There was time when I was known as ‘Nottingham’s official Robin Hood’ (a truly wonderful job I still do, rumours of my retirement being substantially in error) but these days I’m much more likely to be known as ‘Scarlett’s Dad from that Channel 4 documentary series’ – and actually that’s quite fun.
‘Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds’ is a documentary series that was filmed in Nottingham (at the Lark Hill Retirement Village in Clifton) and featured ten residents from there aged between 86 and 102 and aimed to see if introducing them to a group of ten children aged 3-4 over a protracted period would have any effect on their mental and physical well-being.
I first found out about the project (or ‘experiment’ as the producers preferred to call it) when the wonderful Roopam Carroll from the excellent Beeston Nursery (which Scarlett was attending at the time) contacted me to ask if I might be interested in her taking part, as the producers were approaching several local nurseries looking for potential participants.
As you may know I lost my beloved wife Sally to breast cancer last year and I was (and still am) a bit of a mess because of it – suddenly becoming a 54-year old widower with a 4-year old after months of caring for Sal at home left me dazed, confused and directionless, so it seemed like a fine idea to suggest Scarlett might take part as it would provide her with a new adventure, new friends and a unique experience I certainly couldn’t give her myself.
Apparently a couple of thousand children applied (well, their parents did) and there was a long process of careful selection and diligence on behalf of the producers – who I can’t praise enough for their compassion, caring and consideration for all the children – and eventually two were chosen from Beeston, Scarlett and Phoenix (who if you’ve seen the documentary were both featured very heavily in the first episode).
We had film crews visit us at home to film background interviews and a child psychologist come to discuss what the ‘experiment’ might entail and whether Scarlett and I were genuinely happy to be involved and if it was right for us. Of course one of the questions involved how it would be if one of the older participants passed away during the course of the show (an unlikely but potential happening) and how that might affect Scarlett having lost her Mum so recently. Obviously I hoped it wouldn’t (and thankfully didn’t) happen – but if it did I thought it was more likely to ‘normalise’ Scarlett’s experience than anything else.
And then we got to meet the older residents, and they were an utter delight! They were (and are), as with the children, a very diverse group, some with health issues, some very shy, some full of laughter – but all curious, excited and not quite knowing what to expect.
102-year old Sylvia, who turned out to be a real star onscreen, was a joy – when I met her she told me how she enjoys visiting Lark Hill’s bar in the evening and always walks her much younger friend home to make sure she gets home safely! I asked her why she enjoyed the bar so much and she told me there were lots of widowers she could get a kiss from… and when I mentioned I was a widower she coyly pulled her long skirt up to show me a bit of ankle and winked at me!
When the children met the residents too as part of the filming it was just as wonderful, Scarlett made a bee-line to 86-year old Beryl who she instantly became inseparable from – and even though filming has now finished we still see regularly both at Lark Hill (when all the parents, children and residents have a lunch and catch up together) and on our own with Sal’s Mum Joy for Sunday lunches. It’s like having a new family for us all, and is just joyous.
There’s a moment in episode one where the children are asked to write party invitations for their mummies and daddies and Scarlett turns around and says, very matter of factly, that ‘my Mummy has died so I’ll make it for Daddy and Gran-Gran’. It’s shocking in its simplicity and openness and (as of writing) that clip, put online by Channel 4, has had nearly six million views. But for me, it’s the heart of why I wanted Scarlett to participate in the programme – because she’s been through such a lot but can still speak of losing Sal whilst at the same time knowing how much Sal loved her – and would be so proud of her.
I’ve never really been a fan of ‘reality’ TV but this show helped everyone involved and judging from the press and media attention it gained and the comments both online and personally I’ve see too has helped and affected a lot of other people too, both in starting a discussion about how we shouldn’t segregate the old and the young because they both benefit hugely from such interaction, but also how we talk about the loss of a parent to children.
This will be the second Christmas we’ve had without Sal now and whilst I’m still hugely bereft and lonely I’m deeply glad we’ll be surrounded by family and friends – but also a new extended family too, the promise of those bonds continuing for many years to come and lessons Scarlett and the rest of the children can carry with them for the rest of their lives. I’m certain #SalWouldApprove.
Oh – and I’m not supposed to say anything – but watch out for the Christmas special, we finished filming it last week! J