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Originally an American show, What’s My Line? began on British television in 1951, and the original intention was for Eamonn Andrews and Gilbert Harding to chair the programme on alternate weeks. The concept was simple: Four celebrity panellists – a polymath, a female egghead, a sunny actress and a showbiz male – tried to guess, from a contestant’s mime, his or her line of work.
Eamonn later recalled Gilbert’s memorable debut as chairman: “Gilbert had this challenger who was a male nurse but unfortunately Gilbert had the cards out of order and had ‘motor mechanic’ written down. When the challenger was asked if he used instruments in his job, the poor fellow said “yes” but Gilbert insisted “no, no you DON’T”.
It blew up into such chaos that Gilbert said he would never do it again and he went onto the panel where he was much better”.
Former Bradford police constable Gilbert Harding became known as “the rudest man in Britain” in his role as the show’s resident grumpy intellectual. His habit of bullying innocent challengers if they gave evasive answers or didn’t speak perfect English appalled viewers.
After one clash between Harding and chairman Eamonn Andrews, the BBC was swamped with 175 phone calls and six telegrams, all protesting about his behaviour. Later they became friends but faked rows for the viewers.
On another occasion, Harding even argued with puppet Archie Andrews. Ironically, Harding’s father had once suggested that Gilbert might become a comedian!
A popular panellist was doctor and newspaper columnist Lady Isobel Barnett (the wife of Leicester’s former Lord Mayor, Sir Geoffrey Barnett). There was initially talk of dropping her from the programme after three weeks – she was accused of being too aloof and cold – but she relaxed and developed a mischievous smile and a remarkably elegant wardrobe.
Very soon, she was established as one of the regular panellists on What’s My Line? and in 1956 she was voted top woman television personality and top television variety artist. She was billed as the ideal television mother and travelled all over the country addressing political and social meetings.
Men found her discreetly sexy, women saw her as the person their daughter was going to grow up into after she had married a titled millionaire. Isobel Barnett retained her tremendous popularity until the end of the show in 1963. Tragically, she took her own life in 1980, a week after being fined for petty shoplifting of goods worth just 87p.
It was estimated that in 1952 an incredible 90% of people with television sets watched What’s My Line? making it easily the most popular programme in Britain.
Each week the show received over 200 letters from would-be challengers. The most frequent applicants were sub-postmasters and undertakers who thought they looked more like bookmakers or publicans. The most celebrated occupation was that of saggar maker’s bottom-knocker in the pottery industry.
However, not everyone benefited from the exposure of television. One challenger, giving his job as frogman, was recognised by a bank manager who promptly phoned the police. The man was gaoled for 15 months for passing dud cheques.
What’s My Line? was front-page news. When Barbara Kelly lost an earring on the show and when Bob Monkhouse appeared wearing an eye-patch (a blood vessel had burst), the papers gave the stories the same prominence as they gave the exploits of EastEnders‘ Dirty Den in the 1980s.
The series ran until 1963 and was briefly revived ten years later with David Jacobs in the chair (pictured above), before earning a more permanent comeback in 1984. Eamonn Andrews and Barbara Kelly were the sole survivors from the early days, with George Gale taking over Gilbert Harding’s role.
First Penelope Keith and then Angela Rippon took charge following Eamonn Andrews’s death in 1987.