Within a few months I had shed a stone by eating less, taking up jogging and joining the gym. And looking at the brutal regime our volunteers were subjected to, it's a miracle the rest of them weren't chewing the carpet by the time we let them out.
In1863 an undertaker called William Banting, who had made the Duke of Wellington's coffin, published what was in effect the first book for slimmers. Perhaps the most revolting diet in history, this regime from Edwardian times required participants to chew everything precisely 32 times, before tilting the head backwards to allow the masticated food to slide down. In 1919 an overweight Californian lady called Dr Lulu Hunt Peters published Diet And Health, With Key To The Calories.
Indeed, the weight loss was so marked that my trousers began to drop off me, and I had to have them taken in by a friendly tailor I knew in the costume department at the Royal Opera House.
Although the resulting programmes are hilarious, they are also intriguing and informative - teaching us a great deal about our modern-day attitudes to food. This idea was first put forward by an American, Horace Fletcher - a marksman, athlete and painter, who had become so fat he was refused life insurance in 1895. This was so successful in the Twenties ran into 16 editions and was still in print in the 1940s. Ever since then I've kept a close watch on what I eat, with the result that, although I'm in my 73rd year, a doctor has just told me my metabolic age is only 57 - a full 16 years younger than my age. Until I embarked on these programmes I had no idea that our obsession with dieting went back further than the Fifties, when I recall my mother getting slimming pills from the doctor which only seemed to make her grow fatter. Initially, Dr Peters advocated a calorie limit of just 1,200 a day but by 1928 she had revised her advice to just 600 to 750 per day (modern guidelines recommend 1,940 calories for a woman, and 2,550 for men as part of a normal diet). In fact, dieting goes back to the Victorian age when the new middle classes, waited on by servants, had blown up in size as a consequence of consuming the contents of Mrs Beeton's celebrated cookbook. At 65, Banting had found himself weighing 14st6lb(sylph-like compared with many of today's men). The key to her book's success was that she had compiled a list of the calorie content of particular foods. It is part social history, part reality show, with nine flab-laden members of the public volunteering to enter a fictional "Institute of Physical Culture" where, for 24 days, they are subjected to three of the most extreme diets from history. So could our modern-day volunteers learn something from the methods used by our ancestors to shift those extra pounds, just as modern- day celebrity chefs still turn to Mrs Beeton for inspiration in the kitchen? At that weight, he could only climb upstairs backwards and couldn't reach down to tie his shoelaces. Hasty eating, he believed, resulted in undigested food clogging up the system, which led to constipation and the colon becoming a dangerous cesspool of bacteria. Almost 90 years on, this is still the standard means of achieving and maintaining weight loss.

My role was to act as the head of the institute, dressed in a frock coat and top hat to preside over the whole process like some Victorian version of Gillian McKeith. The three dietary regimes I subjected our guinea pigs to all had one thing in common: they demanded extreme commitment and discipline, which was anathema to most of the tubby participants. More seriously, the explosion of fat was putting pressure on his hearing and he had started to go deaf. Together with the other "staff" - who were all experts in different aspects of health and wellbeing - I had to enforce the correct food intake and the appropriate exercise programmes from three eras: Victorian, Edwardian and the roaring Twenties. Over the years, he tried various methods to shift the pounds: rowing, riding, purgatives and Turkish baths. Fletcher's great friend was John Harvey Kellogg, who in 1906 launched the staple of most people's breakfasts even today - cornflakes.
To do this, we were all incarcerated in a country house in the middle of nowhere from which there was no easy means of escape. For the truth is that we would not need diets at all if people relearned simple discipline. This daily intake of roughage was intended to oil the system and Kellogg's bran was designed to scour the intestines. We've had two generations where there has been little discipline, in the home or the school.
So in desperation, he visited an ear specialist - a man who was in contact with his peers in Paris, at that time the centre of advanced medicine. Kellogg also ran a sanatorium where people went to lose weight, through cold rain douches, sweating packs and plunge baths, along with rigorous exercise.
After a week or so, the mere sight of yet another heap of celery sticks produced paroxysms in our volunteers. The specialist prescribed a straightforward diet free from starchy and sugary foods, based on lean meat, boiled eggs and green vegetables. Interestingly, on Fletcher's diet you can eat anything - and as much of it as you like - but chewing takes so long, the desire to eat diminishes and you eat less.
I pass over the screams which went up at the sight of yet another pile of lettuce and grated carrot.
Before they entered the "institute", our nine participants had to pledge they would adhere to their strict regimes and observe set meal times, without fail. It may be brutally effective but, in reality, calorie dieting to the extreme degree that Dr Peters suggested is basically just a form of starvation, leading not only to violent hunger pangs but emotional mood swings. Drawn from all ages and walks of life, they included a special needs teacher, Madame Tussaud's guide and gas meter reader. His formula meant eating huge quantities of lamb, beef, poultry and game, even for breakfast.

Deprivation on this scale probably explains why, by the 1930s, people were looking for other means of losing weight by taking various forms of amphetamines designed to curb the appetite. Yet as soon as they embarked on our rigorous regimes, it became clear that the idea of formal mealtimes was new to them.
For the first time, cosmetic surgery also began to emerge as another possibility for weight loss, paving the way for today's billion-pound industry.
By the time of Banting's death in 1878, his book had sold 58,000 copies - in Victorian terms a blockbuster. When questioned about what they would normally eat for breakfast, they gave me replies such as "a glass of water and two fags".
But it was another man, Dr Robert Atkins, whose own version of the same dieting concept would become a global phenomenon more than a century later, forming the basis of a diet empire that was at one time worth more than A?50million.
The idea of sitting at a table and talking to other human beings came as a total culture shock to them.
That didn't surprise me, ever since I learned from a nursery school teacher that most children arrive in her care never having sat at a table or held a knife and fork. This lack of discipline, combined with the availability of cheap ready-to-eat food, means that most of us eat far more than our ancestors, while exercising less. Our sedentary lifestyle extends into the home, where machines do virtually all the tasks that once had to be done by hand.
But what also struck me was the selfishness of the reasons given by our participants for wanting to lose weight and be fitter. The answers were without exception self-centred, ranging from "I want to be able to wear skinny jeans", to "I want to look good nude for my wife". In the past, slimming and fitness was viewed as part of good citizenship so that you would be ready for action in time of war, serve the state in peace and, as a woman, bear healthy children.
It was an era which produced the Boy Scouts, Boys' Brigade, New Health Society and Women's League Of Health And Beauty. Today, such notions of civic duty have vanished, as not one of our participants said they wanted to be lean and fit so as not to be a burden to their families or avert adding to the cost of the NHS. What we have is an obesity crisis, but minus the moral framework of our ancestors, who decried fatness as being the result of gluttony and loose living. It's no use blaming the problem on the food manufacturers or retailers who are going to have to label their food with colour-coded calorie warnings.

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