The show-stopper: the subject learned that he was being set up and he didn't like the idea - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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The show-stopper: the subject learned that he was being set up and he didn't like the idea

On 1 July, my first day back in the office after another comfortable flight in Business Class on British Airways from Indonesia, and while the Red Arrows were still transiting across south-east Asia, I had a telephone call from Alec Lom, the script writer. It seems that Mandy, the This is Your Life Production Manager, was having difficulty getting confirmation from Mark Hanna that his father had definitely agreed to come to Cranwell. Everyone involved with the production was now getting anxious. Alec asked me to telephone Ray's wife, Eunice, make myself known to her and explain roughly what the plot was. As soon as I spoke to Eunice a few minutes later it was obvious that she knew all about me although we'd never met.

"Oh, Tony," said Eunice, in a despairing sort of way. I could tell that bad news was forthcoming. "I've done something really awful. I've told Ray about the programme."

For a few seconds I was speechless. "Why on earth did you do that?" I asked lamely.

"I - we - the family - we were all worried about what Ray would do if he met Tony Charles or learned that he was the instigator of this programme. We think that it's best if you tell Alec Lom that Ray will have to be in Saudi Arabia on the 23rd on business and so he cannot do the programme. It's only a little white lie. Then it will be too late to reorganise things and they'll call it all off."

"I'm sorry, Eunice," I said, thinking quickly. "You're going to have to tell Alec Lom the truth yourself. A lot of people have already put in a lot of work to make this tribute to your husband. All Ray's 1966 Team were coming, and Raymond Baxter, and Johnny Johnson, and goodness knows who else they had lined up. We don't want to waste any more of all those people's time. Thames won't do the programme now, anyway. They never do the programme if the subject learns about it in advance. I think the least you can do is tell Alec yourself before he finds out from someone else."

Eunice reluctantly agreed. She must have telephoned almost immediately because Alec rang me a few minutes later and asked me what the Red Arrows would be doing on 15 September.

"A last minute problem has cropped up with Ray," said Alec. "I've just heard from Eunice that he has to be in Saudi Arabia on business on 23 September." Clearly Eunice had not told Alec the real truth. I decided that Alec deserved to know the truth. I told him that Eunice had spilled the beans to her husband, but she had thought she was doing it for the best. Not surprisingly, Alec was very upset, and he told me, rather coldly I thought, to do nothing more until he had spoken to the Producer. A short while later John Graham, the producer, rang me himself and told me that the programme was cancelled. He thanked me for all my work and asked me to thank, on Thames Television's behalf, all the people at Cranwell who had contributed to the programme without even knowing it.

"Wait a minute, John," I said suddenly; I had just had another of my inspirations. "Before you cancel anything, please give me half an hour and I'll get back to you with an alternative proposal."

John agreed to wait, but he didn't sound very enthusiastic. Even as I put the telephone down after John had agreed, I began to wonder what I was letting myself in for. What I had in mind was not something that I had just dreamed up; it was an idea that I had been nurturing for some months, but I had not expected to have an opportunity to develop it for several years hence. Thoughts raced through my mind as I tried to consider all the pros and cons, but it actually took only about ten minutes before I telephoned John back.

"John, I want to suggest that you go ahead almost exactly as we'd planned except…," I paused, took a deep breath and then launched into my pitch, ". . . except I think John Rands should be the subject of the programme instead of Ray Hanna."

There was a long pause at the other end before John said, "Go on, Tony, tell me what you have in mind."

"JR is an absolutely ideal subject for your programme. He's served with the Red Arrows for six years. He was the youngest Red Arrow ever, I think, certainly he's the youngest ever Leader. He's flown over 600 public displays, 350 of them as Leader - that's probably more than anyone else. He's led the Team on an unprecedented world tour. He's just been awarded the OBE by the Queen; and the Queen Mother, our Commandant-in-Chief, knows him and I bet she would send a personal message to be read out at the end of the programme."

I was warming to my theme and continued. "The Red Arrows have never been so popular around the world as well as in the UK as they are right now. It could be the most wonderful double bluff. There he'll be, like a lamb to the slaughter. He'll expect to see Michael Aspel when he lands on 23rd September after his final UK show - the only thing he won't know is that he's the subject not Ray. Personally, I can't think of anyone who deserves to be the subject of This Is Your Life more than JR does."

After I had stopped talking, John Graham paused for a few seconds before he said: "I like it. Please write a treatment - a story board - as soon as you can and fax it to me. I'll put it to the BBC. I have to get their approval - we just make the programmes for the Beeb you know. What about JR's wife? Is she on board with this?"

"You're the only person so far who knows about this idea. I haven't even discussed it with the Commandant and I don't intend to. I'll go and see Karen Rands on the way home this afternoon before her kids get home from school. She lives near me in a little village near Scampton. The Reds are having a day off in Bangkok today on their way home from Jakarta. If any of the neighbours see me visiting Karen while John's out of the country, she'll just tell them I was passing on the latest situation report from JR."

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