Let our female stars act their age, McKellen demands

Playwrights accused of failing to create roles for mature women

It is a complaint common among actresses of a certain age: the dearth of meaty roles for women over 40. Now the elder statesman of the theatre, Sir Ian McKellen, has joined the protesting chorus and urged playwrights to start penning interesting roles for older actresses if they want to attract bigger audiences.

In a broadside against the theatre and television industries, Sir Ian cited William Shakespeare as a playwright who knew how to create a captivating "older woman" character.

Sir Ian called for bigger and better roles to be created for mature women on stage and screen. In the light of increasingly "silver" audiences, it would pay to do so, he added in an interview with The Stage newspaper.

"It's a familiar cry from women friends of my age – or younger," he said. "It's not fair that, particularly in the classics, although there are some great parts for older women, there aren't nearly as many as there are for men in, say, Shakespeare. Judi Dench has really run out of parts to play in Shakespeare."

Sir Ian said that those playwrights who had used women as prominent leads in their work had attracted huge audiences as a result.

"Look at Calendar Girls and Madame de Sade ... Both are so popular – that is very telling. People might have thought 'Who wants to see plays about older women?' Well, the general public do. An awful lot of older women and gentleman go to the theatre, and the population is getting older.

"Plays about old age are perhaps going to be more popular than they used to be and that should help playwrights think, well, we can find some fabulous parts for the fabulous actresses there are around."

Sir Ian said television commissioners are missing a trick if they discourage screenwriters from creating interesting character roles for women in middle age and beyond.

"If [commissioning editors] are just titillated by the stories young people have, they are missing out. If Shakespeare hadn't been interested in older people and people in their prime, we would not have had Antony and Cleopatra, and many other characters. Everybody wants to see actresses like Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. It's just up to people to provide them with the material to do so," he said.

His words follow a campaign by the actors' union Equity, which launched a petition in March calling on broadcasters to change their attitudes towards casting women in television.

"Over half the viewing public is female, yet in TV drama, for every female character there are two male characters," the petition said.

"While leading parts are frequently played by male actors over 45, women in this age group start to disappear from our screens. The message this sends to viewers is distorted and distorting. We call on all the major UK television channels to take action to correct this imbalance."

The petition has so far been signed by over 4,000 people including Simon Callow, Julie Walters and Imelda Staunton. The stage actress Margaret Tyzack, 77, who won the Olivier Award for best actress in March, said the roles offered to older women were "clichéd".

The National Theatre will host a conference on women in theatre and film on Tuesday, to examine the "equal roles" issue.

In their prime: Or past their time?

*Faye Dunaway, 68, criticised film producers for denying older female actresses the chance to play major lead roles. "Why should I play sisters and mothers, while guys like Jack [Nicholson] and Clint [Eastwood], who are older than me, have on-screen lovers half their age?"

*Alex Kingston, 46, blamed ageism when she learnt five years ago that her seven-year tenure on the US hospital drama ER was about to end. "Apparently, according to the producers and the writers, I am part of the old fogeys who are no longer interesting," she said.

*A decade ago Sharon Stone, 51, reflected on her attendance at the Academy Awards, saying: "When I went to the Oscars it was like, 'Oh, there has been an archaeological dig and look what we have found: a 40-year-old'."

*Demi Moore, 45, has said: "There aren't that many good roles for women over the age of 40. A lot of them don't have much substance, other than being someone's mother or wife."

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