Older people feel television stereotypes them rather than showing their diversity. Karen Ross discusses a revealing new study
Last year, Age Concern published a report that showed that older people are significantly under-represented on television. This year, a research study conducted with older viewers argues that while older audiences have diverse views on characterisations of older age in fiction-based shows - one person's old git is another's feisty senior citizen - there was considerable agreement that older people are generally absent from much of television's offerings.
It is almost as if they fall off the edge of the television landscape, plunging into a twilight world inhabited by companies selling walking frames, funeral plans and incontinence pads when what many of the customers really want (and can afford) is six weeks off-season in Gran Canaria and cheap insurance on a GTI rag-top.
The study, commissioned by Carlton Television and ondigital in spring 2000, was carried out by the Centre for Communication, Culture and Media Studies at Coventry University. It asked 228 older people across Britain and Northern Ireland for their views on the way in which television treats the broad subject of older age in both fictional narratives and fact-based programming.
Viewers were as likely to talk about the absence of older people across genres as to be hyper-critical about those few characterisations that do exist. When encouraged to talk specifically about older characters on television, viewers pointed to the routine use of ageist stereotypes, of older people as victims, dependent, frail, isolated, pathetic and ga-ga. Or they spoke of the way in which older age is seen as a source of humour, as in Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse's "Ol' Gits" sketch or Richard Wilson's rendition of curmudgeonliness in the form of Victor Meldrew.
Unsurprisingly, these particular portraits of older age provoked contradictory reactions from older people, about both the authenticity of the representations but also about their wider impact on social relations in the real world.
So while some people recognised all too well the verities embedded in the narratives - "My wife calls me Victor sometimes, and I suppose I am a bit like him. Well, we all are, aren't we?" - others simply saw pernicious stereotype - "It gives people the wrong idea, that we're all like that."
But what really irked was the overwhelming sense of has-been and past-it, that by some mysterious process, upon reaching one's 50th birthday, one becomes greyed out and no longer viable as a human being in Tellyland, no longer sexy or sexual but shrivelled, no longer a contributor but a burden, no more lifestyle but beige shoes and waiting for God.
Of course, it isn't all doom and gloom. A number of light entertainment programmes, such as Countdown and Wheel of Fortune, as well as fictional characters and shows, came in for praise by viewers, usually when an older person was portrayed in an active role, dynamic, productive, wise or expert.
A number of detective shows were mentioned here, such as John Thaw's Morse, David Jason's Touch of Frost and Patricia Routledge's unlikely hero, Hettie Wainthrop. The latter was one of the few shows singled out as providing a good role for an older woman.
Barbara Windsor's reinvention as Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders was also considered an inspired casting decision, allowing at least a small pass at older women's seductive allure to peep through an otherwise sex-free zone for the over-fifties.
In the end, what older viewers say they want is a television landscape that reflects the diversity of their various lives, and this doesn't mean positive images only. They do not want legions of tightly permed old dears doling out Smarties to small children or Identikit old codgers showing their great granddaughters their allotment, but rather an acknowledgement of their variety, their ups and downs, their frailties and strengths and of what they have to offer society after a lifetime of living.
If older viewers can feel excluded from lifestyle programmes that make a virtue of style over substance - "I was watching this cookery programme and they had this dish using a pomegranate, a piece of duck and some mascarpone cheese. I ask you, how many pensioners would eat that?" - this does not mean they want a "wrinklies" edition of a holiday show or cooking the Thora Hird way. They wonder if it is possible to incorporate older people into the televisionscape in the same ways as they are in real life. This doesn't seem much to ask, does it?
Karen Ross is at the Centre for Communication, Culture and Media Studies, Coventry University.