Daytime TV: Older and wiser

Gary Day on the disadvantages of age, the healing properties of literature and chasing hurricanes

February 19, 2009

Over 50? Then fuck off! We don't want you. That was the gist of Dispatches: Too Old to Work (Channel 4, Monday 8pm). Margaret Bumford, a care assistant, had learnt that she was no longer required from a letter posted on the staff noticeboard. "It made me feel worthless," she said. Margaret was one of a number of half-centurions who featured in the programme.

Another was 70-year-old Celia Powis, aka Mrs Motivator, who runs a pop-mobility group in Worthing. The council tried to sack her because she was too old. What? In a resort that makes Hove look like Ayia Napa? The average age of the inhabitants is about 150.

Shots of Celia doing the splits in mid-air gave a clue to the real reason why the worthies of Worthing asked her to go. Fear of being sued. Several class members appeared close to a coronary as they struggled to keep up with her boogie-nights routine. But they had no intention of letting Mrs Motivator go. And they didn't. The council had to back down or face a workout with Celia.

Most of our ideas about ageing are completely wrong, announced Professor Tom Kirkwood. Neither our physical nor mental capacities deteriorate as much as previously believed. But don't get your hopes up. You will still die.

The programme, narrated by Moira Stuart, herself an alleged victim of ageism, highlighted how employers are using recent legislation to rid themselves of their most experienced and dependable staff. That's almost as clever as sacking the man who tells you that your firm is risking ruin by trading in junk bonds.

Ah, the world of business. It's not good for you. Reading, on the other hand, is. And, in Why Reading Matters (BBC Four, Monday 9pm), Rita Carter explained how. It strengthens connections in the brain and develops the power of empathy. Not any reading, mind. Only literature.

Throughout the programme there were references to Wuthering Heights. Novelist Tom Palmer said Heathcliff reminded him of a man he used to play football with. Did he mean that he disappeared for years before returning to ruin the club and run off with the chairman's wife? Tom, maintaining a Heathcliff-like impassivity, didn't say.

Rita visited a reading group in Liverpool. They all suffered from a range of psychological disorders. She arrived just as they were discussing the episode where Cathy must choose between Heathcliff and Linton. "Is Heathcliff the one she's sexually attracted to?" asked one silver-haired lady who, like most of the group, was in her fifties. "Yes," came the reply. "Then she should go with him."

Rita asked the group if reading helped them. Everyone said it had. "My daughter says it's done more for me than antidepressants," remarked a woman at the back. Funny how a novel about "messed-up Yorkshire people" can have such healing properties. But there you are.

And there was Professor John Mullan on the Tube, reading Daniel Defoe's A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain. Emerging from the dark of the Underground like the Enlightenment from the shadow of the Church, he told the story of How Reading Made Us Modern (BBC Four, Wednesday 9pm).

The key event was the collapse of the Licensing Act in 1695. After that you could read a good deal more than the Bible and The Book of Common Prayer, although not all of it was as well written.

There was a flood of newspapers and magazines. Men - and a few determined women - discussed the issues of the day in coffee houses. But, as John reminded us, reading was a largely middle-class activity. Those who demanded their portraits painted with a book in their hand were reluctant to open up the printed word to the lower orders in case they got ideas above their station.

Did it never occur to these speculators and traders that the horny-handed sons of toil may not have wanted to have lived their lifestyle? Oh, the discreet conceit of the bourgeoisie.

John Mullan comes close, but this week's prize for most enthusiastic television presence goes to Stuart Robinson (A Very British Storm Junkie, Channel 4, Thursday 9pm). Stu started the programme with hair but he had lost a lot by the end because he likes trying to stay upright in winds of up to 100 miles an hour.

"If I'm not actually storm-chasing, I'm thinking about it," said Stu. When he and his friend Roger found themselves in the eye of a hurricane, Stu was ecstatic. "There is nowhere in the world I'd rather be than here," he screamed over the wind. "Nowhere."

That was enough for Alison, his long-term partner. Over the telephone Stu learnt the force of the old cliche that what you go in search of can very often be found at home.

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