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When I get older - review

Rachel Cooke applauds a show that gives time to the elderly.

When I Get Older


In a bungalow in rural Suffolk, John Simpson, the grandly titled BBC world affairs editor, is watching the afternoon wrestling. His host, Peggy Booth, who is 83 and confined mostly to the house, is keen to point out to him the finer points of this unfashionable sport.

“He’s supposed to be the best wrestler in the world,” she says, waggling a bony finger at the television screen excitedly. But alas, such nuances are lost on Simpson, who would, one suspects, prefer to be on his way to Syria, perhaps disguised as a camel or an okra salesman, than sitting here on Peggy’s sofa.

For a moment, I wonder if he will demand that she switches over to the BBC News channel so he can feel envious of Jeremy Bowen. But, no. He has a better idea and it’s mesmerising to see. The huge head nods . . . the chin sinks . . . the eyelids droop . . . Simpson, it seems, is going to sleep this one out.

Don’t misunderstand: this was a kindly nap, not a passive-aggressive one. Simpson had agreed, who knows why, to take part in When I Get Older (Wednesdays, 9pm), a series in which four famous old-age pensioners stayed in the homes of four non-famous old-age pensioners (it’s part of the BBC’s “When I’m 65” season) – and having worked out that Peggy, though cantankerous and isolated, was not really unhappy, he pretty much let her be. There was a trip to the cemetery to see her father’s grave but that was where he drew the line, do-gooding-wise, and I liked him all the better for it.

At least he didn’t drag her down the day care centre for a wobbly chorus of the White Cliffs of Dover. Or, worse, start going through her cash book, as Gloria Hunniford was busy doing in Blackburn where her host, Ivy, lived on £3.24 a day. Jeez. I know fame has an odd effect on people but surely not even the most deluded celebrity believes she can turn a few coppers into a Mediterranean cruise.

Hunniford’s accountancy, however, wasn’t half so scary as her hair and make-up, which remained unnervingly immaculate throughout her stay (if Hunniford were a Thunderbirds puppet – and this isn’t, I think, outside the bounds of possibility – she would play Lady Penelope’s interfering mother-in-law). No wonder one warmed to Lesley Joseph, late of Birds of a Feather, who arrived at the Dartford home of Malcolm, paralysed by a stroke, and Pat, his carer, and seemed to grasp in an instant that this was neither the time nor the place for false eyelashes (she peeled these luxuriant beasties off at bedtime and they did not reappear).

Even taking the television cameras into account, I thought she was amazing. She fed Malcolm his supper, and when he yelled in the middle of the night she hauled herself out of bed. Most amazingly of all, she spoke to him on a level, as if his disabilities were invisible to her. Was this acting? Perhaps. But if so, it was also the performance of her life: touching, tender and unsentimental.

And so, finally, to Celebrity Pensioner Number Four, Tony Robinson, who has much experience of the ancient, thanks to Time Team. They’d found a real darling for him, which was just as well: Robinson is one of those self- regarding men who seems always to be on the edge of irritation. Philip, who lived in a council flat in Gravesend, was deep in grief; his wife of 68 years had died 18 months before. Robinson decided that if only Philip would start singing again – he’d been a singer all his life – he would start to feel better, which sounds trite but turned out to be true.

No sooner had the last line of “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” departed his mouth than he had a smile on his face – a smile so lovely, I could almost forgive Robinson for having asked him only moments before if he was just being “a brave soldier” (Philip had fallen over). And perhaps, in any case, feeling cross is exactly the point.

Though this is reality television by any other name, I can’t find it in my heart to despise it. The message – that when you get old, you don’t cease to feel, or long to be noticed – has to be rammed home somehow.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Honey, I shrunk the Tories