How quickly the Angry Young Men have grown old

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There is a very curious programme which has appeared on BBC TV in the last few months called Grumpy Old Men, the last one being a Grumpy Old Men Christmas Special, in which a selection of quite well-known men appeared on screen and were grumpy about Christmas. People like Jeremy Clarkson and Will Self. Andrew Marr was another, as too was political correspondent John Sergeant. Rick Stein was there and so was poet Lemn Sissay, and rock musician Rick Wakeman. The best represented profession, however, was stand-up comedy, with Felix Dexter, Arthur Smith, Rory McGrath, Tony Hawkes and others weighing in with their general dislike of the Christmas Day tradition.

That's all they did. They said how much they disliked the whole Christmas thing. They said how much they disliked advent calendars, and carol singers, and shopping, and nodding reindeer on people's houses, and sending Christmas cards, and they said this for an hour, and then they stopped. They weren't very funny or witty. They were just grumpy. But as the programme wasn't called Grumpy, Funny, Witty Old Men, I suppose you can't fault them on their lack of fun and wit.

You can't fault them on the "Men" bit either, as there was not a woman among them.

But the "Old" bit is slightly more worrying. None of these guys was remotely old. Some, like Arthur Smith and Will Self, looked a bit raddled and worn, but none of them is what you or I would call old. I would guess that very few were over 50; many seemed barely 40.

However, the programme had tried to guard against this criticism by saying in advance that the 36-54 years age group in Britain is the most bad-tempered section of society. They made no attempt to justify this, but that is what they were calling "old". Anything between 36 and 54. Remember that figure.

Right. Now let's go back to 1957. That is the year in which a book appeared called Declaration, which tried to get as many "Angry Young Men" as possible to state their credoes. This was tricky, because there really wasn't an Angry Young Man movement. It was a journalistic invention, which is probably why people like Kingsley Amis refused to contribute. But people at the time thought that writers like Amis (b 1922), John Wain (b 1925), Kenneth Tynan (b 1927), Colin Wilson (b.1931), Allan Sillitoe (b 1928) and John Osborne (b 1929) were all "Angry Young Men".

By 1957 the oldest of them, Amis, was already 35 years old, and all but two were in their thirties. This means that if so-called Angry Young Man Kingsley Amis had been a year older, he would have been 36 and thus qualified to be a Grumpy Old Man on BBC-2 today. There is only one year between being called an Angry Young Man in 1957 and being called a Grumpy Old Man in 2003.

How do we account for this strange shift in our perception of what age is?

It is a mystery.

Unless, of course, you could go on being young for longer in the 1950s because all the old people (judges, politicians, etc) were so much older than they are today, which made everyone else look that much younger.

Unless, of course, the people in charge of programmes at BBC TV today are so much younger than they used to be that people like Rick Stein and Andrew Marr, or Arthur Smith and Will Self, really look old to them.

Unless, of course, they tried to get hold of some genuine oldies, people like Richard Ingrams or Barry Humphries, Clive James or Alan Coren, and found they were really far too grumpy to want to play ball.

Or unless (and I myself favour this theory), unless they couldn't get hold of any really old stand-up comedians.

The big difference between the roll-call of the "Angry Young Men" of 1957 and the Grumpy Old Men of 2003 is surely not one of age or sex or anything else. They are all men. They are all more or less the same age. No, the difference is that in the 1957 list of Angry Young Men there is not a single stand-up comedian, whereas the line-up of Grumpy Old men is swarming with them.

In those days, when we wanted ideas, we looked to writers to provide them. Nowadays we look to comedians. And when I say "we", I mean of course not us but the programme-makers.

Tomorrow: a brief look at how serious broadcasting has been delivered into the fatuous hands of the comedians.

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