Who do you think of when you think of loneliness? The old widow in the care home, the divorcee Dad? Well, yes, lonely people are these people – and many, many others.
What makes The Age of Loneliness, Sue Bourne’s incredible BBC1 documentary, so painfully effective is how many different faces she puts to that dread feeling of being on your own.
There are lots of ways to be lonely in Britain: losing a loved one, moving home, divorcing, switching jobs, going to university, having a child, having an illness, having an addiction. Bourne’s film reminds us never to assume that a person doesn’t need someone to talk to.
There’s Kylie (below), a seemingly shining, confident New Zealander living in London, who admits that when she gets back from work, she retraces the routes of her home town on Google Maps. She’s recently split up with her husband; he moved back to New Zealand, leaving her alone. Now, whenever she goes on Facebook, it seems everyone’s having fun except her.
“Nobody puts on Facebook, ‘I’ve just been inside the whole week eating ten packs of Hobnobs and watching Friends’. People put how great and glamorous their lives are,” she says.
It’s an old trick, a Facebook façade, portraying the person we want others to see. But that makes the problem worse, because there are other lonely people out there looking at your profile and believing that image, making their sense of isolation worse.
So it is with 19-year-old Isobel, a student who dreamed of a brave new world at university, Freshers’ fairs and Facebook events. Instead, “I literally stayed in my room for three days,” she says. “It felt like a prison.”
It takes bravery to be this candid. Every person you meet in this hour is brimming with charisma and character. They have a desperate need to share their lives with others. Instead, they have Bourne’s camera.
“One of the reasons that I’m so pleased to be doing this is because of the company,” says former IT worker Ian. He hasn’t worked or had a relationship since his father died, he gets out of bed at 4pm and gets by on £8 a day. Video games provide the only “high points” in his life: “They let me feel that I’m achieving things; they occupy my time so that I don’t have to think about how shit stuff is.”
150 miles away, Ian’s mother Christine finds herself coping with her own private hell: “I just don’t think I’m a very nice person, and I don’t deserve to be somebody’s friend,” she says. Watching these two people going through the same thing yet facing it alone is horrible.
With utmost care, Bourne gently draws these people out of themselves. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that she is also the filmmaker responsible for Fabulous Fashionistas, Channel 4’s very different programme about ageing and the art of growing old with style.
Here too, there are older men and women who are finding different ways to live on after loved ones have passed away. Bob (above) and his wife had been together for 72 years – and, in a way, they are still. Bob made a bag for his wife’s ashes, and now it sits in the chair beside him. “To me, she is here,” he says.
Every story here is a personal plea for kindness, for company, whether it’s a chat with the cashier at the supermarket, a punt on an internet dating site or a person to ring at the end of the week.
It’s a simple message, yet so important. Because Britain doesn’t have to be the ‘loneliness capital of Europe’ – not when just one conversation can reveal stories to shake your heart.