Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

Age-old problem rears its wrinkly face once again

The BBC admits there are too few older women on TV. But who is up for the challenge? Count me out, says Mary Johnston

So tell us something we don't already know. There are not very many older women on our TV screens. In point of fact, Bangor-born Maxine Mawhinney is the only female news presenter aged more than 50 on the BBC - and that's only at weekends.

The BBC's big boss, director-general Mark Thompson, has confessed that, in his opinion, the corporation needs to employ more older women in iconic roles and on iconic programmes.

Although this whole ageism/sexism controversy didn't start with Miriam O'Reilly, who is 53, losing her presenter's job on Countryfile, her successful age-discrimination action against the BBC certainly highlighted the situation.

Moira Stewart and Selina Scott, among others, had suffered the ignominy of being 'let go' for the terrible crime of getting on a bit even before that.

Last week, lo and behold, three famous women presenters, whose collective ages add up to an impressive 208 years, appeared on a reasonably primetime slot.

They were our very own Gloria Hunniford, who tends to buck the trend by appearing on both BBC and ITV, Angela Rippon and Julia Sommerville, presenting Rip Off Britain.

This is so obviously no more than a sop to complaints about the lack of women over 50 and, to be frank, a bit of an insult to viewers' intelligence.

News anchor Mary Nightingale has suddenly been looking her age, or even older, recently, so it's lucky for her that Mark Thompson has finally 'come out' on the subject, meaning Mary may remain safe in her job.

After a lot of public outrage, Moira Stewart got a newsreading slot on Chris Evans's popular breakfast show and Arlene Phillips, at 66, might even be back in with a shout of getting her judging job back on Strictly Come Dancing, since the young and glamourous Alesha Dixon has defected to ITV for three-times the salary. Whether she'd take it or not is another thing.

Locally, news anchor Kate Smith, who is in her fifties, parted company with UTV, getting out while the going was good.

Pamela Ballantine (right) - also in her fifties - went from presenting and reporting to doing sporadic continuity on UTV, along with Rose Neill - again in her fifties - who parted company with the BBC.

It's true that there were also male casualties among the over-50s at UTV and the disappearance of so many well-known on-screen faces from the broadcaster probably had more to do with finance than age.

Wendy Austin presents a prime-time slot at the Beeb, but it's on radio and who knows if she'd have got the chance to present In Your Corner if it wasn't for the ageism issue. At least being 60 possibly worked in Wendy's favour. The BBC must "develop and cherish" the "many outstanding women broadcasters" on its books and ensure that they know "age will not be a bar to their future employment," Mark Thompson said.

The BBC has certainly cherished its male stars. Old-timer Bruce Forsyth - 84 this year - makes me cringe. I can't bear to watch him for even one minute.

David Attenborough (86) is a national treasure and a unique talent and David Dimbleby (74) is as razor-sharp and effective as he ever was.

The only female presenter of this vintage that I can think of is Dame Joan Bakewell, who's rarely on TV these days.

But - and here's the rub - how many viewers really want to see elderly women presenting prime-time shows on their screen? I definitely don't.

We can all relate to youthful presenters; we were all young once. But younger viewers can't relate to old-timers on telly and we old-timers don't need reminding of how we've changed.

Not for one minute am I suggesting that broadcasters should hire girls simply because they look attractive.

But as long as they're intelligent, warm, eloquent, competent and have that certain je ne sais quoi that sets them apart, then they should not be dismissed simply as autocuties because of their good looks.

I am well-aware that one-third of the population is made up of the over-fifties. I am also well-aware that many lucky women nowadays can hang onto their looks for longer.

But, apart from Gloria Hunniford, who is in her seventies, there aren't that many that I'd want to watch on TV.

I've worked in the media industry since my teens and have a lifetime's experience - including broadcasting in the independent sector and on the BBC.

But even in the highly unlikely event of being offered TV work now, I would decline rather than inflict my wrinkly bake on viewers.

But if there's a radio station looking for an experienced broadcaster - and wise old bird - to appeal to her growing age-group, well, now, that's a different story.

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