Close to the Edge: “creating a show around older people makes television magic”

Esther Rantzen hails a television revolution – a show where old people have wrinkles, fun and are even interested in sex...

Close to the Edge is exactly the kind of programme, a blend of fact and fiction, that most irritates me. Set in Bournemouth, in “God’s waiting room” as one of the characters says, the film purports to show us a group of older people living out their lives together. But not their real lives. This is contrived reality, following a script created to amuse us.

So I expected to hate it. As a documentary- maker myself, and I used to be married to one of the finest documentary-makers in the world, the late Desmond Wilcox, I hate manipulated reality. All right, I know that it is impossible to capture actual reality on camera, even using the tiniest cameras and hidden microphones. The fact that reality is being edited and photographed always imports a bias of some kind, even if it is only a bias against being bored.

But the scripted documentary takes that process way further, so the artificiality of shows like The Only Way Is Essex and Made in Chelsea, where real people are told to act in a narrative decided by the producer, offends me. And Close to the Edge is quite honest – it admits from the start that some of the scenes have been created simply to entertain us. 

Producers like doing that, to add drama or comedy to real life. I remember discussing the film Frost/Nixon with Frostie himself. David told me that he had been absolutely scrupulous about not interfering with the writing and direction. He said it would only work if he stayed right out of the production, and let them tell the story their way – and it worked brilliantly. But then he said, “Of course, that midnight phone call never happened.”

The phone call in question is absolutely pivotal to the whole film, because it is a drunken conversation in which Nixon agrees to spill the beans, and which leads to his famous apology to the American people. For me, that was a real disappointment. How could I believe anything else was factual if that most dramatic moment was an invention, a device? The answer was, I couldn’t. It was just very well made fiction. Enjoyable, but not true. 

But Close to the Edge seduced me, and won me over. Because it is so seldom that older people are allowed to appear on television, wrinkles and all. Certainly there are some older people who present shows – a few– but most of them have undergone expensive and elaborate procedures to iron out their wrinkles and plump up their cheeks so that they look forever 35. Real old people can’t afford that kind of surgery and enhancement, even if they want to.

But refreshingly, the characters in this show in almost every case look their age. Better yet, they are lively and funny. How often do you see that on television? Most people my age are portrayed as problems, bed-blockers or house-blockers, or suffering the misery of loneliness or frailty. Which can be true, but not always. I know hundreds of lively, funny, resourceful older people. 

What’s more, even though they are over 65, the characters in this show are involved in work, and dating, and fun, which I believe all older people still have the right to enjoy.  In fact, if I were prime minister, I would bring in a law that every old person must have fun at least once a day. You would be horrified at the number of callers to the Silver Line (0800 470 8090, free, confidential and open 24/7) who say, “It’s been years since I had fun. Fun’s just for young people.” But the characters in this show don’t just have fun, but horror of horror, are still interested in sex! I found myself cheering them on.

So even though it’s not reality, and even if some of the characters aren’t great actors and the manipulation shows, and although it portrays an old person’s ghetto, where everyone is the same age, and no younger people ever intrude, I really enjoyed it, and recognised their experience as my own. I, too, look in the mirror and see a stranger. I, too, refuse to believe my own age. I, too, want to have fun.

So scripted it may be, but it also reveals an important truth that is too often forgotten. That creating a show around older people, if they are terrific characters, makes television magic. Producers, please take note. 

Close to the Edge is on Tuesday 20th October at 10.00pm on BBC4 

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