TV review: You Saw Them Here First (ITV) - A deeply moving meditation on ageing and mortality

Neighbourhood Force, ITV

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The Independent Culture

Maybe it's because I'm approaching a significant birthday (21), but suddenly I'm alive to the underlying themes of ITV's You Saw Them Here First like never before. Like many, I'd previously written off such clip shows as hastily bodged together. That was before I realised they can actually be a deeply moving mediation on ageing, memory and mortality.

True, the programme mainly consists of footage of minor television personalities during that first brush with fame. There was a teenage Suranne Jones doing an eerily accurate Margaret Thatcher impression; there was Gary Kemp from Spandau Ballet in an actual ballet and, best of all, there was Keira Knightley, aged about nine, in a random period drama wildly screaming, "I love to play with common children!" as she was dragged indoors by her ghastly snob of a governess.

Click here or on "View Images" for a gallery of celebrities before they were famous

If that was all there was on offer, You Saw Them Here First would still have worked as a mildly entertaining historical record of the ways in which people make pillocks of themselves in pursuit of fame, but there was more. YSTHF's proudest innovation, trailed at the beginning of the show, is a section where the celebs are invited to "come face to face with their faces". This is – if possible – even more horrifying than it sounds. They are invited into the studio, confronted with footage of their younger selves then filmed as they stare into the abyss of mortality.

Oh, how cruel the rough winds of time, which shake the darling buds of May! Michelle Collins and Pauline Quirke both looked suitably shaken. Only Eamonn Holmes emerged from the experience still chuckling. I suspect this was because the archives revealed he was quite the hottie in his youth (See also: Dame Maggie Smith – those cheekbones! Dame Judi Dench – those eyes!)

All of the above can at least be grateful they still have telly careers. If the cheapskates at ITV are looking for a way to squeeze even more airtime out of these clips, I've a suggestion: "You Never Saw Them Again", an ITV3 spin-off that reuses the same footage, this time focusing on the subsequent lives of the anonymous people who hover like ghosts in the corner of the frame. What happened to the other half of Denise Van Outen's act Those 2 Girls? And who was that scowling man in the checked shirt sitting next to a young Simon Cowell? (I'm teasing, of course. Simon Cowell was never young.)

If YSTHF ignored the plight of the non-famous, Neighbourhood Force more than compensated for this oversight. A documentary in name, it was in reality an hour-long paean to that unsung superhero of our crumbling communities: the frontline council worker. Take double-act dog wardens Kerry and Kelly. Don't be fooled by their cheerful demeanours and bouncing blonde ponytails. You need nerves of steel to regularly face off with half-starved mastiffs and come out unscathed. And it was not just dogs, either. As the mother of a recently arrived Iraqi family wryly noted, it's impossible to get the council enthused about replacing a damp ceiling, but start rearing livestock in the backyard and suddenly they're all over you like fleas on a pygmy goat.

Housing soon emerged as the major issue facing Birmingham council, but Neighbourhood Force also revealed that the solutions are far from straightforward. You might, for instance, have expected 12-year-old Kasim to be happy that his family have finally been housed. Their new postcode meant his little sister is eligible for the NHS treatment that her life-threatening heart condition requires. However, as the scion of a proud Gypsy family, he's anything but. "I don't like houses," he said. "You know those horror films? It's always in a house." You have to admit, he's got a point.