The revenge of the silver fox

They've dusted off their blazers, brushed up the old gags and swapped the golf course for the TV studio. But just why are the light-entertainment superstars of yesteryear enjoying such a spectacular comeback? E Jane Dickson reports
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The Independent Online

It was nice to see him. When Bruce Forsyth, 75, was recalled from the celebrity graveyard to present BBC 1's Have I Got News For You, we wanted him to do well. After all, he'd had a hard time, old Brucie. Two and a half years ago, the veteran presenter of The Generation Game, Play Your Cards Right and The Price is Right was railing at the heavens after station bosses booted him aside to make way for younger talent. Bruce and his no-less-famous wig seemed set to spend their declining years in an endless round of pro-celebrity golf.

So, when Paul Merton invited him on as guest host of Have I Got News For You, we were watching through our fingers. What on earth could the King Lear of light entertainment bring to the sharp end of British comedy? What if the wig slipped? What if his teeth fell out? Would there be a "Carry On" nurse waiting to carry him off once the savage Young Turks of satire had crunched his old bones?

We needn't have worried. Brucie had 'em for breakfast, soft-shoe shuffled rings round them. Eschewing the Autocue for old-fashioned flash cards, and turning the show's predictable irony into a fancy metalwork of gags and set-ups, Forsyth showed that he is still a safe, if somewhat veiny, pair of hands. The next day, press and public returned the same verdict, and the Bring Back Brucie campaign was launched.

The man himself was modest in victory. "I don't want to be a silly old fool hanging on when everyone knows he's past it. I don't want to scrape around for shows just to stay in the business. When I go," he said, clearly relishing his new choice in the matter, "I will go with dignity. But it won't be for a while yet."

The case of Brucie Redux highlights a welcome shift in public attitudes to senior service. After decades of institutionalised puppy-worship, the silver fox is returning, by stealth, to our screens. Des O'Connor, 71, once the most derided man in showbusiness, has made a triumphant comeback on the Today with Des and Mel show. Schmoozing shamelessly with Melanie Sykes, a co-host young enough to be his granddaughter, the old rogue (whose real-life partner is exactly half his age) shows himself equally at ease with music hall and MTV.

Over on Channel 5, a similar May and December pairing has brought Terry Wogan, 64, in from the cold night of Eurovision to present a daytime chat show with Gaby Roslin. And Anne Robinson's dire Guess Who's Coming to Dinner programme on BBC 2 was recently enlivened by the urbane and, frankly, statesmanlike presence of Bob Monkhouse, 74, a man long written off by the movers and shakers as a mahogany curiosity piece. There have been reports, too, that Lionel Blair, 71, the ne plus ultra of wrinklies, is about to climb into fishnets and strut his stuff as the Narrator in the 30th anniversary revival of The Rocky Horror Show. The old pros, it seems, are on the march.

The question, of course, is not why these venerable personalities should suddenly be emerging from their twilight homes, but, rather, why it has taken us so long to recognise the seigneurial qualities of the over-60s. Ever since the 1950s, when Cliff Richard really was a young one and post-war prosperity created the glamorous new concept of the teenager rebelling against "the stiffs", we have been bedazzled by youth. The last thing teenage rebels of the 1950s wanted was to look, or be like, their fathers. The very word "dad" became a subtle pejorative, a stick to beat one's unfashionable elders with. Two generations on, even grandfathers don't want to look like dads (viz the inglorious spectacle of Peter Stringfellow in a thong), and seniority is treated at best with suspicion and more often with outright hostility.

The discreet Grecian 2000 culture of the 1960s and 1970s has, in recent decades, burgeoned into a multimillion-pound industry dedicated to erasing the marks of time from manly brows. "The executive tuck" to remove eye-bags became an increasingly popular cosmetic-surgery option, espoused by everyone from junior cabin crew to captains of industry. The middle-aged paunch, once a badge of the establishment as ubiquitous as the rolled umbrella, was either scythed off by the surgeon or whittled away by a life sentence at the gym.

Sadly for the dolts who squandered cash and dignity in this way, it soon became apparent that it wasn't enough just to look young. It was being young that mattered. The millionaires of the 1990s are the most obvious example of junior technocrats, but the syndrome drives deeper. More than any other single factor, it is the technological revolution of the last two decades that has placed such an inflated premium on youth. The new technology not only created literal redundancies in the workforce, it established the wholly new precedence of knowledge over experience. Information once acquired over a lifetime and stored in grey heads was suddenly available to all at the click of a mouse. And those same grey heads, bewildered by technology, were pushed to the brink.

As the technological revolution gathered pace, so did the demographic shift . The first generation of computer-literate 30-year-olds who ousted their 50-year-old superiors from the international business place were in turn shunted on by 20-year-old Silicon Valley supernerds. Built-in obsolescence no longer just applied to programmes. It applied to people, too.

On the cultural front, the overarching importance of football reinforced the cult of youth and the body beautiful. A faster game depended on younger players, and footballers took over from rock stars as style icons. No matter that grandfathers Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney can still pack out a stadium. Nobody wants to copy their hairstyle. Back in the 1970s, no one turned a hair, always assuming they had one, at Bobby Charlton's baldy head bobbing around the midfield. Now, David Beckham's Alice bands are front-page news, and footballers are burned out at 30.

There are, however, welcome signs that the tide is on the turn. Now that three-year-olds draw their first house on the kindergarten computer, technoliteracy is losing its special status in the workplace. This is compounded by the public's disaffection with technomania. Banks, among other businesses, are coming round to the fact that a computerised telephone system is no substitute for personal service. It is possible that a 25-year-old number-cruncher will make an efficient account manager, but how much more appealing, in the drive for customers' hearts and minds, is the traditional, if somewhat paternalistic figure of the bank manager as a person whose judgement is based on long experience, a person who knows how the world really works?

It seems, too, that the trend for early retirement - with men going into greybeard purdah at 50 - will be reversed by the collapse of the national pension scheme. A state that cannot afford to maintain its retired population must reappraise its notions of a useful career span. The Government has just announced plans to introduce new laws banning ageism in the workplace and outlawing forced retirement before the age of 70. This week, Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, said that Tony Blair's decision to brand Britain as a "young country" in 1997 had been a mistake. "The 'young country' idea played to the cult of youth in a way that sat very oddly with the fact that we are in fact an ageing population," she said, in an interview with The Daily Telegraph.

Of course, the most urgent argument for the return of the silver fox is that older men are damned good fun to have around. Particularly if one is an older woman. Terry Wogan was undoubtedly on to something when he said: "It annoys me that the BBC relentlessly panders to the 'youth market' when most of the population in the UK is over the age of 45." If we are to assume that at least half of this senior group is female, the revived interest in Brucie, Des, et al is all the more understandable.

There is a common myth that all older women crave a toyboy. I haven't experienced the thrill myself, but a straw poll suggests that toyboys are good for one thing only, and it isn't their conversational skills. Even in the strictly limited domain of the bedroom, the idea of a younger lover is not without its drawbacks. Do we really want a honed young body bouncing around our bed like a cryin', talkin', speakin', walkin', livin' reminder of our own imperfections? When push, as it were, comes to shove, most women over 40 will agree that there's a lot to be said for a man who knows his way round a Caesarean scar. "And," as one of the straw-pollers delicately put it, "presuming we're not talking rent-boys here, what exactly are you supposed to do with them afterwards? Play Beyblades?"

It's true that an older man may not share your cultural tastes either, but the retro glamour of Sinatra and an expertly mixed martini wins hands down over trying to hum along to indie-garage-jungle-whatever. Drinking beer from a bottle while holding your stomach in is no fun either.

And if we don't want these beardless boys in our real lives, why on earth should we want them beamed endlessly into our homes? TV bosses cling to the notion that youth is more attractive to more people. But if you're still in doubt, try this simple test (any age can play). Michael Parkinson or Chris Evans; which one, if you had to?

Above all, the silver-fox generation, with its unreconstructed, women-and-children- first gallantry, make us feel safe. They look like they've been around a few corners and know what's what. I'm sure half the reason nobody trusts the Cabinet any more is that most of them are so damned young. Where did all the elder statesmen go?

Gladstone was prime minister at 90, for heaven's sake, and nobody ever had to jazz up Churchill's image with a baseball cap. In more recent memory, one longs for the gravitas of Geoffrey Howe or Denis Healey, grown-up politicians who looked like they might be able to spell disestablishmentarianism if they had to. Bruce Forsyth,with his London Palladium training, could probably spell it while drinking a glass of water and doing a tap dance.

So, welcome back Brucie. And come on down, Des, Bob and all the hoary hordes of TV purgatory. We love you for your savoir- faire. We even love your dodgy hair. But let's not forget the really important thing. We love you because, as Ol' Blue Eyes himself might have put it, "you make us feel so young".