Terence Blacker: When the old are there to be laughed at

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It's looking increasingly likely that the grizzled seer of the baby-boomer generation, Martin Amis, was on to something when he predicted a coming civil war between the old and the young. The problem, he said, moving into metaphor overdrive, was a "silver tsunami" of old people, "like an invasion of terrible immigrants stinking out restaurants and shops".

Today it is not just shops and restaurants that are being stunk out by the old. They are invading prime-time television. Reality television shows, something of a window into the national soul, have discovered a new appetite among viewers for watching well-known senior citizens making an ass of themselves in front of the cameras.

These things can, admittedly, be very funny. The craving of a minor celebrity for publicity, however demeaning, makes for great TV; when that celebrity is on the slippery slope that leads to old age, with a creaky body, fading looks and a career in intensive care, only the truly virtuous or humourless will be able to look away.

The silver tsunami is about to hit the ITV show I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. The forthcoming series, whose cast has just been announced, has something of the look of a an old lags' outing. Stefanie Powers (actress, 69), Willie Carson (ex-jockey, 68), Freddie Starr (stand-up comedian, 68) will lead the line-up that will be tottering across the famous rope bridge. These contestants will provide "charisma, jokes and life experience", ITV have said, but viewers know the truth. We shall not be laughing with them, but at them.

It's Strictly Come Dancing that has revealed how touching and amusing it can be to watch game old things refusing to act their age. When a brave, carefully preserved actress in her sixties simpers to the camera and is then thrown around the dance floor by a muscular young partner, it makes viewers feel younger themselves. When the buffer of the moment, John Sergeant or Russell Grant or Ann Widdecombe, is cheered, with only a touch of irony, by the studio audience, it is a warning of what lies ahead.

At best, the old generation emerge from these programmes as game losers. Those who refuse to play the jokey part required of them tend to get punished. When a young and smooth-faced judge – Alesha Dixon – told Nancy Dell'Olio recently that her legs were too far apart ("and that's not very feminine"), the laughter that followed, and the stories in the press, were all about age.

Perhaps the new national pastime – watching ageing celebrities dance in tight costumes or eat kangaroo's balls in a "jungle" – marks the start of Martin Amis's generational civil war, but fought out on our television screens.