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Inside Television: Why the new interest in the social lives of pensioners?


I've been thinking this week about J.J. Murphy, the actor who died, aged 86, four days into filming scenes for his role as Ser Denys Mallister in Game of Thrones. His friends have spoken of his excitement to be cast in the hit show and it’s undoubtedly a triumphant cap to a seven-decade career. Let’s hope producers find a way to include him in the finished series. 

Mr Murphy lived to see an era in which television actors have more opportunities than ever to continue working beyond what other industries might consider ‘retirement age’, and not just as kindly grandparents. Old dogs are still learning in New Tricks, the comedy drama about a squad of retired police officers which begins an eleventh series on Monday. Tonight on BBC One, a brand new series Boomers will debut. The sitcom, by Citizen Khan writer Richard Pinto is about a group of sixty-something friends and features story-lines about funerals, first grandchildren and waning sex drives. The talented cast includes Alison Steadman, Stephanie Beacham and - perhaps most poignantly - no-longer ‘Young One’ Nigel Planer as Mick.

Why the new interest in the social lives of pensioners? June Whitfield, 88, who plays the elderly mother of Stephanie Beacham’s character has an explanation: “I think with the success of Last Tango in Halifax, directors and producers are beginning to realise that there is life after 35,” she said. Actually, Sally Wainwright’s drama about the multi-generational fall-out of a late-in-life love affair was not the first to put older characters on screen.

Previous attempts to woo older viewers have included Last of The Summer Wine about a trio of young-at-heart Yorkshiremen which became the longest-running comedy programme in Britain. It’s a wonder that in those 37 years no one ever thought to make a crossover special with The Golden Girls, in which Compo took Sophia for a ride in the bathtub and Blanche exchanged style tips with Nora Batty. Last year, ITV even ventured a hidden camera prank show featuring only pensionable-age performers. The longevity of Off Their Rockers might not match that of its cast, but it has recently been commissioned for a third series. 

Last Tango in Halifax isn’t the first television programme about older people, but it might be the first to include characters, dialogue and dramatic situations so well-written that any viewer, of any age could immediately recognise its quality. Too many programmes made with a specific audience in mind - be it over 60s, under 30s, women or British-Pakistani cat lovers with rising moon in Aquarius rely on us to tune in out of blind demographic loyalty. So, the good news is that there’s now enough television made about later life that viewers can afford to be discerning. The bad news is these discerning viewers may yet be disappointed.

When Lauren Bacall met The Sopranos

One of Lauren Bacall’s most memorable qualities was her effortless cool, so in tribute to the actress, who passed away this week at the age of 89, let’s overlook her actual final screen credit, voicing a lecherous friend of Peter’s mother in Family Guy, and remember her cameo in The Sopranos instead. Hollywood and the Mafia have an uneasy relationship which long predates David Chase’s superlative drama, but this 2006 episode nicely summed up the dynamic. Christopher (Michael Imperioli) is in town to persuade Ben Kingsley to star in his dreadful-sounding mafia-slasher movie ‘Cleaver’. During their poolside meeting, Bacall drifts by and is unimpressed when Christopher says he loved her in “The Haves and Have Nots”. She was right to be. The episode ends with her being violently mugged, all for the sake of an awards show gift bag.


The Beauty of Anatomy, BBC iPlayer

If you’re still feeling unsettled by Gunther von Hagens’ human taxidermy in his Channel 4 programme, rest assured that Dr Adam Rutherford’s interest in the human body is much less ghoulish. He wants to illuminate the relationship between art and humanity’s hard-won knowledge of anatomy. Leonardo da Vinci’s famous sketches weren’t all the product of his imagination, you know.


Executed, ITV Player

It’s 50 years this week since the final state executions took place in most of the UK (Northern Ireland excepted). ITV marked the occasion with this documentary look at some of the cases which motivated a change in the law. Most moving are the interviews with surviving relatives of Derek Bentley and Timothy Evans - prisoners executed for crimes we now know they didn’t commit.


Utopia, 4oD

This second series of Dennis Kelly’s conspiracy thriller never quite lived up the promise of the first, but that’s not to say there weren’t a fair few moments in the Tuesday night finale worth savouring. Environmentalist doom-mongers and Malthusian misanthropes, in particular have been furnished with enough lines to win a thousand pub arguments.


Kate Adie’s Women of World War One, BBC iPlayer

Kate Adie’s contribution to the First World War centenary programming is offering us this new angle on the relationship between the war and the struggle for women’s liberation. It would be even more interesting if Adie, a pioneer in her own right, had added her personal perspective.