TV blog: Secrets of Growing Old

Benjie Goodhart / 26 May 2016

This week’s highlights include an inspirational documentary about growing older. Plus, historical drama Versailles and the best of the rest this week.

Secrets of Growing Old, Wednesday 1st June, 9pm, ITV

TV companies, particularly commercially funded ones, are obsessed with the 16-34 year-old demographic. This has always struck me as strange – chasing the market of a slice of the population who are either paying of vast amounts of student debt or trying to afford a deposit on a home, while just embarking on the career ladder. Meanwhile, the more comfortably off older demographic, whose kids have moved out, and whose responsibilities have lessened, is largely ignored. It’s as if they think that all anyone over 55 spends their money on is Werther’s Originals.

But things may be starting to change, with the realisation that the older population is growing both in number and significance. All of a sudden, the market is flooded with programmes about – and aimed at – older people. On the BBC recently we’ve had programmes about dementia, how to stay young, and how to keep your brain young. This week, they have another programme about dementia (look, I never said it was all cheery) while, all of a sudden, the other channels are getting in on the act too. Channel 4 has a documentary about bodybuilding pensioners, Channel 5 has one about growing old disgracefully, and ITV has this one-off documentary about… about… well, I’m still not quite sure what it’s about.

It is, basically, an hour-long paean to the ageing process, reassuring us that we will never be happier, healthier, more valuable, more loving, and more brilliant, than in our golden years. It all sounds rather encouraging, but the truth is, the programme is so relentlessly upbeat and optimistic, and filled with such spectacular individuals, like the world’s oldest skydiver, or 94-year-olds who look about 55, that you find yourself wishing for someone to come along and admit their hips hurt and they watch telly all day. Give us an example we can live down to, for heaven’s sake!

I am full of admiration for Charles, 96, who goes to the gym three-times a week, and is a double world record holder. (Though we are not told in what discipline – it could be hamster racing) I am in awe of Dilys, who is 83, and a regular skydiver. Or Frances, 83, who models at London Fashion Week. Or Julie, who took up stand-up in her 80s. Or George, one of the world’s foremost Judo experts. Or the jazz saxophonist improving in his 80s. And on and on it goes. Each one is amazing, and I’d happily watch a programme about any one of them. But heaping them all together and then bashing me over the head with their brilliance, and chucking in the occasional rather loose scientific point with the amorphous term “research shows…” ends up becoming a little exhausting. I’m off for a lie down – and I’m not even half Charles’ age!

Related: Jamie Oliver's secrets to staying young

Versailles, Wednesday 1st June, BBC Two, 9pm

When the BBC snapped up the rights to this new ten-part drama, the talk in the papers was of the next Downton: A hugely expensive period-piece in a palatial setting, telling the story of those born to a life of unbridled privilege, and those who serve them.

It takes moments of the first episode to realise that we have travelled some distance from Edwardian England. You never would have got two chaps up to that sort of malarkey under Lord Grantham’s roof! But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. As are the two chaps. Let’s start at the beginning.

The year is 1667. Louis XIV sits on the throne of France. Haunted by the prospect of rebellion, he has moved from Paris to Versailles, where he plans to turn his father’s hunting lodge into the finest palace in Europe. I say ‘hunting lodge’. In the same way that Balmoral is a bothy.

But it won’t be easy for Louis to build his palace. For a start, some people aren’t paying quite as much tax as they should. It’s much the same as the problems confronting our own government, although it’s fair to say the methods of addressing this issue are somewhat more, um, direct in 17th Century France. For another thing, Louis has so little time to spend on plans for the palace, what with being intent on seducing every woman in France. The man’s approach to marital vows is.., well… is there a French phrase for laissez faire?

Indeed, one of his lovers is married to his own brother, Philippe. Not that Philippe minds much. He seems to be having his male chum, Chevalier, round for a lot of sleepovers just now. Pfft.

All of which is quite harsh on the Queen, who seems to be the only woman in France Louis isn’t determined to bed. She’s rather bored at Versailles. “At least change the tapestries,” she begs her husband. The stuff people turned to for entertainment pre-Netflix, eh?

Speaking of entertainment, this is top notch stuff. The scale of the production is breathtaking – it feels cinematic and lavish, every scene an opulent treat for the eyes. That includes the cast, who are all surprisingly beautiful, considering they live in an age where they’d probably all have had wooden teeth and syphilis by their 25th birthdays. They also all have the most extraordinary amounts of hair – it’s like watching a bunch of Aerosmith roadies play dress up. But boy, do they do it well!

The best – and the rest

Saturday 28th May

Britain’s Got Talent, 7:30pm, ITV: The final. Who will be this year’s performing dog? Will Simon Cowell do up ANY buttons on his shirt? These questions, and more, answered.

The Secret of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, 9pm, BBC Two: Ian Hislop and conductor John Eliot Gardiner present a highbrow alternative to BGT. Highbrow and, of course, almost completely unwatched.

The Musketeers, 9:30pm, BBC One: Another series of the show, with Rupert Everett joining the cast. Bears as much similarity to the original Dumas novel as a bacon sandwich does to the Mona Lisa.

Sunday 29th May

Top Gear, 8pm, BBC Two: One of the most awaited and anticipated TV events of the year. Bizarrely, writing four days before transmission, it has not been made available for preview – either the result of utter incompetence or a worrying lack of confidence.

The British Soap Awards, 8pm, ITV: I will be deliriously happy if I go through my entire life never watching a soap awards ceremony, but if this is your bag, good luck to you. Expect something for Babs Windsor.

Yeti: Myth, Man or Beast? 8pm, Channel 4: Myth, obviously.

Channel 4’s Comedy Gala, 9pm, er, Channel 4: The annual comedy shindig from the O2, raising money for Great Ormond Street Hospital, and featuring a star-studded gallery of comedians.

Battle of Jutland: The Navy’s Bloodiest Day, 9pm, BBC Two: Another Jutland doc, hot on the heels of last week’s one on Channel 4, marking 100 years since the conflict.

Monday 30th May

Springwatch, 8pm, BBC Two: The team are back at RSPB Minsmere, getting excited about badgers and curlews and what have you.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 8:30pm, BBC One: John Nettles investigates another murder in the long-running detec… oh, hang on…

Heathrow: Britain’s Busiest Airport, 9pm, ITV: Thank goodness: Another fly-on-the-wall series about everyday life in an airport. Just what the world needs.

An Immigrant’s Guide to Britain, 10pm, Channel 4: Comedian Henning Wehn and a collection of first generation immigrants present this very funny guide to the idiosyncrasies of Britain and its populace.

Tuesday 31st May

Party Pensioners: Sex, Drugs and Bingo, 10pm, Channel 5: C5 brings a sensitive and mature approach to factual programming to bear on the subject of our ageing population. Almost certainly not presented by Melvyn Bragg.

Wednesday 1st June

Living in 1966, 7:30pm, BBC One: A documentary looking at what life was really like in 1966, presented by Patsy Kensit. Who, um, was born in 1968.

The Big C and Me, 9pm, BBC One: Not all good telly is easy telly. This three-part series, following the lives of nine people with cancer from diagnosis, through treatment and beyond, should be both compelling and moving. But not easy.

Seventy with a Six Pack, 10pm, Channel 4: The bus pass bodybuilders include 79-year-old Eric Dowie, trying to regain his 2014 Over 70s World Bodybuilding title. What’s wrong with a nice cuppa and a game of Scrabble, hmm?

Thursday 2nd June

Live International Football: England v Portugal, 7:30pm, ITV: Oh good, another England friendly. Sales of sleeping pills must be plummeting.

Living with Dementia: Chris’ Story, 8pm, BBC One: This is extraordinary, gruelling fare, following two years in the life of Chris Roberts, painfully young to be suffering Alzheimer’s at 55, as he and his family struggle to cope with his diagnosis.

Friday 3rd June

Deepcut: The Army’s Shame, 9pm, BBC Two: Former recruits talk about the horrendous culture of bullying at the army barracks, a litany of physical and sexual abuse, after four recruits died there in seven years. Shocking,

Fraud – How They Steal Your ID, 9pm, ITV: Largely by phoning you and pretending to be your bank, it seems. Be vigilant, people. Watching this programme would be a good start.

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