The Week In Radio: In praise of older women

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The Independent Culture

The nation's favourite poem, if BBC viewers are to be believed, is Jenny Joseph's charming vision of the feisty, older lady: "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/ With a red hat which doesn't go and doesn't suit me." And, indeed, this hymn to the mature woman is very much of the zeitgeist. Females over 50 are supposedly hot right now, and as a result the BBC claims to be seeking women newsreaders past the first flush of youth. Obviously, they won't be allowed on TV wearing red hats or being embarrassing, and presumably they will be more Joanna Lumley than Thora Hird, but it's a start.

On radio, despite the hullabaloo over the arrival of 60-year-old Moira Stuart on Chris Evans's show, there are already a host of women at the top of their game. Jenni Murray and Sarah Kennedy are both 60 this year, and they aren't going anywhere. I can't see Radio London's admirable Vanessa Feltz slinking home to her Slanket and sudoku when she hits six decades. And although Sue MacGregor was bundled off the Today programme when she was only 61, it seems that on the radio at least, the older woman can henceforth expect an unstoppable rise.

So far, so demographically predictable, given that the assertive post-war generation was never going to slip quietly from the scene. But does this celebration of seniority extend to the rest of society? As the baby boomers stare dementia in the face and Martin Amis advocates euthanasia booths on every corner, that uncomfortable question was tackled by Katharine Whitehorn in Archive on 4: So Much Older Then.

People have been old before of course. There was a distinct sense of déjà vu in hearing Beveridge in 1954 warning of the coming cost of pensions owing to the vast bulge of old people in the population. And obviously the old have always moaned – there was a wonderful clip of Max Beerbohm in 1935 bewailing the embarrassment of escorting guests round shabby London: "One feels rather as Virgil may have felt in showing hell to Dante." But at a time when 37 per cent of those over 65 live alone, and half of those aged 24 under don't know anyone over 70, the gap between old and young now seems like more of a chasm.

According to Whitehorn, the sexualisation of society makes it worse. "Older people shouldn't be made to feel out of it because they aren't at it like rattlesnakes." By contrast, 40 years ago it was perfectly acceptable to scream with laughter at the idea that anyone over 50 did have sex. The expectations of old age still vary massively according to class, but in the media's portrayal of the old, Whitehorn detected a new, underlying aggression. On the one hand there are those, like Ming Campbell, who suffer nothing less than elder abuse. "No cartoon ever appeared without me looking totally bald and with a zimmer," he complained. On the other hand, there is the patronisingly indulgent tone adopted when interviewing anyone elderly, as though they have acquired a medal, not a bus pass.

This discrimination began, Whitehorn thought, with Peter Cook. "It became possible to express disrespect to old people only around 1960. If I had to pick one cultural moment that marked the shift it would be Beyond the Fringe – Peter Cook being Harold MacMillan." Thereafter, interviews with oldies were conducted with a kind of sniggering irony. "Youthful interviewers discovered that irony in the interviewing of the elderly was a way of sounding as though you valued their opinions while what you really wanted a glittering nugget of barminess."

This was a timely and thoughtful programme for a debate that will get increasingly loud as the Who generation discover that they don't die before they get old. Eighty-one-year old Whitehorn has a superbly dry, patrician – indeed, old fashioned – delivery, and a way of signalling scepticism with the merest inflection. Her exploration found precious little consensus and didn't seem to reach many conclusions, except, as sensible Angela Rippon observed (presumably wanting her job back now that she's 65): "We need a conversation nationally about how we age."

If we get one, I hope we hear from 78-year-old Fay Weldon, who was the guest on this week's With Great Pleasure. "I've been waiting a long time for this," she said, recalling a disastrous Desert Island Discs with Roy Plomley 30 years before. "I'd recently written Puffball and Roy couldn't work out why men would be interested in the insides of women. I said well, they were interested in the insides of cars and I didn't see why they shouldn't extend it to their wives."

Age has not withered her, it seems, and she remains just as withering too.