Never say die

When I'm 64, part of BBC2's season about ageism, tackles one of the last great taboos. Yes, senior citizens really do have sex. James Rampton reports

It is the love that dare not speak its name. The idea that your parents are, yes, actually capable of having sex is the truly appalling concept at the heart of Tony Grounds' affecting one-off BBC2 film
When I'm 64, part of "The Time of Your Life", a welcome BBC season about the way we view the elderly.

It is the love that dare not speak its name. The idea that your parents are, yes, actually capable of having sex is the truly appalling concept at the heart of Tony Grounds' affecting one-off BBC2 film When I'm 64, part of "The Time of Your Life", a welcome BBC season about the way we view the elderly.

In the drama's pivotal scene, Little Ray (played by Jason Flemyng from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and Caz (Tamzin Outhwaite from EastEnders), two shocked thirtysomething siblings, broach the unbroachable with their father, Ray (Paul Freeman). A cabbie and former football hooligan who has been widowed for the past eight years and is now old enough to be drawing his pension, Ray has found love in the autumn of his life - and his two children are far from happy about it. "You're my father," Little Ray says, spitting out the words, hardly able to bring himself to think about it. "And it's horrible."

Relaxing over lunch at the film unit's base, a distinctly unlovely car park at a garden centre on the fringes of Potters Bar, in Hertfordshire, the cast reflect on why the drama goes where angels fear to tread. The 61-year-old Freeman smiles. "Kids never want to hear about their parents having sex," he says. "They find the whole idea utterly disgusting!"

Outhwaite is stretching out at the back of the catering-bus, next to a display of "all new garden sheds at knockdown prices". She is glad of a break between gruelling scenes in which Ray and his two censorious children fall out at what is supposed to be a happy-families barbecue. Done up in her character's costume of denim jacket and matching skirt, she points out that the bigotry of people such as Caz and Little Ray in When I'm 64 is not uncommon.

According to Outhwaite, 33, "Their outlook is quite suburban and narrow-minded. Their attitude toward their father is based on ignorance. It's a story about people who can't cope with change. They don't understand that their father could have a change of heart and search for something deeper and more spiritually nourishing. He's seeking enlightenment, but as far as his kids are concerned, it's: 'What are you doing? That's no way to behave in front of the grandchildren!'"

Flemyng extends the concept and suggests that those not yet collecting bus passes are repelled by the image of anyone of a pensionable age doing anything more racy in bed than reading Saga magazine. "People are nervous about the thought of anyone over Cameron Diaz's age being sexually active. For that reason, When I'm 64 is great!" beams the 37-year-old actor, a fixture in Guy Ritchie's "geezer chic" diptych, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch.

Flemyng momentarily turns a whiter shade of pale as he recalls what for him was a most unsavoury encounter with overage sex. "I remember going to visit an ex whose parents were well into their sixties. One morning, we caught them in a compromising position, and I was absolutely horrified! That's not what we're used to at all. But this film might help overcome those prejudices. Old people bonk - it's official."

But won't the drama's frank portrayal of wrinkly sex upset some of BBC2's more genteel viewers? Freeman certainly hopes so. "It will shock some people, because it's a part of life that most of us haven't addressed. But there again, I've always enjoyed offending people," adds the actor, who began his career in radical theatre working with writers such as Snoo Wilson. "When I started out, I only thought a play was a success if people left before the end - that was the point of theatre! We weren't doing our jobs properly if all the audience were still there at the end! In all art, you should always try to offend people, because that's how you make them think. So much TV these days is so safe - at least this drama is trying to push the boundaries a bit."

But just why, in an age when people seem quite happy to let it all hang out while discussing their libidos on Trisha or The Jerry Springer Show, is the sex life of the older generation still such a touchy subject? Flemyng reckons that we have been conditioned by the media to believe that only young, firm flesh can be attractive. TV execs, advertising gurus and certain newspaper editors fetishise the young and seem to reside in a Logan's Run-style universe where anyone over 30 simply does not exist.

Such execs are shaking hands with their dearest friend: rampant ageism. "Old people just aren't sexy to TV companies," observes Flemyng. "Every commissioning editor wants every programme to have a sexy, Hollyoaks-type ethos - every single person in the script has to look like a 19-year-old blonde beauty. Of course, in real life, such people are incredibly rare.

"It all stems from the fact that every woman on American TV looks like a stripper - Pamela Anderson has a lot to answer for. Why is that stripper look so prevalent? I suppose we've grown up with it. We're programmed to believe that young nurses in suspenders are sexy. Perhaps if we were told from a very young age to find women in wellies attractive, we would! That's why people over a certain age aren't considered attractive - they're not part of our sexual programming."

But it's not just our attitude to senior-citizen sex that the film is challenging - it is attempting to overturn the entire image of OAPs as decrepit drains on society, good only for a bath chair in a retirement home. In When I'm 64, Ray and his new friend and fellow pensioner, a retired Latin teacher called Jim (Alun Armstrong), are a vibrant pair determined to make the most of life and see the world. They embody the philosophy that life begins at 65. "Most people's perception of the elderly begins and ends with Shane Richie's Nan in EastEnders - a dotty old woman," Flemyng continues, hitting his rhetorical stride. "She's the stereotypical TV pensioner."

The hope is that this drama will prompt viewers to think twice about the way we view our elders and betters. "In this country, once you've served your time, you slip out of our social consciousness," Flemyng comments. "It sounds ridiculous to say it, but old age comes to everyone, and it's just not represented enough on television."

At this point, Flemyng contributes a personal story, as he recalls his own father, Gordon, who used to direct Dr Who. "We're running around so much, we never take the time to be with our parents - and then we realise it has been two months since we've last seen them. Then, all of a sudden, they're gone. My dad died in his sixties, and I can't have that time back. I remember sometimes trying to get him off the phone more quickly - 'Yes, dad, hurry up.' Now I'd pay anything to have just 10 minutes with him. My advice to other children would be: take those 10 minutes while you can."

Outhwaite chips in that we too often undervalue so-called "grey panthers". "Sometimes we're quick to rubbish the wisdom of older people," says the actress, who, since quitting Albert Square two years ago, has starred in Red Cap, Out of Control and Hustle. "But the older you are, the wiser you are. When you're a kid, you're not wise enough to realise just how wise your parents and grandparents are."

Outhwaite, who has just got her big break in Hollywood and is now shooting 7 Seconds, a thriller with Wesley Snipes, in Romania, believes that When I'm 64 has a positive message. "It's never too late to change," she muses. " When I'm 64 emphasises that people should be able to search for whatever they like, at whatever age they like, without prejudice and without the risk of becoming an outcast. It might also make people reassess their parents and help them to realise their potential. If this drama makes just one person think that, it's doing its job."

Age has certainly not withered the careers of Freeman and Armstrong, who show no signs of slowing down. "It never seems to stop, thank God," beams the 58-year-old Armstrong, currently enjoying an Indian summer with such dramas as Between the Sheets, Messiah and This Is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, as well as Hollywood fare such as The Mummy Returns and Van Helsing (in which he played the medieval Vatican's secret gadget expert, the Catholic church's equivalent of Q).

He also stars in BBC1's New Tricks as one of three older coppers (James Bolam and Dennis Waterman play the other two) solving tricky cases and showing their younger counterparts how it should be done. The series is another one-up for oldies' lib. "I love the idea that this older trio who are supposedly past it actually prove that, with their experience and their ingenuity, they can be as good if not better than the youngsters whose mess they've been sent in to clean up," Armstrong declares with great relish. "They're cantankerous and cussed and refuse to obey the rules, but they're like naughty schoolboys enjoying a second childhood."

Likewise, Freeman's career has been undergoing a renaissance, with work such as Monarch of the Glen, Fields of Gold and ER (in which he played Alex Kingston's father). Since his iconic performance as Harrison Ford's nemesis in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the actor has frequently been offered villainous parts. "All my work as a baddie stemmed from Raiders," Freeman recollects. "I asked Steven Spielberg why Hollywood directors always cast English actors as villains, and he replied, 'Essentially, we don't trust you!' It's true that all those Henry James novels are about that - English people are far too ironic and sophisticated and definitely not to be trusted."

So, I ask these two distinguished gents of a certain age, would they ever countenance the "r" word - retirement? Not on your nelly. "If you add up all the time we have off during our careers, that counts as retirement," Armstrong smiles. "Anyway, actors don't retire - we just get choosy."

Freeman echoes his old friend, with whom he first collaborated more than 30 years ago. "I'll never retire," he asserts, with a twinkle in his eye. "I'll be like Molière and die on stage."

'When I'm 64' is at 9pm tonight on BBC2

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