Putting five teenage couples in charge of other people's children might seem like a risky undertaking but executive producer Richard McKerrow insists it was worthwhile.
Putting five teenage couples in charge of other people's children might seem like a risky undertaking but executive producer Richard McKerrow insists it was worthwhile.

Whenever we explain the idea behind The Baby Borrowers, people always say the same thing: 'Who on earth is going to lend their baby to teenagers they don't know?'

I thought the same thing when BBC3 controller Julian Bellamy sought to embellish our 'parenting on fast forward' series pitch with the suggestion that it would be far more ambitious if the babies, toddlers and older kids could all be lent to teenagers, living in a tower block. 'What do you think?' he exclaimed with irresistible enthusiasm. I thought he was bonkers.

We returned to the office and drew up a lengthy treatment, then titled Teen Town. The conceit was magnificently clear and simple - take five teenage couples and give them adult life on fast-forward. We'd find a real street where they could all live. We'd give them jobs. And we'd give them children. Just like real life. Great in theory, but was it achievable?

A few weeks later the BBC's commissioning editor Ben Gale came to see us late one Friday. It was a rather unnerving meeting and Ben detected doubt and fear in all of our eyes. He took me outside and with his unmistakably diplomatic air he told me politely either to piss or get off the pot. He had a point. And we wrestled with it all weekend. We certainly believed in the idea. It was an exciting and important way to address the issue of teen pregnancy, but could it be done?

We went over and over the safety precautions and talked through our plans closely with the BBC's editorial policy department. We discussed the fact that, while it might not be ideal, babies are regularly separated from their parents in nurseries and in the end decided that as long as we were happy with the motivation of all involved in the show, we would go for it. There was no going back. And so began one of the most difficult and challenging TV series we'd ever undertaken.

We now just had to find the 20 or more sets of parents prepared to lend us their babies and children. Every day, more and more of them came forward, willing to take part. The parents weren't mad and irresponsible. They thought the project was exciting, an important social experiment that would change these teens' lives and make others think about their own. They thought it would raise the debate around the high rate of teen pregnancy in the UK in a totally new way that would speak to teenagers themselves.

Next we set up an editorial steering committee which included very supportive people from BBC Learning. We had a set of carefully honed and constantly revised editorial protocols as we hammered out every detail of the project. Should the teenage couples be allowed to share a bedroom ('what if they get pregnant during filming?'), should they be allowed to drink alcohol ('surely not while caring for other people's babies'). We took legal advice on whether or not we were contravening childcare legislation.

All our parents and children underwent extensive screening by four psychologists. Members of the production and crew were vetted by a criminal records bureau. All the babies, who were at least six months old, and toddlers had to have experienced separation from their parents before, at nursery or elsewhere. They were also observed being left by their parents, spending hours alone, and then reunited with them.

Up in Norwich we took over nine houses in a cul-de-sac and were in the midst of trying to pacify the neighbours about our impending plans. Five houses for the teen couples that all had to be painted and decorated, as we wanted them to look good for the crane shots we planned.

The houses all had to be made safe for the arrival of babies and rigged with CCTV cameras. We also organised for nannies to be on standby during filming so that they could step in if there were any problems. Another house was set up with TV monitors for the parents to watch the teenagers looking after their children 24/7; while another was used for production and more TV monitoring. And two further houses for an on-site nurse and for any parents who wanted to sleep over.

The CCTV equipment was there primarily for health and safety. And to ensure that our mad social experiment was arguably actually far safer than any domestic premises in the country. But the series itself was conceived very much as a documentary, shot by cameramen and women, producers, directors, and APs on rotating shifts. The inspirational series editor David DeHaney and I sought to immerse the entire team in the idea and to get them excited by the whole project, to get lost in the unfolding narratives of these teen couples.

The most extraordinary thing about the whole project was the way in which putting the teen couples through this pressure cooker of an experience produced so much of the same behaviour that we see in adult relationships. It's this we hope that makes the series compelling and poignant as it reveals the tensions, the arguments and all the challenges of adult life. As we edit the series, it's like looking in a mirror.

But, looking back, I'll always remember the first day of filming. I was sitting in one of the houses in the midst of an editorial meeting. I happened to look through the window and saw one of the teenage boys carrying someone's infant across the close. And as I wondered quite what the hell we had done lending other people's offspring to teenagers. I thought: 'Please don't drop the baby.'
The Baby Borrowers begins on BBC3 on Monday 8 January at 10.30pm