Why are there no grey-haired old ladies reading the television news? Here it was. The unenviable but inevitable question for the new BBC Director-General, George Entwistle, on the Today programme. Enough to send you grey overnight if you weren’t already receding. Entwistle expressed concern that it would hardly be right to turf all the grey-haired old men out of their jobs just for the sake of equity. Heavens, no. The pressure on the nation’s golf clubs would be too much.
He was responding to Fiona Bruce’s comments this week that she feels she has to dye out any grey hairs to keep her job. Even 69-year-old John “Fifty Shades Of... And Proud of It” Humphrys sounded up in arms. Maybe he has seen someone hanging around outside the studio with a box of Grecian 2000 with his name on it.
Entwistle struggled to find a good reason. Unsurprisingly. Because this is about so many things at once. Sexism. Ageism. Looks-ism. But it’s also about what people expect to see on television.
I write as a female whose hair is going unevenly grey. I dye a silver streak into the front because I like it (mostly). When I last went on Sky News to review the papers, one viewer tweeted: “Someone please tell this woman during the ad break that she is going grey.” If a woman with a noticeable hair colour were to read the news, Twitter would break.
Yes, there are signs of change. Who doesn’t love Margaret Mountford? Everyone is obsessed with Mary Beard, who has, appropriately enough, the female equivalent of a large Amish beard: a mane of grey hair.
But unless you can project an image as an “eccentric” or a “one-off” then as a woman you don’t have much chance unless you play the pretty game. There is still obviously one rule for men and one for women. We are supposed now to think that Fiona Bruce represents “the mature lady”. She is 48.
In another interview this week, Entwistle had so few female names to pluck out of the bag that he was forced to cite Antiques Uncovered’s Lucy Worsley as proof of the BBC’s great diversity efforts. She is blonde, beautiful and 39.
Mary Beard responded on her blog yesterday: “I’m perfectly OK with dyeing. [...] But not with the feeling that you have to. And it’s all so self-fulfilling. The more the grey is dyed out, the more women feel that they have to.”
It would be great to have a chubby silver vixen reading the news but I can’t see it happening very soon. If the public’s tastes change, however, I would like to be the first to volunteer to bulk up for the role. I am also prepared to get a blue rinse. I promise not to put it on expenses.