A significant shift in television’s tectonic plates has changed the landscape. Let’s call this quake the Last Tango in Halifax effect. Older people in dramas are no longer merely endearingly dotty characters who exist solely for their comic possibilities; they’re fully fleshed-out human beings with distinctive personalities.
The new-look oldies have ambition. They aren’t necessarily just pottering along in life, maybe not entirely happy with their lot but sticking to it because that’s always been the done thing. They are striking out and finding love at an age where young people fully expect them to be either fossilised in an armchair or dead.
When the splendid Anne Reid went up on stage and accepted Last Tango in Halifax’s Bafta award for best drama series, she made the wry observation: “I’m so glad the BBC has decided at last to do love stories about people who are over 35.” Now ITV has come up with a drama about love long after the first flush of youth has faded, with Love and Marriage (Wednesdays).
I’ve warmed to Stewart Harcourt’s tale of the chaotic Paradise family and its matriarch Pauline (Alison Steadman) who, after decades of marriage to a bore, simply packs up and walks out to find a new, happier life. The trigger is her retirement from her job as a school lollipop lady. Her husband barely acknowledges this watershed moment in his wife’s life, while the school’s headmaster obviously expects Pauline to vegetate quietly for whatever time is left to her.
But Pauline seizes the day, packs her bags and moves in with her racy sister Rowan (Celia Imrie), a chic older woman very happily devoted to the married man with whom she (mostly) shares her life. Pauline’s family is, for the most part, outraged, but she doesn’t care and, in this week’s episode, she goes out on a date with a widowed teacher who’s obviously always fancied her.
What makes Love and Marriage a bit different too is that it’s a family drama (albeit a very light one with some broad comic moments) that is a drama about a family. Television doesn’t do these very often, probably because they’re a huge challenge – if you don’t have a serial killer holding everything together, all you have is your characters and they have to be engaging on some level if viewers are to return.
Not that I’m making any great claims for Love and Marriage; it has its faults – including borrowing the sitting-on-the-sofa-talking-to-the-camera scenes from the peerless Modern Family (which, incidentally, probably says more about family life than any show currently on television). And for the most part Pauline’s family are awful, including a garrulous pain-in-the-backside son who sees himself as a joker.
But its heart’s in the right place and it shows us, again, that even an older life can change. The final sunset doesn’t have to beckon and not everyone over the age of 60 puts on a pair of slippers, makes a milky drink and awaits the dying of the light. It’s taken television a long time to embrace this, but good on it for at last acknowledging the new happiness of old age.