Television Review

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The Independent Culture
David Dimbleby, still remarkably spry despite his advancing years, kicked off BBC2's new season of programmes about old age by advancing along a chorus line of Florida matrons. This, he pointed out in Staying Alive, was one of the possible futures that awaited us - a gerontocracy determined to dance its way to the grave and damn anyone who gets in the way. The other possibility was represented by a couple from Keighley, recently made redundant and facing a pinched journey to a diminished pension. You could take your pick it seemed, depending on how cheerful you feel. Either the shrapnel from the baby boom is about to rain down around our heads, as an aging population outstrips the ability of the earners to support them, or the Me generation is getting grey haired and the gracious retirement of former years is a thing of the past; these grannies know how to organise a demonstration.

They also know how to talk about their sexual needs, as was amply demonstrated by Grey Sex, in which a variety of older people nattered cheerfully about getting it on when you're getting on. This began boldly, with abstracted images of sagging flesh caressed by gnarled hands, footage that effectively tested the audience's gerontophobic tendencies. The effect of the programme as a whole was less sure-footed. Even though only old people were talking there was still a faint sense of "aren't they sweet" about it, a little hint of condescension in its very existence. It also dawned on you pretty quickly that this might not be the most representative selection of pensioners - they were people for whom speaking openly about such matters was a pleasant kind of civic duty, rather than an ordeal. You were not, for obvious reasons, going to hear from anyone for whom the exemption from appetite had proved an unforeseen relief or, indeed, anyone who took the old-fashioned view that some pleasures are best enjoyed in private. Some elderly viewers may have watched with mounting dismay, discovering that age did not, after all, exclude them from the modern obligation to take regular sexual exercise. Grey Sex was also quite funny here and there - not because there is anything inherently risible about geriatric sex but because this sort of brisk candour is faintly ridiculous at any age. One women attractively compared the satisfaction of sex to that of emptying one's bowels. Another speaker took you through the workings of his Erecaid, a sort of genital Stannah Chairlift which, after complicated manipulations of air pumps and rubber bands, could secure a durable erection. It might look a bit mechanical, he said, but "we do this with quite a lot of joy on Joan's part". Joan did not demur, so you could take it that the means did justify the engorged end.

My Night with Handel (C4) offered a selection box of Handel arias, "taken out of operatic context", in the words of Jonathan Keates, "and given an equivalent present-day setting". Not taken very far, you thought, as "Cara Sposa" was sung in a London church. Stained glass, enough candles to light Wembley stadium, a slow pan across the staves - all par for the classical course, really. It got more adventurous as it proceeded and, while not every invention was a happy one (the screech of tyres in an underground car-park does not help a counter-tenor) many of the arias were staged with a beautiful simplicity - no dim obeisance to the false god of "relevence" but a nice recognition of continuities, both with Handel's London and the abiding emotions of the music. As a work of popularisation it was delicately tactful, never more so than when Keates was describing the commercial origin of this great music. He clearly couldn't bring himself to utter the name Lloyd Webber in this context, so the camera obligingly did it for him, slipping in a poster for Sunset Boulevard as Keates talked with fastidious detachment about temperamental stars and box office returns. The arias, which were the real point, after all, were heart-lifting.

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