A couple of older friends recently expressed surprise when I mentioned I had fired off e-mails to the BBC protesting in turn against the axing of 55 year old newsreader Moira Stuart (pictured), the news that 59 year old Nick Ross was to leave Crimewatch and the mooted (and decidedly un-Christian) putting out to pasture of the sixtysomething Gloria Hunniford from BBC's Heaven and Earth show, along with the show itself - allegedly in favour of a replacement show targetted at YOUNGER viewers.
Why would I, a thirtysomething, care that much? This is all for MY benefit, isn't it?
Simple. Aside from being sick of being patronised by a corporation I pay far too much licence fee to (for far too little each year) assuming I want to see only twittering twentysomethings in slash-breasted tops adorning my screen, I want to feel that my generation will still have something to look forward to after we hit 40! Preferably plenty, should we turn out to be late starters in our presenting careers!
Not that television ageism is a new phenomenon by any means, but it's depressing to note that five years after a survey commissioned by the Independent Television Commission and Age Concern found that the majority of viewers actually WANTED to see greater numbers of older fellow humans on television rather than fewer, and only the under-24s showed a 42% bias for presenters their own age, not to mention post New Labour anti-ageism legislation, ageism seems as rampant as ever. Another interesting finding from this survey was that the most popular presenters of 2002 were 1. Sir Trevor McDonald, 2. Michael Buerk, 3.Kate Adie, 4. Jeremy Paxman with the youngest at 5, George Alagiah.
Even the twittering twentysomethings must regularly wake up in cold sweats fearing for their short shelf lives if we are to have an elongated Logan's Run scenario in the British broadcasting world, where everyone over 40 will soon be sinisterly dispatched. And where does that leave the BBC's remit of representing their viewers demographically, in the same way they are (quite rightly) now obliged to represent minority groups as fairly as possible?
Growing up in the 70's and 80's, I recall Blue Peter's Peter Purves, John Noakes and Lesley Judd seemed ancient to me as a small child. And Tony Hart was in hindsight, no spring chicken either. Kenneth Williams often read Jackanory, John Craven, Newsround and who knew how old Paddington Bear was? However none of this mattered a damn. I enjoyed the programmes for their content and the presenters were SUPPOSED to be the grown ups. There was SUPPOSED to be a difference between them and me, the child. Had anyone said to me. 'Wouldn't you prefer silly shiny young grown ups pretending to be just like you and we'll get rid of the older ones you've been watching, Laura?', I would have been horrified. It would have been like losing favourite Uncles and Aunts.
In fact you could say that the dearth of grown up role models on television is partly responsible for the increasingly childish society we now live in where it seems few under 30 want to admit to being grown ups and assume adult responsibilities, although naturally they are fully drilled in their 'rights'. Then again, if the moment you become grown up, a portcullis of societal 'invisibility' begins descending, next step old age and irrelevance, who can blame them? Small wonder we inhabit a botox-crazed society that will queue for hours for Boot's latest delivery of anti-wrinkle serum. I'm not immune myself, fearing the ageing process considerably more than its eventual conclusion! However I recognise that this is largely due to the society I live in which no longer respects and reveres its older citizens as it should, like say Italy. Worse still, it often stops respecting us long before we are even pensionable age, no matter that we are ALL headed the same way!
Of course we do have the odd exception to television ageism who somehow slipped through the net or won a reprieve, but even septugenarian Michael Parkinson and octogenarian David Attenborough have to retire sometime, only please NOT until worthy professional presenters are found to fill their shoes, rather than vacuous zero-lister celebrities I've never heard of, and to whom it's just another job. This is precisely why there is increasingly little difference between BBC channels and all the rest of the competition in a climate where the Beeb needs to be head and shoulders above the rest and hang onto its USPs to survive the long term.
The news in particular almost demands to be read by older presenters who can lend the news a gravitas, younger presenters often cannot. Anchorwoman queen of the States Diane Sawyer is now rumoured to be in her early 60's and yet remains elegant stateswoman of ABC network, taking her job seriously to the point of almost being humourless. She is not always liked, but is almost universally respected and shows no sign of being ready to relinquish the reins, or her long reign, yet.
And now we hear that young programme makers and presenters are so ill-trained that they do not even realise it's a bad idea to put whole network credibilities at risk by faking documentary programmes or operating phone-in quizzes that scam children on Blue Peter. Worse still, they are far too fragile to be sacked for any crime more trivial than their AGE and are merely to be 're-trained'.
Bring back Valerie Singleton - quickly!
I will finish with a couple of Good Arguments for Ageism on television
Lord (but really, I should be at work), Winston
Bruce (was he EVER entertaining?) Forsyth