Why aren't the older generation better portrayed on television?

Last Tango in Halifax finally brings us a couple over 70 who are chic, wry and fun to watch - but where are the rest, asks Alison Graham

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Why aren't the older generation better portrayed on television?
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Celia and Alan, the two pensioners at the centre of Sally Wainwright’s romantic drama Last Tango in Halifax (Tuesday BBC1) go halves on the kind of sports car they have always wanted but never felt bold enough to buy, in this week’s episode.

They are a spirited couple; financially independent, wise, wry, determined, forthright and, in Celia’s case, chic. Sixty years after they last saw each other, before they married other people when they really should have married each other, they are reunited via Facebook. Life’s too short to hang about and, within hours of meeting once again, they get engaged, to the consternation of their families.

Celia and Alan (Anne Reid and Derek Jacobi) aren’t wizened husks, knocking on the door of the charnel house, demanding admission. Last Tango, and Alan and Celia, are a refreshingly gleeful shake-up of the way older people are portrayed on television and, specifically, in dramas. They are having FUN. The last time I can recall seeing an older person having an uncomplicated laugh on TV was Catherine Tate’s foul-mouthed harridan Nan, a terrible woman who made no concessions to what other people expected of someone her age. She was really rather marvellous.

Of course, there’s been a long-running debate about older people on television, which is shameful enough in itself – what’s to debate? They have a perfect right to appear and to be represented in both factual and fictional programmes. But, even though everybody claims that, yes, it’s a Good Thing, you can tell that, often, they really don’t mean it.

Recently Julia Somerville, a very experienced journalist and news anchor who just so happens not to be a bottle-blonde 25-year-old or a man, presented a BBC News bulletin. On a hunch I checked out the online reaction. It wasn’t pretty: “Wasn’t Halloween yesterday?” was one of the milder gobbets of rudeness, doubtless pecked out at great intellectual expense to the male poster. I’m well aware of the pin-brained swamp creatures who exist in their ungrammatical slime-covered internet hovels, so let’s just say that these troglodytes are always with us.

But there was an unpleasant and far more insidious form of internet ageist hatred directed at Brendan, a runner-up in this year’s Great British Bake Off. He was, by a long way, the oldest contestant in the final, but throughout he had taken a pasting online for being too focused, too boastful, too proud and, most bizarre of all, too openly determined to win.

These are all attributes that would have been praised in any of the younger contestants. I could tell that Brendan’s “problem” in the eyes of some was that he did not behave as an “old person” should behave; he should have slotted neatly into the role of Nice OAP by being grateful, cringing, self-deprecating and a bit daffy. Instead, he made no secret of the fact that he wanted more than anything to be Bake Off champion and, week after week, he applied himself assiduously to every task. I loved Brendan.

Which brings us neatly back to Celia and Alan in Last Tango in Halifax. I’m not making any great claims for it, but at least it’s a start. And it’s proud to be old at heart.


Last Tango in Halifax continues tonight at 9:00pm on BBC1