And lo, Liz arose from her wheelchair and walked, and it was all down to the swirly-patterned wallpaper.
The BBC’s The Young Ones concluded last night with the housemates undergoing a series of tests which purported to show pretending you are living in 1975 can make you fitter, better at remembering things and generally more capable. The programme makers put six celebrity elders in a sort of Senior Big Brother house full of clashing geometric patterns, made them wear kaftans and flares, then got a couple of academic types to watch from the garage to see if they got any younger.
Liz Smith, the 88 year-old actor, who arrived in a wheelchair following three strokes, was clipping down the sea front at Worthing on foot by the end and delivering lectures to the rest of us about how best to stay young. Sylvia Sims, 76, who arrived in a state of exhaustion claiming she’d barely been able to walk for two years, was bustling around managing children and dinner parties. She left to be a roving ambassador for AgeUK.
Despite looking amazingly well-preserved, Lionel Blair couldn’t touch his toes when he arrived but made such an improvement that he was finally able to reveal his most closely guarded secret: he was 78. Kenneth Kendall, the most sceptical and, in many ways, dullest housemate contributed the most moving moment when he decided that he was not after all too old to get a dog.
The BBC promises that next Wednesday, one of the academics, Michael Mosley, will present a programme explaining the ‘science’ behind the wheeze. Can this really be necessary? For all the use of computer screens that looked like something out of The Bourne Identity (but were, in fact, lists) it was pretty obvious what was going on here.
Ellen Langer, the other academic and originator of the experiment, gave it away when the redoubtable Sylvia Sims said: ‘What I haven’t quite got my head round is the correlation between taking us back to 1975 and physical improvement.’ It’s a placebo, Ellen said.
Half a dozen relatively isolated people, much less busy than they had been in the past, were expected to be both entertaining and be self-reliant. (The most interesting part came in the middle of the three programmes, when carers were introduced and most of housemates regressed.) They made friends and had a good time playing house in the hideous decor, and they were working, on television, which is one of the highest status jobs known to the modern world. No wonder they felt better.
Perhaps the reminders of their younger selves had some small impact but, mainly, they suddenly had lots of reasons to make an effort. Derek Jameson, gregarious and funny, admitted that his main social activity outside the Senior BB house was getting out his bus pass and going to the library. He struck up an intense and very endearing friendship with Dickie Bird – ‘ a lovely, wonderful man who has lightened up my life.’
What was interesting was not the rather implausible premise of a scientific experiment, but how watchable these six old people were – how interesting and complex and articulate and appealing. They quickly ceased to be curiosities, and became the stuff of any old drama, individual human beings grappling with particular problems, with whom you wanted to engage and sympathise.
Perhaps as the population ages we will finally start to see more old people on television. (As Sylvia Sims said: ‘We’re here, and you’d better get used to it.’) Despite executives’ famous fear of sagging bodies and lined faces on screen, The Young Ones suggested there was absolutely no reason why not.