Monday, 20 September 2010

The Young Ones

Did any one else see The Young Ones (14, 15 and 16 September 2010)?

The show featured Dickie Bird (former cricket umpire), Lionel Blair (actor, dancer, choeograher), Derek Jamieson (newspaper editor and broadcaster), Sylvia Sims, Liz Smith (both actors – although Sylvia Sims is described as an actress on the website and Liz Smith as best know for playing Nana in the Royal family)and Kenneth Kendall (newsreader).

The Young Ones had the six in a house decorated and furnished to make it look as it might have been in 1975 when, apparently the 6 of them were in ‘their prime’. We were told that some of the wall paper had to be specially made. They even arrived at the house in cars from the period playing music of the time. We were told that part of the experiment was to show how positive thinking and particularly imagining themselves back to their ‘heydays’ could improve physical and cognitive functioning.

While in the house they were under constant CCTV observation from BBC One’s ‘resident man of science’ Dr. Michael Mosley and Ellen Langer from Harvard University. The audience were told that the ‘show’ planned to replicate work done by Ellen in the 1970s. Gerontologist Ian Phelps appeared at the beginning of the first programme and at the end of the third to test what progress the six older celebrities had made of the course of the week long experiment.

In the control room the lead seemed to be taken by Mosley who would from time to time pronounce on what was revealed by the observation cameras and attempt to get assent from the slightly bemused Langer. Any one who has seen Mosley’s antics on The One Show will know is he has penchant for organising small scale experiments. These are often the basis of claims that men and women are completely different from each other. I may be biased – I know a colleague was quite impressed by his History of Science series. I’m afraid my prejudices were reinforced by Mosley telling one of ‘victims’ that he was there “to teach you independence”.

So I approached The Young Ones with a number of reservations. I think the whole notion of ‘positive thinking ‘as a panacea is questionable (see Barbara Ehrenreich, Smile or die: How positive thinking fooled America and the World). Equally questionable was the idea that all six of the celebrities would be in their prime (in 1975) just because they happened to be aged between 41 (Dickie Bird) and 53 (Liz Smith) was. I also thought that the notion that putting people in ‘the 1975 house’ would be of dubious benefit. As this was not something that I could find in Langer’s original research I assume if was to make the series more visually appealing

Despite everything some interesting things did come out of The Young Ones

It was clear that most of the participants did benefit by having the chance to make decisions, have some level of control over their lives and to be able to do the things that they had enjoyed when they were younger. For example as a result of falls Kenneth Kendall had decided he would not have a dog again. However the programme gave him a chance to look after dogs and he subsequently decided he wanted to be a dog-owner. Much the same could be said of Liz Smith taking up painting again and Dickie Bird resuming pub lunches with cricket ‘chums’. In a similar vein, Derek Jameson gave a lecture to journalism students while Lionel Blair joined with cast members from the West End show Tap Dogs.

At one level the show was inherently ageist – thinking as they had when younger selves was argued to be the reason why improvement had occured. I think this rather missed the point of what was actually happening. Each of the six had retired from work that had been hugely meaningful to them. Added to this had been physical problems including strokes, falls and diabetes (to name but a few). This had made it increasingly difficult to resist offers of care which (although well meant) had contributed to them seeing themselves just as someone to be cared for.

To its credit these programmes did challenge that and provided a space in which people could have fun, express themselves and wonder what their choices really were and how they could be exercised. Maybe there are messages here for how old people are perceived and how services that are supposed to help them are provided.

Jonathan Hughes 20/09-10

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