On 7 March 1944, thousands of babies were born – Born on the Same Day (Channel 4). Among them are Ewart, Frances and Ran, their lives spliced together with the postwar history of Britain.
Ewart was born in rural Jamaica, but when he was 16, his parents left with their nine children. Everything that Ewart knew – his friends, his dogs, his world – he was severed from. They got on a boat and came to the UK, in search of a better life – and ended up in a small terraced house in Birmingham. “They should have stopped this immigration long ago,” says a man on the archive newsreel. “They know what trouble they cause, they know this country’s only small.” Some things haven’t changed much.
There wasn’t much joy or love in Frances’s childhood in Leeds, which was defined by an accident. Her nightdress caught fire, she was badly burnt, and spent a long time in hospital. In those days, visiting hours were once a month, even for children, and she was admitted just after one had gone. Not that she especially wanted to see her parents.
Ran had a happier time as a boy, larking around in the countryside, having adventures, making homemade bombs, climbing trees and falling in love with the pretty girl riding her pony underneath. But there was a big hole in his life where his father should have been. Dad was killed in action; their lives didn’t quite overlap.
On the face of it, three very different lives, apart from the backdrop, the stuff on in the newsreels. But they all put their setbacks and sadnesses to good use. Ewart wasn’t going to be held back by the racists and bigots, he was going to show them who was boss. Literally – he was going to show them that he was the boss. It’s only a shame that his soul band Captivate fell by the wayside as he climbed the corporate ladder to senior management in sales and marketing.
Frances put her experiences – the accident, her loneliness and suffering and the loneliness and suffering of other children in the hospital, the failings of her own parents, the lack of love – to good use. She became the kindest, most caring person, full of love – for her 97 foster children, for starters. Frances is pretty amazing.
Ran, in his own eyes, didn’t measure up to the father he never knew but hero-worshipped. Nor did he command the same cavalry regiment, the Royal Scots Greys. “I think I was just born fairly unintelligent and still am,” he says, honestly. But he did have the balls to climb down from his tree and ask the pretty girl on the pony out. She – Ginny – said yes, rode around the countryside on the back of Ran’s scooter, and later married him. And he became a famous explorer, Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Basically carrying on as before, same as his childhood, having adventures, climbing stuff, being very brave.
That’s how this goes. Two non-slebs, one famous person. The Queen would have made a good one, for contrast with the others, but she probably wouldn’t play. And anyway, Sir Ran is related to her. Plus, he’s good value: he has that brilliant old-skool (Eton, obviously), matter-of-fact English stoicism and understatement you expect and want from an explorer. Not his exact words, but something like this: killed a couple of chaps in the desert, awful business, them or me though, I’m a bit dim, kept buggering on anyway, round the world, through the ice, frostbite, chopped my fingers off, here they are, don’t know where the fifth one is, no kids, cows instead, Ginny died, awful business, very sad, climbed Everest …
It is hilarious, but also very touching, his love and then grief for his wife. It’s all very moving – Frances’s story especially, and the death of her adopted daughter, Helen. The lives of the other two aren’t overshadowed by the presence of the famous figure; Frances’s fostering and Ewart’s family leaving everything and setting off into the unknown are just as brave as Sir Ranulph’s polar treks. Ordinary is extraordinary, too.
There is something of Michael Apted’s Seven Up! series about it, though, of course, much smaller in scale and ambition. Seven Up!-lite then, but it still makes you think about stuff – you know, ageing, how quick a life goes by, your own, perhaps, how you’d better get a move on if you’re going to do anything, stuff like that.