How to attract the silver haired to the silver screen

Golden moments: Maggie Smith and Pauline Collins in Quartet, directed by 75-year-old Dustin Hoffman

Golden moments: Maggie Smith and Pauline Collins in Quartet, directed by 75-year-old Dustin Hoffman


Do older people want to watch films starring their contemporaries or is age simply a vehicle for older actors gracefully to flaunt their wrinkles?

Titian’s The Three Ages of Man does babies, lovers and distant skulls. Nowadays it’s youth, middle age and “Jaysus, you’re lookin’ great,” the last phrase said in ill-concealed surprise. But with 60 the new 50 and with people aged 65-74 designated “young older”, according to the National Council on Ageing, as stage and screen actors age, so the focus shifts from the angst of gilded youth to the serenity of silvered seniors .

But while men have Lear, the dilemma for the ageing female actor has always been a shortage of older parts. Now, however, directors are dealing with the subject of age, and this is where Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Terence Stamp and Derek Jacobi come in. They’re all names you need in order to get older bums on seats.

So far we have had the full range of films and television series about ageing: comedy, for example, with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and films with music as a unifying theme in Song for Marion and Quartet, directed by Dustin Hoffman (who is now 75). The Man on the Train, a remake by the Irish director Mary McGuckian, offers psychological intrigue, and the BBC promises more frolicsome fun in the second series of Last Tango in Halifax. Finally, there’s Vicious, the upcoming ITV series starring Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as a gay couple who have been together for 50 years and, with a friend (Frances de la Tour), have to deal with the arrival of an attractive young man.

But age: is that it? Is it enough to portray an obnoxious old geezer in a raincoat (Terence Stamp in Song for Marion), a smiling lecher (Billy Connolly in Quartet) or a character who combines dimples and dementia (Pauline Collins in Quartet)? Is age simply a vehicle for older actors gracefully to flaunt their wrinkles and joke about having to get up to pee five times a night?

Dominic Campbell of the Irish organisation Age and Opportunity asks why only white people grow old on screen; people from other cultures may well have stories more interesting than those currently presented to us, he suggests. He has a point. In Song for Marion, Quartet and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the food trolleys and wheelchairs are pushed by black people. Change places, change colour and you have a story, but – and it’s a big but – would it be commercially viable?

With more people downloading films or hiring a DVD for a night in, cinemas are finding the competition increasingly difficult. A survey of UK cinemas found that, during the recent icy spell, their audiences dropped by 40 per cent. The receipts for Quartet were down 60 per cent, an indication that older audiences prefer to give treacherous footpaths a miss.

But once the funding, the stars and the director come together, it all works – nearly. In Last Tango in Halifax an older couple finally find love and engage in a bit of late-life madness, to the fury of their adult children. But the age thing just isn’t enough, so the episodes are padded out with family rows, a car crash and teenagers on drugs: all things an older viewer may well want to escape.

“Over the past 10 years, there’s been a move away from commercial, multiplex films towards lower-budget ones that are more literary and intelligent,” says Tristan Orpen Lynch, who has just finished an eight-year stint on the Irish Film Board. “These are the ones most likely to attract older people. Here in Europe, that idea is shared, which is how we get film-makers working in partnership with film companies in other countries.”

Intelligent storylines

Hoffman, in making Quartet, showed that a film starring older people could well represent an attractive outing for an older audience. As for older people choosing an intelligent storyline, this is where The Man on the Train comes in. Dealing only obliquely with age, it has the sort of quirky ending that leaves people querying what they have just seen, or think they have just seen. There’s no greater test of a movie than the aftershow arguments it provokes.

So what about the idea that a film starring older actors is nothing more than a vehicle for displaying jowls and wrinkles in a good light? “Cinema reflects life,” says Orpen Lynch. “Actors such as Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave are performing older roles because that’s what they are: older. They’ve stayed the course.”

This is certainly true of Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave, who, in Song for Marion, perform their solos in voices that are loud and clear, a tribute to a lifetime of professionalism.

But Paul Williams, who directed Song for Marion, doesn’t see it as a film about older people particularly. “There are lots of different films about different sorts of people. Song is about everybody,” he says. Maybe that’s his intention, but the test will be in how the audience - of all ages - sees it.

Song for Marion is released on February 22nd

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