I cannot be the only person who has had a life-long fascination with television. I can still remember the first time we got a colour television at home which like many was not bought but came under a rental arrangement with a well-known company which rented out televisions alongside many other electrical white goods. Part of my fascination with television was the result of an old neighbour who was very much a Glasgow granny to us. Katie came from Tiree but had lived in Glasgow for most of her life and had either known or worked with John Logie Baird but either way she had a small television which was enclosed in a beautiful mahogany box which sat in the corner of her room. It was signed by the great man himself. Katie effused about all things on the television – both good and bad!
In a few days’ time on the 21st November it will be World Television Day. I didn’t even know such a day existed but on reflection it makes complete and utter sense.
It states that the day is ‘a global observance that celebrates the impact and importance of television as a medium for communication, information, and entertainment. It acknowledges the role television plays in shaping public opinion, promoting cultural diversity, and fostering dialogue among nations.’
That description chimes with the famous quote of the first Director General of the BBC, the 6ft 6-inch irascible Scottish titan and pioneer of public broadcasting Lord (John) Reith who stated that the purpose of television was to ‘inform, educate, entertain’ which remains part of the mission statement of the BBC to this very day.
Television has a huge influence upon society and if anything, it is deepening and developing. What you see or perhaps what you do not see on television has a considerable impact on the attitudes, behaviours, perceptions and understanding that you develop as you grow into adulthood and citizenship.
Last Friday I had the pleasure of attending a forum theatre event in Alloa as part of the University of Stirling’s ESRC Festival of Social Science which linked to the amazing work at that university on Reimagining the Future of Ageing.
One of the themes that came up a fair bit was the stereotypical images of ageing that often appear in our media and no more is that the case than in television. On the one hand we have the continual representation of older age as being all about decline and decay. The representation of older people as frail, feeble and with wrinkly hands.
Older age characters in popular television are so frequently typically negative stereotypes. We have the sad, vulnerable and depressed, the grumpy and bad-tempered, the nosy neighbour, the poor and destitute pensioner. Where are the designers, the thinkers, the planners, the workers? I don’t see the story of the contributors and creatives, of the dreamers and visionaries. Why is it all about the old being a cost and drain, being a burden and barrier? Why is it that the future only seems to belong to the young, when it is all of our tomorrows?
At the other extreme of negative stereotypes, we have the ultra-positive – the ‘supra old’ – the bungee jumper at 102, the marathon runner at 99, the concert pianist at 95 and so on. All laudable in their exemplary excellence but hardly descriptive of the breadth of ageing.
In a room of a hundred older people there are a hundred stories to tell about growing old and older age, some good, some sad, some brilliant, some full of mundanity. Television and the arts in general fail to be authentic if all they do is speak to the extremities and edge of the human condition and the human person.
And why is it important that we should have a truthful and broad representation of older age – well put simply it is because it matters. What appears on television matters, and we are light years away from a mature, broad and truthful representation of ageing in all its colour, variety and diversity.
It also matters because we are people who require to hear our story and see our lives portrayed in the popular culture and the visual landscapes of our eyes and heart. There is not a little evidence to show that not being able to see our own narrative in the culture of the time has a negative impact on our mental health. Regardless of who I am, if I am living with dementia or living through the days of my loving to the end, I need to be able to recognise myself in television. Yet most of what is produced is but a shadow of the truthfulness, real and raw, broken, and glorious, of older age.
When challenged, as I have done in the past, playwrights and producers I spoke to made the statement that is often made namely that an audience does not always want to see itself and that it is not what the public wants. I would contest that assumption and would re-iterate the words of Lord Reith: ‘He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the public wants is often creating a fictitious demand for low standards which he will then satisfy.’
There is a particular necessity for those of is who work in older age services and social care supports not to swallow the stereotype of older age but to challenge the societal presumption about those who receive social care at any age but especially at older age.
I make no apologies for finishing with one of my favourite Maya Angelou poems “On Aging” which asks younger people to treat older people with understanding and respect. She wrote it when she was 50 and it started a whole canon of some of her best work. It challenges the stereotypes of older people as ‘lonely, pitiable, and helpless.’ I hope we will see much more rounded representations of older age on television and in the creative media in general in the months and years to come.
When you see me sitting quietly,
Like a sack left on the shelf,
Don’t think I need your chattering.
I’m listening to myself.
Hold! Stop! Don’t pity me!
Hold! Stop your sympathy!
Understanding if you got it,
Otherwise I’ll do without it!
When my bones are stiff and aching,
And my feet won’t climb the stair,
I will only ask one favor:
Don’t bring me no rocking chair.
When you see me walking, stumbling,
Don’t study and get it wrong.
‘Cause tired don’t mean lazy
And every goodbye ain’t gone.
I’m the same person I was back then,
A little less hair, a little less chin,
A lot less lungs and much less wind.
But ain’t I lucky I can still breathe in.
Dr Donald Macaskill
Photo by Aleks Dorohovich on Unsplash