Michael Ryan describes one of his most memorable WIA’s

From a personal point of view, the stand-out success of the seventies was the film I made in Longnor in Derbyshire in 1971, where I persuaded the village to give up smoking for a week. This was at a time, of course, when 75% of the male population was still smoking. It was timed to coincide with the second and definitive report from the BMA on the connection between smoking and cancer and heart disease. Again it was slightly comic because I was on the edge of giving up smoking myself then anyway, and this Fleet Street lot arrived and we were literally on the pages of every tabloid for a week, to the delight of the senior management. But one of the things they were doing was following not just me but the production team around trying to catch us in the act of smoking while we were engaged in this experiment. So it did have one consequence: I never in my life smoked after that. And I got Tom Gill to stop smoking. When he died at the age of 91, his sons had some memorabilia in the room with the wake, and one thing was a card, and I recognised my own handwriting. I think he left in about ’85, but I think it said something like, “At least I stopped you smoking, Tom, I know you’re going to have a good old age!” Again, that was an example of an idea that worked beautifully. Just occasionally an idea works beautifully in television.

The people were very funny, they were entirely up for it. People were writing poetry and doggerel and making up verses and enjoying the fame. We went back about a year later and needless to say only about between eight and ten were genuinely off cigarettes. But I still see that as an important social experiment. I always thought that the main reason people do things they shouldn’t do is because other people are doing it. Now it’s commonplace, but then it wasn’t, people always argued that they didn’t really believe it was true that it caused these terrible diseases, and that defence has gone entirely. There are still people who smoke but they do it guiltily and they don’t attempt to argue the contrary case. That was very enjoyable.


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