It’s time we relaunched the grandparent in fiction – and in real life

A report from Age UK reveals that a third of over-65s think they’re lucky if they see their grandchildren once a month

Where have all the grandparents gone?

Children’s fiction used to be dependent on a great grandparent: Charlie wouldn’t have made it to the chocolate factory if Grandpa Joe wasn’t around to take him. And, more pertinently, he might not have made it out in one piece if his four grandparents hadn’t been such fine moral guardians. The other children with golden tickets in their sweaty paws are considerably less charming than Charlie, and their ugly fates reflect their ugly characters.

Grandparents, as Dahl realised, were the perfect relation for a child hero who wanted to have an adventure: they’re less interfering than parents, who never leave you alone for long enough to let you get turned into a mouse, as happens to the grandchild in The Witches. Grandparents let you make your own mistakes, then give you a boiled sweet afterwards to cheer you up. Or a piece of cheese, depending on the story.

But grandparents have been slipping away from books. Even Harry Potter, the uber-orphan, doesn’t have grandparents, something which only seems odd in retrospect. And now it seems that real grandparents are slipping away from their grandchildren, too. A new report from Age UK reveals that one in three over-65s reckons they’re lucky if they see their grandchildren once a month.

Of course, there are all kinds of perfectly good reasons why some families don’t see each other very often: you might not visit your grandparents because they are vile to you, or your spouse or your kids. Conversely, some grandparents might dread the thought of their grandchildren coming to visit because they’re badly behaved and often sticky.

There’s also the fact that so many of us have moved away from where we grew up, or our parents have done so. I live more than 100 miles away from either one of my parents, which they assure me is just a coincidence. Unless I can take a day off or persuade them to come and visit me, we don’t see each other as often as we’d like (at least, that’s what they say they’d like). 

Older people have never been more prevalent on film, but they’re always off having adventures with other oldsters: moving to India (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), or putting on a concert (Quartet). Or, in the upcoming Robot & Frank, conducting a robbery with a robot companion.

So maybe it’s time to relaunch the grandparent in fiction. If it was good enough for Peter Falk in The Princess Bride (who comes to read his sick grandson the greatest fairytale ever written), it’s good enough for the rest of us. And in the meantime, call your nan. If she’s not busy chatting up some bloke in Jaipur, or practising her aria, she misses you.

I still step in time to Dick

The Screen Actors Guild gave its lifetime achievement award this year to the unstoppable glory that is Dick Van Dyke. I should confess that I love Dick Van Dyke so much I have his signed photo on my wall, so I consider a lifetime achievement gong to be the least he deserves. Especially when he is still singing and dancing (with his barbershop quartet – The Vantastix. Yes, I most certainly do have their album) at the age of 87. He’s older than the Queen, and yet you never once see her dance to “Step in Time”.

 Characteristically, he accepted the award with grace and humility: reminding a room full of Hollywood actors that he is still world famous for his cockney accent, and he can’t believe he’s been lucky enough to have a job where you never have to grow up. After all these years, he’s still supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.