Do you remember the first time you watched Who Do You Think You Are? or Long Lost Family? They always strike me as examples of a rare thing – perfectly formed, emotionally irresistible television. The premise in each case is one-sentence simple, but as they unfold on screen, you can’t help getting drawn in, gripped, given a history lesson and moved – as the subjects are – to tears.
A good trick, and one that Born on The Same Day tries to pull off. Again, it’s a simple concept (devised in Norway, apparently) the kind of thing that must have development executives at production companies screaming at their staff, “Why didn’t we think of that?”
The idea is: take one celebrity and have them tell their life story in potted form. In parallel with that, tell the stories of two non-famous people who happen to have the same date of birth. Don’t force comparisons, or imply that one is a somebody and the others nobodies: let the personal stories and the family snapshots and the archive footage of the era (inevitably, post-war Britain) weave a spell.
And it works. For the first programme the famous contributor is Sir Ranulph Fiennes. I have never much warmed to the polar explorer but he won me over early in this programme by making an admission you hardly ever hear: “I think I was just born fairly unintelligent and still am,” he tells us, bluntly.
He says this while reflecting on why he failed his A-levels and therefore couldn’t get a place at Sandhurst. He had wanted to follow his father’s footsteps and become Colonel of the same regiment. When that avenue was closed he decided to become an explorer instead – and found his calling.
And on the same day, 7 Match 1944, that Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes was born (a distant cousin of the king , we learn) in a Windsor maternity ward, over in Jamaica, Ewart Rennalls was born onto his family’s farm. And in Leeds, Frances Kelly was born to parents who ran a corner shop. Both, we gather as the programme goes on, were and are quietly impressive.
Ewart arrived in Britain from Jamaica as a teenager and describes vividly his shock at seeing the small, terraced house in Birmingham he was to live in: “When I stepped out of the van with my brothers, I thought, ‘I can’t believe this. What we have left behind, the space! And now this little slice is all we have?’ My heart sank.”
He went on to a career in the RAF and later as a businessman. Nothing so extraordinary there, but the programme does a great job of making his story interesting in itself and also as a slice of social history.
In the end, though, it’s Leeds-born Frances Kelly whose story will tear at your heart. She describes the emotionally closed life she knew growing up (‘I don’t remember feeling any love.’) and the appalling childhood accident that left her badly scarred – and how it was treated by her family as something never to be spoken of, as if it were a source of terrible shame.
The three lives proceed in tandem. Marriages, jobs, families, setbacks. For Fiennes the setbacks were more public and in one case shockingly grisly. Look out for one of 2016’s stranger TV sequences, in which Fiennes demonstrates how after a punishing polar expedition he had to saw off the ends of his own frostbitten fingers. He then produces said fingertips from a small tin.
It’s such a peculiar moment it almost unbalances the programme, but not quite. Born on The Same Day may not have quite the impact of Who Do You Think You Are? but it is a smart and touching approach to getting at what is extraordinary about every life story.
Born on the Same Day is on tonight at 9pm on Channel 4