Johnny English and Blackadder star Rowan Atkinson has waded into the TV ageism debate, criticising presenter Miriam O’Reilly’s successful legal claim against the BBC as “an attack on creative free expression”.
O’Reilly sued the BBC after she was dropped as a host of Countryfile – along with three other female presenters in their 40s and 50s – when it was given a peak-time revamp in 2009. She was awarded a six-figure compensation payout and returned to the BBC to host daytime series Crimewatch Roadshow.
In a letter to Radio 4’s The Media Show, Atkinson said that film- and programme-makers should have “complete creative latitude to include or exclude anybody or anything for any reason.”
He said he did not “blame” O’Reilly, 55, for suing the BBC but said creative environments were not the place for such disputes.
“I remain amazed that, to this day, few people seem to appreciate the attack on creative free expression that Miriam O’Reilly’s case represents,” wrote Atkinson.
“Her complaint that she was fired from the Countryfile programme for being too old is in my opinion no more sensible than Pierce Brosnan complaining that he was sacked from the role of James Bond for being too old. Which he was and which he is.”
He added: “If either at the outset of a TV programme, or at any time during its screen life, you want to replace an old person with a young person, or a white person with a black person, or a disabled straight with an able-bodied gay, you should have as much creative freedom to do so as you have to change the colour of John Craven’s anorak.
“My argument would be that the creative industries are completely inappropriate environments for anti-discrimination legislation and that the legal tools [O’Reilly] used should never have been available to her.”
O’Reilly responded: “I think very few people will agree with Mr Atkinson.
“Rather than an attack on free expression, I made a principled stand so that women wouldn’t be excluded from the creative process because of their age, which has been the case for decades.
“I won’t accept that working in film or television should exclude you from the rules that apply to everyone else in society.”
O’Reilly left the BBC last month, a year after signing a three-year contract, to set up the Women’s Equality Network with her lawyer, Camilla Palmer.
Palmer said those involved in the creative arts must “stop believing that they are a special case.”
She said Atkinson’s comparison between O’Reilly’s case and Pierce Brosnan was not valid.
“Miriam is not a movie character defined by literature [like James Bond] but a professional presenter who, along with many other women, has been excluded from our screens for reasons which belong in a previous decade.
“Miriam’s case was quite clear. There is absolutely no reason for a female in her 40s, 50s, 60s or older not to present a programme on the BBC,” she added.
Last month, BBC director-general Mark Thompson admitted that the corporation’s television output did not feature enough older women.