Why grey power is now a force to be reckoned with on television

The old faces are back on TV, and not because they’re facing historic sex offence charges, says Michael Buerk (aged 68)

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Why grey power is now a force to be reckoned with on television
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Michael Buerk

I still don’t know when it happened: the moment, a long time ago now, when the world stopped being all about me. There I was, a baby boomer princeling, accustomed – like most of my generation – to having everything organised around my tastes, my interests. Then, suddenly, it wasn’t.

The 1950s had been the perfect place to grow up – reassuringly dreary and the last time children were allowed out. In the 60s we took over the world before we were old enough to vote. Dickie Valentine died in the night as the Stones came snarling through the door. I burned my cardigan and brogues and emerged into the world as a hairy peacock. It’s true the sexual revolution was only a beguiling rumour in Birmingham, and much of our television was still being made for the half-dead, but we were surfing, stylishly, on the tide of history, the young taking over a tired old universe.

We were washed up some time in the 80s, I would judge, though it’s hard to tell exactly when the zeitgeist slipped out of the back pocket of my flares and cosied up to some awful punks down the street. Television was suddenly about yoof, and the BBC’s bosses dropped the lofty Oxbridge languor that had been their trademark to set off in hot pursuit of our children. They talked, incomprehensibly, about “focused sub-genre slates”, which turned out to be management b******s for cutting-edge tripe like Snog, Marry, Avoid. Overnight, to wear a tie or read the Telegraph was career death. 

Older presenters were cut down in droves, much as you would prune the raspberries to make way for new growth. Fair enough, in my view, though many cried “Ageism!” and several went to tribunals. “Presenter”, in any case, is a very recent job description dreamt up to describe somebody who fronts a programme without any special reason for being on it. And if you got the job in the first place mainly because you look nice, I can’t see why you should keep it when you don’t. As the wonderfully acerbic Anne Robinson said, “The viewers don’t want to watch ugly.”

She seemed to say it through gritted teeth, or at least a flawless but strangely taut face – a sign perhaps that she had taken her own advice to stop complaining and work on staying attractive.

But now – again suddenly, again when I was looking the other way – the media worm has turned. We’re trendy – sorry, cool – again. Last Tango in Halifax, a tale of love on the lip of the grave, was as big a smash on TV as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was at the box office. That story of pensioners looking for a warm place to park their rheumatism has pulled in $135 million worldwide. Bruce Forsyth (86) presides, albeit propped up, over Strictly Come Dancing [or at least he did when this article went to press in the magazine], Mary Berry (79) is the new Jamie Oliver, David Dimbleby (75) will front the next election for the BBC in preference to the not-so-young pretender Huw Edwards (52), and I defy you to switch on any programme, on any channel, without coming face to face with Angela Rippon (69). The old faces are back on TV, and not because they’re facing historical sex offence charges.

“It’s turned around on a sixpence,” says Sue Ayton, the veteran agent with many of those older faces, as well as quite a few young ones, on her books. “A couple of years ago, if you went in with an idea for a show with older presenters aimed at older people, they would laugh like hyenas and show you the door. Now that’s all changed. They’ve realised they’ve been ruling out programmes people want to watch.”

Angela Rippon, one of her clients, agrees: “I wake up every morning thinking how extraordinary it is – to be 69 and still working on TV. Television has at last realised you need maturity and experience alongside youth and beauty. It’s finally come of age.” In every sense, presumably.

Even I have found myself recently doing four series for ITV, and a couple of Dispatches documentaries for Channel 4. It was a bit of a shock. I feel as if I am only in early middle age and preserve the illusion by carefully avoiding mirrors. You can’t not watch yourself on television, though, can you? I blame the new cameras. Very unflattering. 

Perhaps what’s happened is that television has finally looked at its audience figures. Most of the people (54 per cent) watching BBC1 are over 55. BBC2’s audience is even older – 59 per cent over 55. ITV1 is broadly the same, though they are less public with their figures.

Peter Fincham, ITV’s director of programmes, has more grey hair than most of his audience, but only because he has a lot of it; youthfully luxuriant, but steel grey. As is fitting for the leading arbiter of what the nation views (he has also been controller of BBC1), his own view from the 21st floor of ITV’s headquarters – west through the Eye, past Big Ben to the setting sun – is the finest in London. 

He doesn’t entirely go along with this thesis, but then he wouldn’t. He’s keen to embrace the settled old, without alienating the skittish young. Fincham’s ITV, like Danny Cohen’s BBC1, looks to have a broad appeal. “The simple truth, not to be resisted,” Fincham says, “is that as people go through life they watch more television. There’s no point in swimming against the tide. So we make programmes that appeal to that audience – though not at the expense of others.”

He freely admits that television was once besotted with youth. “It looked as if it was the way TV was going,” he says, “but it was never going that way, to be absolutely honest. And all those people who watched yoof TV – an expression you never hear these days – are probably watching gardening programmes now because they’re no longer young.”

The advertisers are still besotted with youth, though. Advertising executives told me they are prepared to pay six times more to get to a viewer aged between 18 and 34 than for those in other age groups. That generation surely can’t have more money to spend than we lucky baby boomers. But they’re apparently very much easier to persuade and, once sold on a brand, may well stay loyal to it for the rest of their lives.

Fincham says that doesn’t influence him. “What’s unique about ITV”, he says, “is its ability to bring in audiences of six, seven, eight million.” He’ll never give that up for a niche audience of younger viewers; besides, he has ITV2 for that.

The BBC had BBC3, a channel much maligned in its lifetime, mourned unconvincingly in its passing, rather like Tony Benn. It did launch a few good comedies, but a lot of what I saw was at the embarrassing end of drivel. “Britain’s bravest youth media brand”, as the BBC put it, will be relegated to the internet. We’re told that’s where youngsters forage for their entertainment these days, but everybody’s still acting as though BBC3 has had a bullet in the back of the head.

What’s happening is not a triumph for the older viewer. It’s complicated; there are cross currents and counter trends. We may end up being patronised where once we were ignored. But there is always one consolation, worth the licence fee in itself. There’s always Radio 4.

Amazing Greys starts Saturday at 8:30pm on ITV.


 


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