That Week On TV: Fabulous Fashionistas, C4; What Remains, BBC1

Six British women with an average age of 80 gave a masterclass in the fine art of not giving one, says Jack Seale in his weekly TV review

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Caring what people think will cripple you, but it’s so hard to stop. From the age of about four, something in our brains clouds over and a desire to conform creeps in. It’s one way to identify emotional maturity in the child. It’s also a tragedy. Recognising the problem doesn’t make the addiction any easier to kick, but carry on caring what people think and yours will be a life tentatively half-lived in the middle of the road, lost opportunities everywhere, your infinite potential smothered.

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Or as 73-year-old “weird artist” Sue put it: “Don’t wear beige. It might kill you.”

Fabulous Fashionistas (Tuesday C4; 4oD), a shamelessly inspirational documentary, was about six women in Britain with an average age of 80 who all still have style. The secret of their aged happiness: simply not giving one. Sue wore multi-coloured smocks emblazoned with her own art, fuchsia crocs and huge red spectacles on a daily basis. “I want to just miss that point where I actually look like a clown,” she said. She was missing it by millimetres and she looked fantastic.

Gilly had a full-time job as a theatre director/choreographer, a husband two decades younger and a love of miniskirts. “I don’t give a toss. I don’t give a damn what anybody says about me,” she said about her wardrobe choices, but there wasn’t much anyone could say about them, since Gilly looked 47, not 87. They had commented on her marriage, back in the day. “Thirty-four years later, all those people, they’ve either died – HA HA! – or they look silly.”

Just as leading a company of dancers through a punishing routine shouldn’t be possible in your 80s, nor is a new career in retail theoretically the way forward when you’re 70 and newly widowed. Yet Jean – severe high-fringed grey bob, pipe-cleaner figure, Doc Martens with everything – explained how she’d rocked up at Gap in Bath and been given a job straight away. A while after, she’d got bored of Gap and shifted to the cooler gift boutique across the high street where, at 75, she now worked full-time. Jean took herself and her new knee running three times a week in the Somerset hills.

Fabulous Fashionistas was much more than the title implied. We met more and more women whose ace clothes were just one symptom of their refusal to give in to the idea that old age means slowing down and receding from view. As the programme went on, however, two themes emerged. The first was that that hard-to-learn lesson about not giving a fig had indeed often been learnt the hard way: just like Jean, the new life lived by Daphne, who restarted her modelling career in her 70s and has since appeared on the front of Italian Vogue, was sparked by the devastating death of her husband.

Second, nearly all these women had comfortable, middle-class platforms on which to be fab. Not everyone has a chance to be a choreographer, a cookery writer (Sue’s old profession before the artistic muse took her) or, in the case of the oldest participant, a peer of the realm like 91-year-old Baroness Trumpington. Staying supple and funky isn’t quite so easy in a cold council flat in Middlesbrough, and although when Gilly said “the minute you give an inch, life or illness will take a mile” she was right, some illnesses don’t take no for an answer. The Baroness compensating for her lack of mobility by shopping eccentrically from catalogues – “Long sleeve velour kaftan £10” – was cute but, y’know, she gets £300 every time she cabs it to Parliament and sits on the benches.

In short, these women were, above all, lucky. No wonder it supposedly took producer/director Sue Bourne two years to find them so that the film could exist. It was a Sunday supplement fantasy.

But states of mind are free. Regular exercise, which seemed to be at least 40% of the secret, is free. Trusting the strength of your own mind is free. Refusing to give a damn is available to all.

My favourite was Bridget, a lifelong campaigner on various social issues who was now topping up her pension by working as a gardener – a gardener! – and was tackling ageism in society. Her style was Oxfam thrift, nothing new or for more than a fiver but everything bold, elegant and sharply thought through. (“I was putting yellows with oranges and pinks three years before colour blocking became fashionable on the high street,” she told Radio Times.)

It initially felt odd and a little disappointing that, having established that she had a style untainted by commerce and fashion, the film then followed her to the offices of high-end fashion mags, where she pressured them to include more elderly models and was flamboyantly rebuffed. Why try to change that alien world when you’ve built your own aesthetic, without needing anyone’s approval? Because it was just one way in which Bridget was using her rasping intelligence and undimmable interest in life to challenge what wearers of beige just accept. Vogue is a magazine about aspiration – were Bridget and the others something to aspire to? Damn right they were.

Or as 85-year-old couture model Daphne put it: “You must get on with life and enjoy it as much as you can. After all, you don’t get a second chance.”

Endings are hard. They say writers should write them, if not before the start, then at least before the middle. That must be true of whodunnits, where a bad ending means a bad show, whatever came before.

So it was with What Remains (Sunday; iPlayer), which for three-and-a-half episodes had seemed like an extraordinarily low-key, restrained, bleakly insightful tale, considering its 9pm BBC1 slot. David Threlfall, released from the greasy grip of Frank Gallagher in Shameless, did small things beautifully as Len Harper, the detective who carried on after his retirement because he was haunted by his final case, a woman found rotten away in the shared attic of a townhouse split into flats. None of her neighbours had cared enough to notice she was gone. Len, a widower facing a lonely dotage, couldn’t let go.

Of course the owner of each flat had a secret and could be the killer, but these hidden shames were simple and calmly revealed. Trouble believably festered behind closed front doors. Steven Mackintosh was Kieron, a divorced man whose wayward teenage son was sexually intimidating towards his dad’s girlfriend; then we learnt Kieron was an alcoholic, and when he fell off the wagon he was halfway to raping his girlfriend before the son, a chip off the old block but not a lost cause, stepped in. Russell Tovey played Michael, a man whose partner was about to have his baby, but who threw that all away when he saw that his hated old maths teacher was furtively co-habiting with one of his school contemporaries. Michael sleeping with her for revenge showed he was still a vicious, pathetic little boy.

Blackest of all was the tale of the victim, Melissa, courageously played by Jessica Gunning: overweight and alone, a wallflower who had in fact been exploited, resented or abused by all her neighbours and whose only redemption would be Len solving her murder.

These little stories played out and a killer was found. The teacher (David Bamber), terrified of dying alone, had taken in a wanted psychopath in return for her companionship, cooking and sexual acquiescence. Nasty. Neat. But What Remains still had half an hour to run, during which it had a complete nervous breakdown. Michael’s disturbed old schoolfriend wasn’t the killer at all: learning who was really to blame set off a chain of stabbings, chases, plot holes and implausible explanations.

Len had been given a bow and arrow as his leaving present; the murderer, Indira Varma’s pathologically jealous lesbian, falling out of the attic and apparently dying, only to get up again but then immediately be shot with the bow and arrow by Len, who was bleeding to death from her earlier knife attack, was a payoff from a different, silly show.

Possibly the writer, Tony Basgallop, was reacting against Inside Men, his 2012 heist drama which was superb until the last episode, then just stopped. Whatever the reason, this time round he undid an awful lot of good, careful work.


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