Brian Viner: Farewell, Inspector Morse (but you're too old anyway)

'What's going on? What have we done to deserve the death inside a week of two great telly icons?'
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This evening, unless it has all been some fiendish wind-up, that legendary curmudgeon Inspector Morse will breathe his last, to be swiftly followed, next Monday, by the even grumpier Victor Meldrew.

This evening, unless it has all been some fiendish wind-up, that legendary curmudgeon Inspector Morse will breathe his last, to be swiftly followed, next Monday, by the even grumpier Victor Meldrew.

What is going on here? What have we done to deserve the death, inside a week, of two great telly icons? The death of John Thaw's Morse, in particular, marks the passing of an era. Young people liked him, too, but he was, more particularly, the darling of the over-50s at a time when television still valued their custom.

With his enthusiasms - opera, real ale and old Jags - he spoke to a generation. His demise leaves that generation disheartened and disenfranchised. Of course, if Colin Dexter had carried on writing Morse novels, ITV would, gleefully, have continued dramatising them. All the same, his passing, and Meldrew's, seems to symbolise the way in which youth culture is saturating television, to the detriment of us all, even the youthful.

I am reminded of the great film director Billy Wilder, who, when well into his seventies, was invited to a meeting with a powerful young studio executive. The executive, who was barely 30, put his feet on his desk. "Tell me, Billy," he said. "What have you been up to these last few years?" Wilder gave a benign smile. "You first," he said.

Television keeps failing Wilder's "you first" challenge, on screen and off. The Big Breakfast chose the nubile teenager Kelly Brook over the thirtysomething Lisa Tarbuck and wound up, not inappropriately, with egg on its face. In the soaps, marvellous old character actors are being replaced by a battalion of fresh-faced teenies who look lovely yet are so wooden they appear to have been collectively sponsored by the Forestry Commission.

Standards in all areas of television are disappearing under an avalanche of misconceptions, notably that viewers aged 16 to 34 are the only ones who really matter. Jane Root, the controller of BBC 2, even said as much in an in-house report on telly demographics, asserting that most viewers are either under 34 or like to pretend they are.

That might be true of television's movers and shakers, most of whom inhabit the midlife crisis territory between 34 and 45. But just because they're desperately trying to resuscitate their youth, that shouldn't mean we all have to join in.

Meanwhile, as a result of this warped thinking, ageism has polluted TV's corridors of power. Ant and Dec are in; Brucie is out. And now Cilla's show Moment of Truth is getting the same treatment as Bruce Forsyth's The Price Is Right. Cilla is said to be worried. No wonder her skirts keep getting shorter.

I don't know much about Ant and Dec myself, even though I'm still the flexible side of 40. But to ITV, they are apparently worth vast salaries and absurd hyperbole comparing them with Morecambe and Wise. The time to give that comparison serious thought is when The Ant and Dec Christmas Show attracts 28 million viewers. But then, TV has changed radically since the heyday of Eric and Ernie, and it would be daft to pretend otherwise.

The proliferation of channels means that the nation is rarely united by the box any more; a cultural event such as the final Inspector Morse would once have been guaranteed well in excess of 20 million viewers. Not tonight, Endeavour. That is no reason for TV companies to disregard the wrinklies, though, as increasingly they do, partly because the advertisers seem to think that one's spending power evaporates on one's 50th birthday. Those Saga magazine centrefolds, Des Lynam, Joan Bakewell and Michael Parkinson, are still valued as presenters, yet undervalued as viewers. And even as a presenter, it is not long since Parkie was seen as yesterday's man. Together with Rolf Harris, he has since benefited from a policy of inverted ageism, although it is more by accident than policy.

Only in current affairs does wisdom still trump beauty. The BBC continues to use Charles Wheeler, even though he looks like Methuselah's uncle. On the other hand, think Panorama and Mariella Frostrup. Hell, the tidal wave of youth culture is engulfing even those nearest and dearest to us. My wife and I kept arguing over Channel 4's Big Brother. I reckoned it would have been much better if at least a couple of the housemates had been over 40, even over 50, and a tad chubbier, but my wife could see no further than Darren's shapely bum.

So, all we dissidents can do is protest and point out that, had TV's obsession with youth prevailed 30 years ago, countless classics would never have been made. Dad's Army, for one. And imagine pitching Inspector Morse now. "Erm, it's about this miserable white-haired old copper. Likes opera. Pardon? Can I find parts for Ant and Dec?" A resigned sigh. "OK, I'll see what I can do."