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What's My Line? (1951-64, 1973-74, 1984-90)

Main image of What's My Line? (1951-64, 1973-74, 1984-90)
BBC, 16/7/1951-1963; BBC2, 1973-74;
Thames Television for ITV, tx 26/3/1984-1990
400+ edns, black & white/colour
Devised byMark Goodson
 Bill Todman
Producers includeT. Leslie Jackson
 Ernest Maxim
 Maurice Leonard

Chairmen: Eamonn Andrews, David Jacobs

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Game show, in which celebrity panellists attempt to guess the occupation of a mystery guest.

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BBC Television programming in the early 1950s, firmly bound to its radio heritage, was still stumbling upon the idea of the television personality. Quite unexpectedly, they found it in the cheery host and the unusually informal panel of What's My Line?.

Eamonn Andrews chaired the easy-going series and shared in the sudden celebrity status of the original team: Gilbert Harding, Barbara Kelly, Lady Isobel Barnett and David Nixon. As an early television game, it sparkled in contrast to the solemn panel of lofty archaeologists in Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? (BBC, 1952-59).

The formula was a simple one. The panellists were invited to guess the occupation of a member of the public after the contestant had performed a relevant mime. The scores allowed the team up to ten 'No' answers before they accepted defeat. There were no prizes, neither money or goods. Those who beat the panel were merely awarded a scroll.

It was one of the earliest programmes to involve members of the public, and part of its charm was the revelation of some of the more extraordinary occupations in British life. Most memorable of all must be the 'saggar maker's bottom knocker', an operative in the earthenware pot industry, who baffled the team in the earliest days.

Like so many other panel game shows, including I've Got a Secret (ITV, 1956) and Call My Bluff (BBC, 1965-88; 1996-2005), the programme came from American television. Devised by radio writers Mark Goodson and Bill Todman for CBS Television in 1950 (and running there for 17 years), the format was introduced to the BBC in 1951 by bandleader Maurice Winnick, owner of the broadcast rights in Britain. It became, according to TV critic Peter Black, "the first smash hit of the dawning television era". Before it was retired in 1963 it had achieved Sunday night audiences of some 12 million viewers, which for those days was phenomenal.

Surprisingly, the BBC took its time before acknowledging the series' success, and it wasn't until 1953 that it launched the similarly structured Down You Go (1953-54), Why? (1953) and Guess My Story (1953-55).

The series was revived briefly on BBC2 in 1973, with David Jacobs as chair. Then in 1984, Thames TV, which in 1969 had searched television's past for something 'new' when it rediscovered This Is Your Life (ITV, 1969-94), reached even further back for a reintroduction of What's My Line? (ITV, 1984-90).

Tise Vahimagi

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Video Clips
Andrews, Eamonn (1922-1987)
Harding, Gilbert (1907-1960)