TV depends on mockery of the middle-aged

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There are many sources of enlightenment in the contemporary world, but it is fair to say that I never expected the green puppet-duck Orville to be one of them. Older readers might remember that Orville and his master, the ventriloquist Keith Harris, enjoyed a few years of minor celebrity during the 1980s. It was a close call who was the more irritating between them – the hideous, faintly sinister plastic duck, or the wide-eyed, grinning comedian who worked him. Between them, they seemed to lack the charm of Basil Brush or the edgy aggression of Emu, so it was no great loss when they slipped into obscurity.

Now Orville and Harris are back, relaunching, popping up on daytime TV shows, and something odd has happened. I can see the point of them. I even like them. Suddenly they seem to represent a sort of integrity in the increasingly jaded, cynical world of popular entertainment.

This week Keith Harris, his family and puppets were the subject of a Louis Theroux documentary. It promised to be a corker with all the right ingredients for a fascinating little freak show: a man trying to revive youthful success in his middle years, married to a much younger blonde former model, a ventriloquist rumoured once to have kicked his puppet around viciously after a show. Best of all, Harris was, at the time of filming, preparing to put on pantomime in Crewe, which was clearly thought to be hilariously sad in its own right.

The programme went fascinatingly awry. It was Theroux who emerged as the grotesque. As he tried the various cheap tricks that have worked so well in the past – the transfixed, bemused expression when the subject is talking, the meeting with his parents, the close-up of his face while watching a video of himself – Harris and his wife responded with courtesy and professionalism. Louis's father, Paul Theroux, once said that people who are normal don't become writers, and the same is probably true of ventriloquists, but Keith Harris seemed just about as normal and kind as anyone in the line of work could be.

And here was the moment of enlightenment. The central joke of the programme, indeed of all the programmes in the series, is about age. It affords its audience a glimpse of the mess that people can make of their lives when they reach a certain age, and the habits, hopes and ambitions that had been attractive when they were younger harden into eccentricity, vanity, stubbornness and insecurity. In these programmes, Theroux is acting out the part of an adult child coming home and being embarrassed by his parents.

Those obliged to play the parent role – people like Paul Daniels, the Hamiltons and Ann Widdecombe – have emerged from the show with varying degrees of credit, but the voice-over and the way it has been edited has always made clear where normality lies, so far as TV is concerned. It is with Theroux, the acceptable, young, good-looking face of celebrity.

Much of TV, from documentaries to reality shows and celebrity quizzes, depends on the mockery of the middle-aged to flatter its audiences. Think of Ali G's early interviews, Daisy Donovan on The 11 O'Clock Show tricking public figures into making fools of themselves by asking crude, asinine questions with the clumsy innocence of a cub reporter. Take a look at the unpleasant moment in the pop quiz Never Mind the Buzzcocks, when the groovy young teams are asked to identify an ageing minor rock star from a line-up of knackered wrinklies.

It took Keith Harris and Orville to reveal this built-in bias and, for that at least, they deserve every good fortune with their showbiz comeback. As for Theroux, I hope that after this series he plays the embarrassed son just once more, with his fascinating, grumpy father, and then graduates to something more grown up.