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Face it ... feisty older women like Mary Berry, Gloria Hunniford and me are 24-carat television gold

By Janet Street-Porter

Published 24/09/2016

Perfect recipe: Mary Berry is the star attraction of Bake Off
Perfect recipe: Mary Berry is the star attraction of Bake Off

Mary has spoken and won't be budged. Master baker Paul Hollywood may have decided to sneak through the back doors of Channel 4 and sign a three-year contract for a newly-minted series of The Great British Bake Off, but the show's star attraction, Mary Berry, will not be following.

Mary announced she was "sad" for the audience and was staying at the BBC out of "loyalty". It will suit Paul to go to a broadcaster where programmes are sponsored and commercial interests are encouraged - he will be expanding his baking empire and realises that a fresh new team of (probably younger) presenters could extend his appeal as a judge and a marketable brand.

But at 81, Mary Berry doesn't fancy change, and who can blame her?

Her loss to Channel 4 is considerable. She is that unique commodity in British broadcasting: a National Treasure of a Certain Age. Like Bruce Forsyth, David Attenborough, Patrick Stewart and the late Terry Wogan, Mary Berry is one of a kind.

Intelligent, sensible, calm and ruthlessly honest, even when scathing judgments were delivered, each made more palatable with a heavy dollop of tact.

Mary is also unique because she is a highly popular, older female presenter. Until recently, there has been a double standard at the BBC - ageing men can continue to broadcast forever (think of John Simpson), but the moment a woman gets a bus pass, she can expect to be shown the door. Unless she is Mary Berry.

There was a huge outcry and more than 1,300 complaints from viewers when Arlene Phillips, who won countless awards for her work in films and theatre, was dropped as a judge on Strictly Come Dancing and never given an adequate explanation.

The BBC 1 controller at the time, Jay Hunt, said the show needed "refreshing", but for some reason that decision didn't extend to any of the male judges.

A few years later, Miriam O'Reilly successfully took the BBC to court alleging ageism after being dropped as a presenter on the highly popular series Countryfile. Once again, the channel controller was Jay Hunt.

In February 2011, Miriam made a documentary for ITV, called Too Old for TV, claiming that women of a certain age were routinely being dropped in favour of younger presenters.

The BBC subsequently apologised and offered Miriam other work, although now she no longer works in television.

Ironically, Jay Hunt is now boss of Channel 4 - and he must be extremely cross that she's failed to sign up the most cherished older woman in the UK.

Since Miriam's case, broadcasters have belatedly woken up to the fact that the audience demographic has radically altered. Young people are watching television on their computers and smartphones, grazing in a way that's hard for advertisers to track.

The vast bulk of the audience for the main four channels is middle-aged and older, likes familiar faces and wants to see their generation reflected on screen. A parade of perfect twentysomething clones is a turn-off.

The audience expects their presenters and favourite actors to be quirky and individual, even wrinkly. Look at the highly successful return of Cold Feet on ITV and you get the idea.

Older women are suddenly in demand. Look at Mary Beard, Gloria Hunniford - and me. I appear on ITV's Loose Women, the BBC's Have I Got News for You and regularly pop up on Channel 4, and I'll be 70 at Christmas.

Long before the Bake Off, Mary had a very successful career as a cook and ambassador for expensive Aga cookers. I still own her first book and very good, if a little unadventurous, it is, too.

She has replaced the Queen Mother as a glorious beacon of glamorous old age, unfailingly polite, utterly dignified, quite a spiffy dresser and tough as steel.

The BBC will craft a new show for Mary and it will be hugely popular.

Channel 4, however, will struggle to replicate the generational line-up of the BBC's version of the show and they will turn it into something cheeky and contemporary.

No one will lose out - we are talking about television formats here, not a new version of the Bible.

In the meantime, almost a decade after they dumped Arlene, the BBC is considering bringing her back (at 72) to replace Len Goodman when he retires at the end of the current series of Strictly.

Mel and Sue are nice but replaceable - a feisty older woman is TV gold right now.

Belfast Telegraph

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