Ihave a complaint. (Now that’s something unusual for you — a columnist with a complaint.) The past two seasons of that brilliant Brit series Last Tango in Halifax lost their way. It remained superior television, but it welshed on the promise in its premise, that life — indeed love and romance, and the glistening fascination of complex humanity — remain alive for folks in their 70s and beyond.
The 70s now are an especially fruitful and promising decade. A huge number of people are functionally fit in their 70s. Almost everyone of that age has their ailments, but most are mobile, independent and without any catastrophic loss of brain power.
It might be exaggerating to say 70 is the new 50, but I remember reading a CS Forester crime novel from the 1930s in which a suspect was described as being in her 50s but still quite “active for her age”.
But I digress. The first series of Last Tango was one of the best things I have seen on TV for many a long year, and I wrote about it at the time. The plot contrivance was that Alan and Celia, two widowed mid-70s folks, who had briefly been sweethearts 50 years ago, meet up again and instantly decide to marry, much to the chagrin of their respective families.
The first series was a cracker as many shades of this romance — and especially the fine sense of charm in the renewed romantic love of the couple in question — were explored.
The second series was not quite as good as the focus shifted away from Alan and Celia to their respective daughters, Gillian and Caroline.
The third series was a two-part special and continued the drift so that there was no doubt that Gillian and Caroline had become the series leads.
TV executives surely calibrated all the commercial dynamics and, splendid as the whole thing was, decided there was insufficient demand for a full third series. But most depressing is their apparent conclusion that love and life for people in their late 70s — as Alan and Celia are by series three — is just too thin to sustain long-form television.
It has seemed to me for a long time that popular culture was just about to embark on a love affair with the 70s to 90s. In the 1970s everything was about youth. As we baby boomers rocked into our maturity, middle age became the dominant group in popular culture.
But baby boomers are no longer the numerically dominant cohort. And perhaps they are rather inclined to deny that they are getting into their 70s and 80s.
Whatever the reason, while we’ve had some notable popular culture treatments of these latter decades of life, they haven’t become nearly as mainstream as I thought they would. Movies have been better than TV — you can’t ignore Clint Eastwood.
In casting Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid as the septuagenarian leads, Last Tango set a standard the other actors couldn’t reach. The whole cast is good but none is remotely as scene stealing and compelling as the two seniors. It is disappointing that even with such magnificent acting resources, TV couldn’t rise to the idea of a whole series around two people of that age.
There have been some older-folk British sit- coms, As Time Goes By and One Foot in the Grave — both of them highly amusing in their way, but they began with central characters much younger. Victor is retired early in One Foot and his wife still works full-time. The same with Lionel and Jean in As Time Goes By.
You do now tend to get at least one older person in most family dramas and sitcoms, even if they are often confined to stereotypes (eccentric habits, health issues, and so on).
Popular culture often ignores big chunks of society. For the longest time there was an absurd whiteness to most Australian, British and American TV. That has been pretty much solved, but other gaps have arisen.
Since the end, a decade ago, of what had been a roaring success in the American series 7th Heaven, about a sympathetic Protestant pastor and his family, there have been almost zero depictions of religious families.
Anti-Christian bias is nearly ubiquitous, but why neglect the roaring seniors?