Demographers report that the world’s population is aging at an unprecedented rate. If this is the case, television, our mirror on society, should reflect this phenomenon. It’s not that American shows don’t include elderly characters but, more often than not, they fall under the category of senile grannies or dirty old grandads. The most recent series I can think of that was senior centered had its run in the mid 80′s and featured these ladies:
On the other hand, during that same Golden Girl era I can think of a handful of British sitcoms that focused on the lives of pensioners, or retirees as we call them in the States. One Foot in the Grave, Waiting for God and the longest running sitcom in the world, The Last of the Summer Wine depicted relevant issues of aging in a humorous light. Things such as what the “togetherness” of retirement does to a marriage, choosing resident activism over passivity in a care home, and serious commitment to staying young at heart.
If your only source of British programming is PBS, you might quite reasonably draw the conclusion that everyone in the UK is gray-haired, keeps an allotment, spends their evenings at the bingo hall and solves local village murder mysteries. But the truth is that life experiences of older people vary greatly and British television has made admirable strides in portraying those differences. Here are some of my favorite examples of OAPs on the telly from the past five years or so:
Doris from Gavin and Stacey
Doris is not your run of the mill, mild-mannered old lady next door. Her drumming style is brave and offbeat (literally), she has a penchant for much younger men and, best of all, you always know where you stand with her. There’s no candy coating with Doris, not even in the case of baby Neil’s christening.
Wilfred Mott from Doctor Who
Former soldier, amateur astronomer, and Donna Noble’s grandfather, Wilf is a very important person in the destiny of the Doctor. Whether he’s attacking a Dalek with a paint gun or organizing his fellow pensioners in a search party to track down the Time Lord, Wilfred is brave, dedicated and endearingly tender-hearted. His age doesn’t impede him from travelling through time and space on a few universe-saving adventures; however, Wilf is part of a prophecy that is very bad news for the Doctor’s tenth incarnation.
Tom and Roy from The Old Guys
Returning back down to earth, we find Tom and Roy, fellow retirees and housemates. They are quite an odd couple in tastes and temperament which often tests the bonds of their friendship. These two older gentlemen cope with the more mundane matters of aging such as health concerns and living on a pension though they spend much of their time concentrating on their romantic rivalry over a neighbor lady and their almost constant lack of female companionship.
The Cast of Derek
While the main characters of Derek aren’t senior citizens, the show takes place in a care home and presents us with the difficult realities of the lives of pensioners and the people who care for them. The Broad Hill staff are wholly committed to the residents and the survival of their adopted home. Derek is a middle-aged man with possible intellectual disabilities who works at facility and his devotion knows no bounds. He fundraises, plans activities and befriends every occupant of Broad Hill even though it eventually must end in heartbreak.
Alan and Celia from Last Tango in Halifax
Recently I came across a show whose main premise is a love story six decades in the making. As fifteen year olds Alan and Celia fancied one another and were just about to begin courting when an undelivered note, a misunderstanding and a move to another city wrenched the would-be love birds apart. Now 60 years later after both have lost their spouses, they reconnect on social media and BAM! discover the spark is still there after all this time. There’s more to the story including the very dysfunctional lives of Alan and Celia’s adult daughters, but at the heart is a second chance at true love and the viewer is left in no doubt that these septuagenarians are well and truly smitten.
I’d like to specifically recognize Derek Jacobi’s performance as Alan Buttershaw. He is humble, open-minded, patient, protective and vulnerable all at the same time. I don’t think I’ve seen a kinder, more human character of any age on television and I certainly hope if a second series is commissioned that Anne Reid’s more flawed character, Celia, will truly endeavour to deserve him.
So there it is. I don’t know if these examples demonstrate that the British respect the elderly more than Americans do, but I just heard Maggie Smith in an interview on The Today Show say that if she went out to LA she’d scare everyone because they don’t see old people (at least not the naturally aging kind.) I’m with Dame Maggie - grow old gracefully and feistily. It’s got to be more fun.