couldn't 'cut-the-mustard', when contrasted with the efforts of his fellow-panellists, who were sophisticated, well-read, and highly articulate...so he wasn't seen again, at least, not on 'What's My Line ?'
He did however, beat the panel, when - disguising his voice, very well, as the mystery-celebrity - he pulled the wool over the eyes of his blindfolded fellow-celebrities, and earned himself Eamonn's much-coveted parchment.
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