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Living in the Past (1978)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Living in the Past (1978)
BBC Bristol, 23/2-11/5/1978
12 x 50 minutes, colour
DirectorJohn Percival

15 volunteers recreate an Iron Age settlement, where they must sustain themselves for a full year, equipped only with tools, crops and livestock which would have been available in Britain in the 2nd Century BC.

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Although it is almost forgotten today, Living in the Past (BBC, 1978) seems as much a prototype for television's future as an examination of Britain's distant past. A quarter of a century on, it's possible to see in it the roots of the 1990s reality TV boom, from the glitter of Big Brother (Channel 4, 1999-) to the 'historical study' of The 1900 House (Channel 4, 1999) and, especially, the 'social experiment' of Castaway (BBC, 2001).

Although the programme makers went to great lengths to create an authentic Iron Age farm, drawing on expert archaeological advice, it's hard to overlook the fundamentally artificial nature of the exercise. What's more, some viewers may have been more attracted by its participants' casual nudity than by any archaeological interest.

Indeed the series, now, seems less an examination of life in Britain, c.200 BC, than of a hippy commune in the mid-1970s AD (an impression reinforced by the fact that it shares its title with the biggest hit of '70s prog-rockers Jethro Tull). The young participants were drawn from relatively diverse (if overwhelmingly middle-class) backgrounds - a doctor and his nurse wife, a builder, a farmer, a schoolteacher and a part-time hairdresser. But with their handmade clothes, shaggy hair, beards and leather jewellery, they are almost impossible to distinguish from the hippies of the recent past.

For all that, Living in the Past is fascinating television. Equipped with only the tools and materials available in the period, the volunteers have to learn from scratch most of their essential skills - blacksmithing, tanning, basket making, earthenware pottery, weaving, crop cultivation and livestock farming - and their struggles against the elements, boredom and each other are riveting drama.

The 12 adults and three children were selected from around 1000 who responded to the BBC's advertisement. Set against the tens of thousands desperate to participate in programmes like Big Brother, the programme seems to belong to a more innocent television age.

Some years later, the series was entertainingly spoofed in the Comic Strip episode, 'Summer School' (Channel 4, tx. 31/1/1983). More recently, the BBC repeated the experiment with Surviving the Iron Age (2001), which included three children of Living in the Past's volunteers.

Mark Duguid

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