An actress in her prime

It's official. At 54, Francesca Annis is still the sexiest woman on TV

To mark its 75th anniversary, Radio Times last week held a poll to find the sexiest woman on television. Whom did its discerning readers choose? Surely some gorgeous, pouting, twentysomething nymphette such as Jennifer Aniston from Friends or Daniela Nardini out of This Life? Er, no, they actually went for an actress who was born during the Second World War.

Francesca Annis, now 54, is, with almost tedious regularity, compared to fine wine - she just gets better as she gets older, is the common refrain. But her phenomenal popularity coheres with a wider trend: for the first time, women of a certain age are being allowed to carry series on their own. Once they reach the age of 40, actresses are no longer being told by TV execs: "Sorry, love, that's your lot. If you're lucky, we might be able to find you a walk-on in One Foot in the Grave, but otherwise it's the Twilight Home for Retired Luvvies for you."

It all stems from what you might call the "Prime Suspect Factor". When Helen Mirren picked up audiences and awards by the police-van-load as DCI Jane Tennison in Lynda La Plante's groundbreaking 1991 series, commissioning editors finally woke up to the fact that a large proportion of their audience is made up of middle-aged women and that those people have interesting stories to tell. The execs' eyes lit up with signs reading "major-league ratings".

Before you could say "older woman", they were rushing to commission dramas spearheaded by the likes of Patricia Routledge (Hetty Wainthrop), Amanda Burton (Silent Witness), Pauline Quirke (Maisie Raine), Joanna Lumley (Coming Home), Pam Ferris (Where the Heart Is), Miriam Margoyles (Supply and Demand), and, of course, the grande dame herself, Helen Mirren (Painted Lady).

Annis is merely continuing the "woman of a certain age" tendency by headlining opposite Robson Green in a feature-length version of ITV's May-to-September romance, Reckless. In a key scene from the first series, her character, Anna, tries to get to the bottom of Owen's (Green) fascination with her. "What is it with older women?" she asks. "What do you find attractive about them?"

"I'm not interested in older women," Owen replies. "I'm interested in you." The inference - as in all these "older women" pieces - is that it is character, not age, that matters.

Sita Williams, the producer of Reckless, reckons that drama is merely reflecting the increased profile of older women in real life. "To my mother's generation, 50 was old, but now we've got spending power, we're very aware of our own independence and we have emotional and physical confidence. That's why Age Concern used that poster of a beautiful women in her fifties wearing a bra. More and more women boast about their age because they look and feel terrific. Also, women want to watch women of substance. You can only watch so many young things prancing about."

Beautifully turned out in a grey sweater and tight black skirt, and boasting exquisite skin and liquid brown eyes, Annis could almost pass for a young thing herself. But that's not the point. She is now being cast as her real age - and is delighted about it. In her opinion, this commendable move towards less ageist casting for women can be ascribed to a more flexible, open society. "Commissioning editors can see that there's more complexity to life these days. We've accepted that women can now be career women and mothers, and we've got a wider spectrum of views. Things have broken down in terms of social types. It's all up for grabs now - unlike the 1950s, when anything outside the stereotype wasn't projected.

"The more fragmented life is, the more fragmented TV becomes. People are very complicated and they don't have to be portrayed two-dimensionally."

This acceptance of new types of drama is all down to generational change, Annis continues. "In the 1960s, I was given my grandmother's trousseau. It was full of beautiful undergarments that came to me in immaculate condition. I wore the camisoles and petticoats as clothes out in the street, but I never wore them to visit my grandmother because that would have been inconceivable to her. In the same way, when I pick up my daughter's magazines now, I think `what?' It's incredible what they write."

In the past couple of years, Annis has also found much of what has been written about her incredible. Her relationship with Ralph Fiennes, who is two decades younger than her, had the tabloids hyperventilating with excitement. They gleefully ran any number of articles pointing out the similarities between life and art. She is the first to admit that "it was a publicist's dream that I should have been doing Reckless".

The F-word does not crop up during our interview - it has been expressly outlawed beforehand - but Annis does talk euphemistically of the "mayhem" that occurred when news of the affair first broke.

"It was an absolute, complete nightmare. I don't buy the tabloids, and I'm not a masochist, but, of course, you're surrounded by it all. I use public transport, and I'd be sitting on a train looking over someone's shoulder and thinking: `That's familiar... oh my God, it's me.' It's like being in a terrible anxiety dream."

So how could the actress find a quieter life? Might we soon be seeing Francesca Annis as Compo's new girlfriend on Last of the Summer Wine? Well, perhaps not quite yet.

`Reckless - The Sequel' is on ITV tomorrow at 9pm.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'