The Young Ones: Can re-living your youth make you young again?

Tuesday 14 September 2010, 19:24

Tom McDonald Tom McDonald Executive Producer

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What if you really could turn back the clock? What if you could simply think yourself younger? Those two questions form the heart of The Young Ones, a new series for BBC One. It's a re-staging of a Harvard experiment which tested whether re-living your youth could make you young again.

Our experiment will see six well-loved British famous faces - Lionel Blair, Sylvia Syms, Liz Smith, Dickie Bird, Kenneth Kendall, and Derek Jameson - go back to 1975 for just one week to see if it can make them young again.

The celebrities: clockwise from top: Liz Smith, Lionel Blair, Dickie Bird, Sylvia Syms, Derek Jameson, Kenneth Kendell

When I first heard about the original experiment, and the BBC's plans to re-stage it, as the programme executive, I thought it all sounded completely mad and not necessarily in a good way.

I wasn't instantly convinced by the original experiment - it sounded too much like that 1980s film Cocoon to me - and I was concerned that if we re-staged it we'd simply find that the experiment didn't work, and would be embarrassing for everyone involved.

Two things changed my mind. Firstly, meeting with Professor Ellen Langer, who ran the original study. Her passionate belief that the way we age isn't inevitable and her certainty the experiment would work was hugely inspiring and enough to convince me that re-staging the experiment could change the way we all see ageing.

The second thing was reading that there are now more people in the UK over 80 than there are under 16 in Britain. Suddenly the idea of re-staging this experiment sounded much more than just fun, it somehow seemed completely urgent and absolutely necessary.

First, we had to decide which year we'd be sending our volunteers back to. We chose 1975 as we needed our volunteers to go back to their heyday and it was a year that many of the celebrities themselves brought up as personally important.

Nineteen seventy five was also an interesting year in the news, in culture and in sport. Margaret Thatcher was elected as the first female leader of the opposition and the Bay City Rollers were so big that crowds of hysterical girls could be found in every part of Britain (look out for a brilliant news piece on Rollermania in the first episode).

In sport Arthur Ashe became the first black man to get to the Wimbledon final and the first ever Cricket World Cup took place at Lords (and with Dickie Bird in the line up, this seemed particularly poignant).

Professor Ellen Langer, the creator of the experiement

A lot of our energies went into getting the look and feel of the house as historically accurate as possible. We also wanted the house to be as personal to our six volunteers as possible - we describe it in the show as "an Aladdin's cave of seventies-ness," which I think sums it up perfectly.

We needed plenty of space in the grounds to squeeze portacabins in so the massive production team on the series could be rigged up to computers, printers and the internet. We wanted it to be 1975 inside the house, but in order for the production to run smoothly it needed to be 2010 everywhere else.

Joanna Hilliard started to gently ask the celebrities to recall the things they most remembered about their homes in 1975: What did they have in their bedrooms? What colour were their walls? What photos would they have had up around their house? Were there any special mementoes which always took them back to that time?

We wanted the moment the volunteers saw their bedrooms for the first time to have a huge impact on them, so the researchers couldn't tell them why we were asking all these questions about decor and photos. We couched it all in terms of general research.

Joanna managed to strike it lucky in the case of all the volunteers - but most especially with Lionel Blair who had photographs of his actual 1975 bedroom. With that photograph, we managed to entirely replicate the wallpaper, carpet, furniture, even the bedding so it was a stunt double of Lionel's 1975 bedroom.

We were all so excited by the job that David did with Lionel's bedroom, which is why Lionel's reaction (you'll have seen it in the first episode) came as such a surprise to us - he hated his room!

Meanwhile, inspired by Habitat catalogues, design books and archive photos, art director David and his team transformed a suburban house into a living and breathing 1970s home.

Being inside it was breathtaking because the level of detail was so extraordinary. We'd always insisted that it couldn't feel like a set. Everything from the washing machine to the fridge to the curling tongs to the bedside lamps had to work - it was there to make the 1970s real.

Dickie Bird, sitting at a desk

There are too many moments on this series that were either hilarious, moving or simply completely bonkers to pinpoint one of them - but what will always stay with me is the sense about half way through filming that the experiment really was working.

The atmosphere in the house changed from being a slightly sad retreat for some very nice elderly celebrities into being a dynamic, living, breathing space where collectively everyone was living as their younger selves.

I'd always believed the key to the experiment would be the six volunteers enjoying one another's company and getting on together - and seeing the encouragement they all gave one another to either walk those extra steps or push themselves that little bit harder was inspirational.

I will never forget the moment that Derek Jameson managed to pull on his socks on his own (harder than it sounds) to the applause of Lionel Blair and Liz Smith - it's the spirit of that house that I'll never forget.

I will never be able to look at a shag-pile carpet or swirly wallpaper again without thinking of our 1975 house. I did try and nab a few pieces of the furniture at the end of the shoot (I do have a soft spot for 1970s dressers and dining tables), but I came home empty-handed.

Nearly all of the props in the house were hired from specialist companies to be sure the pieces really would have been in a 1975 house - we really didn't want to find out something we thought was 1970s turned out to be from the 1980s.

I hope when the series is on air that viewers will see that - other than the joy of some terrible clothes and gaudy furniture - there's nothing particularly special about 1975. What the experiment showed me is that we all have the potential to think differently about who we are and the way we live, regardless of our age.

And the reason I'll always feel hugely grateful to have taken part: hearing the volunteers as they left the experiment talking about how much hope it had given them for the future and how glad they were they'd taken part. You'll see these conversations in the final episode on Thursday.

Spending one week in 1975 hasn't changed my life on a day-to-day basis but if ever I think I can't do something or I have a problem that's insurmountable, I do try and remember the 88-year-old Liz Smith walking for the first time since her strokes 18 months ago without sticks. Inspiring, life-affirming, and a privilege to have been a part of.

Tom McDonald is the executive producer of The Young Ones.

The Young Ones starts at 9pm on Tuesday, 14 September on BBC One and BBC HD. For times of all episodes of the show, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

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    Comment number 1.

    I am sorry, but I found this programme quite distasteful. It was patronising, demeaning and bordering on downright cruel.
    These poor people can never be given back what they really crave, their youth.
    Watching them struggle both mentally and physically was extremely upsetting viewing. It was like watching the movie 'Cocoon' but without any aliens on hand to deliver the desired elixir of youth.
    Trying to brainwash a bunch of frail,faded celebrities into thinking it is 1975 under the very thin guise of 'social experiment' has in my opinion taken the Corporation to an all time low.

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    Comment number 2.

    These "poor people", these "frail, faded celebrities" also sounds "patronising, demeaning and bordering on downright cruel". We are talking here about human beings who are part of our lives because we know them through the medium of TV - perhaps these lovely people agreed to be part of this programme not only for entertainment but for enlightenment. I am perfectly sure that they have also been able to view the programme in advance and will have been given the opportunity of expressing their opinions prior to air.

    We shall all be "old" one day and what this programme demonstrates, and what the participants are sharing with us, is how the state of our minds has an enormous influence on the state of our bodies. Good for them - I have learned something wonderful as a result of watching them so far, and I admire them for their humour, courage and determination. They have brought so much to our lives in the past and continue to do so. Thank you.

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    Comment number 3.

    The author has also apparently returned to 1975, to talk about "filming" the events in the house....


    As to Pete's comment above about finding the programme "distasteful", I can only repeat a saying of my late maternal grandmother - that fools and children shouldn't see things half-done.

    I confess to feeling a little ill-at-ease at certain elements within the first programme, but surely the whole point of the experiment is to see if the changed environment also changes those within that environment.

    Programme 1 mainly served to set up the starting-point for each participant, Progamme 2 will presumably show transitional developments (more marked in some cases than others, I suspect) and the final programme will illustrate the end-point and draw conclusions about the impact of the experiment.

    The only query I would have with the methodology is whether the reversion to an earlier time-period is as influential as proposed; would a simple [self-catering] holiday have been just as effective, i.e. is the loss of the individuals' usual support systems more significant, with the requirement to do things for themselves?

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    Comment number 4.

    Great first episode - really interesting. Unfortunately it just isn't true that "...there are now more people in the UK over 80 than there are under 16 in Britain.", stated in the blog and on the show. In fact there are over four times as many children under 16 as there are people over 80. What the Guardian article - linked to from that part of the blog - says, is that there are now more people of pensionable age (over 60 for women and over 65 for men) than there are children under 16. Just. Which is a lot less surprising. The numbers are there in the Guardian article: 11.5 million children under 16, 2.7 million people over 80. And the Office for National Statistics reports the same numbers. This is the sort of spurious statistic that will be recycled and quoted again as fact, so hopefully a quick edit to the blog can set things right.

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    Comment number 5.

    Hello Phil (#4) - I'm the editor of the TV blog. Thanks for being so observant on the stat. I've taken out the link now to the Guardian article, as your're right, it doesn't quite illustrate the point being made. I'll ask where the quoted stat came from. Interesting! Thank you.

 

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