This Is Your Life, a Television Phenomenon: Background information when reading This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!

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This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!

by Jonathan Evison

This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison X
This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2015, 304 pages
    May 2016, 320 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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This Is Your Life, a Television Phenomenon

This article relates to This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!

Print Review

Along with Queen for a Day and Candid Camera, This Is Your Life was one of the first reality television shows. It aired in the United States from 1952 to 1961, and in the United Kingdom from 1955 until 2003. At least nine other countries adopted the format too. In each episode, the host surprised one audience member – either a celebrity or an unknown – by choosing them to appear onstage, where they would be presented with a run-through of their life story, including the unfortunate events as well as the good ones. The host narrated from a "big blue book" or "big red book" used as a prop, and also interviewed the subject and those friends, family members and colleagues who were able to make guest appearances. Only a few participants were warned ahead of time, such as those with heart conditions – for whom a surprise might be unwarranted.

The show originated as a radio program in 1948. Original host and producer Ralph Edwards, who was at that time working on the radio game show Truth or Consequences, had been asked to celebrate returning war heroes, especially those paraplegics who struggled with depression. Faced with one "particularly despondent young soldier...[Edwards] hit on the idea of presenting his life on the air, in order to integrate the wreckage of the present with his happier past and the promise of a hopeful future," he recalled in an article for Time magazine. Audience response to the program was so positive that it spun off into the television show.

Ralph Edwards, the host of This Is Your Life The first two guests on the televised version of This Is Your Life were a minister's wife and Laura Stone Marr, mother of actor Milburn Stone, whom some might remember, played Doc on television's long-running Western classic, Gunsmoke. Although Edwards was the long-time American host, the half-hour show was led by a number of different people over the years. For instance, Ronald Reagan filled in for a couple of episodes in 1957.

Rock Hudson, Roy Rogers, Lou Costello, Buster Keaton, Johnny Cash and Bette Davis were among the famous guests. Most people took kindly to the surprise, although, famously, Laurel and Hardy were upset at being tricked into making their only American TV appearance on the show in 1954.

This Is Your Life became such a hit that it monopolized Wednesday night programming in both the United States and the United Kingdom, drawing millions of viewers and allegedly determining church prayer meeting schedules. In recent years there have been rumors off and on about remakes of the show returning to American television. The latest serious proposal was from the producer of Survivor in 2008, and negotiations continue.

You can watch old episodes of This Is Your Life featuring Lou Costello online.

Picture of Ralph Edwards from NBC Television

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

Article by Rebecca Foster

This "beyond the book article" relates to This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!. It originally ran in September 2015 and has been updated for the May 2016 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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