TV Cream

TV: W is for...

What’s My Line?

THE TYPE of prissy early TV parlour game in which the host was referred to as “Chairman”. This remorseless conveyor belt of a series consisted of the most simple premise: a panel of celebrities (or grumpy bastards) would be challenged to guess the occupation of a never ending stream of members of the public. Why the programme wasn’t called “What’s My Job?” is, frankly, baffling. Even “In What Line Of Work Am I Currently Employed?” would have sufficed, albeit it’s probably a bit of a mouthful. The early years of the series made an unwilling star out of sexually confused angry old man GILBERT HARDING, but wife of BERNARD BRADEN, BARBARA KELLY also struck a TV first by accomplishing the astonishing feat of becoming famous enough to appear on the panel, simply by appearing on the panel (the principle underpinning this extraordinary act of self-perpetuating feedback would later form the theoretical basis underpinning the title sequence to DOCTOR WHO, as well as provide a basis for the career of future PUNCHLINES “celebrity” guest ROSE-MARIE). WHAT’S MY LINE? proved to be extraordinary popular during its early years, and after its demise in 1963 it was only a matter of time before it made some form of return. That it did, first under the mantle of DAVID JACOBS, then in the shape of six long series for Thames Television in the late 80s. Unbelievably after original host EAMONN ANDREWS popped his clogs in 1987, Thames found an even more cantankerous presenter in the shape of first PENELOPE KEITH, then ANGELA RIPPON to take over. Since then, a Meridian helmed mid-Nineties comeback with EMMA FORBES in the role of “Chairman” has provided a muted postscript to one of television’s grumpiest game shows.



  1. THX 1139

    April 20, 2015 at 12:11 am

    There’s an episode from 1974 on iPlayer featuring Mike Yarwood as the special guest, he signs in as Harold Wilson and oh how the audience roar with laughter. I recognised the whole panel, William Franklyn, Nanette Newman, Kenneth Williams, apart from Lady Isobel Barnett, who was apparently a mainstay of the show from the 50s onwards. I know this because I looked her up on Wikipedia, and if you want to feel a bit depressed, read the “Later life and death” section of her entry.

    It was an OK show, but the potential for humour was surprisingly non-abundant, they were too busy guessing.

  2. Angela

    August 14, 2016 at 6:42 pm

    I was in an episode with Barry sheen (hero) bobby davro and the usual suspects Barbara Kelly, George gale and jolly cooper.
    My ex husband mistakenly wiped the recording off our video tape.
    Would anyone know where I can get a copy, my son was in the audience he was only 2 or 3 yrs old.
    I would love him to have a copy.
    Thames were the Chanel. Ramon Andrews was looking very thin at the time and clearly not in the best if health. I understand that he came over from Ireland to record two programmes in one sitting. He did the usual joke to audience’ you’re so much better than the audience last week !
    Kelly went off after the first and changed into a different outfit.
    The character mike Baldwin was the mystery guest.
    In the second show the fella who played opposite lady Georgina of upstairs downstairs. (Incidentally my old school mate Lesley down by then Lesley ann down.
    His name may of been Bellamy , he was the only one who interacted in the green room with the guests and was particularly interested in how the bell rope maker made his ropes (second show ) may if been examines last as he died not too long afterwards.
    Barbara Kelly swanned through ur was beneath her in my opinion to speak to anyone that wasn’t being paid to be on the show
    It would do celebs a service to remind them they couldn’t earn their living without them.
    The Baldwin character seemed quite like his coronation street part.
    But Barry sheen and davro were having a laugh and Ramon had to tick them off like two naughty schoolboys.
    I did get the certificate ages afterwards and when I told my motorbike nut of a son I had Barry sheens signature on it he wAs amazed. We got it out and the only one that appears not to have been written in invisible ink is eamons.
    I went on to work at Yamaha and a grey haired gent stood in front of me on reception. Someone said that’s Barry sheens uncle. We got chatting and I told him that not only had I met him on the show, but he had come to the aid of my cousin Karen when she fell of her push bike. She was only a young kid and she was made up.
    I suppose he must of thought I know how that feels.
    His uncle explained he was living in Australia and the weather suited him better as he was so full of nuts and bolts from his times on the track.
    That was around 2009-2001 and I was sad to hear on the news that he had died so young.
    So if there is anyone out there who could help me with this endeavour it would be greatly appreciated.
    It will be nice for my 31 year old son to see me at the age of 32 and no wrinkles.

  3. David Smith

    August 16, 2016 at 8:21 am

    You could try contacting Fremantle Media who I think will own the rights to Thames material these days – providing the episode still exists and hasn’t been wiped, they might be able to do you a copy of it (although they’ll probably charge).

  4. Glenn Aylett

    August 5, 2020 at 1:00 pm

    People who obtained their first television in an era when there was only the BBC Television Service, or were waiting for Independent Television to arrive in their part of the country, always mention about how much they enjoyed What’s My Line and how their neighbours couldn’t wait to get a 12 inch Pye to watch the show. It seemed to be as big a deal to 1950s viewers as Coronation St would be in the following decade.

  5. richardpd

    August 5, 2020 at 1:37 pm

    In the days before multi channel TV a well regarded programme could boost new TV sales.

    The Forsyth Saga caused a jump in demand for sets that could pick up BBC2 in 1967.

    • Glenn Aylett

      August 5, 2020 at 6:54 pm

      @richardpd, stating the obvious from me, but the Coronation saw television sales rocket, and popular programmes of the time like What’s My Line and Quatermass, the first sci fi drama, saw more people want a television set as they could join in the conversation at work. Also the creation of ITV and more choice aided sales as people had two choices and the ITV option was often less stuffy.

      • richardpd

        August 5, 2020 at 11:17 pm

        My (sadly late) Dad remembers the Quatermass serials being much watch television and the talk of the school after each episode.

        The same production team’s adaption of 1984 has been said to have been one of the reasons for passing the Broadcasting Act which allowed ITV to be created, so viewers would have a choice of viewing.

  6. Droogie

    August 7, 2020 at 12:18 am

    I remember the BBC having their own WML variation in the early 80’s called I’ve Got A Secret, presented by Tom O’Connor. My main memory is that Jeffrey Archer was a regular panellist and him supposedly bribing members of the tv crew to reveal the guests secrets to him just so he could win each week. This was at the same time that the scandal with the prostitute Monica Coghlan blew up ,and I recall Private Eye having a field day With jokes about Archer not having a secret anymore.

  7. George White

    August 7, 2020 at 1:31 pm

    Also based on an ancient US format.
    Hosted by Steve Allen, with his wife Jayne Meadows who then left (the show not Steve – they were married for 46 years) and was replaced by Betsy “Mrs. Voorhees” Palmer.
    Probably the most famous incident was when a 96 year old man appeared whose secret was that he was the last surviving witness of the assassination of Lincoln.

  8. richardpd

    August 7, 2020 at 2:12 pm

    I’ve heard on the American there was once a middle aged man who claimed to have been one of Our Gang (aka Little Rascals) as a child.

    Years later it turned out he was a fraud, as the character name was never used in the films, and he reckoned they were filmed in New York rather than Hollywood.

    There seemed to be a few people pretending to be in Our Gang, some genuinely bigging up being an extra in one, or else in one of the similar film series like the Kiddie Troupers.

    Also some hucksters used to pretend to be casting agents, going round small towns & giving auditions for a few dollars. This might give some children the impression that they have actually appeared in a film.

  9. richardpd

    August 7, 2020 at 4:49 pm

    Just to correct the above, the imposter Jack Bothwell was actually on To Tell The Truth, where 3 people would all claim to have done something, and the panel would try to guess which one after asking questions.

  10. George White

    August 8, 2020 at 12:53 am

    One of the genuine silent-era Our Gang, Jean Darling (who also starred in a Monogram Jane Eyre with Colin Clive as Rochester) became a short story writer, moved to Ireland, and became a kids’ TV host on RTE as “Aunty Poppy”, telling her own fairytale stories.

    Annie Ross appeared in a couple too.

  11. Droogie

    August 8, 2020 at 3:28 pm

    I recall an ITV version of Tell The Truth in the late 80’s presented by Fred Dineage. The only reason I do was being a massive fan of Scott Walker and The Walker Brothers. In the early 90’s I received a bootleg compilation of all the TV appearances by The Walker Brothers and Scott from a fan club. One of these included a bizarre clip of Tell The Truth where the 3 guests all claimed to be the world’s biggest fan of Count Duckula(!) One of the false claimlants was the third Walker brother Gary Leeds. After the real person came forward, Fred Dineage revealed Gary’s Walker Brothers past and got him and the TV audience to sing a brief half-hearted singalong of The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shone Anymore. It very nearly ruined the song for me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top