What is it about the ageing process that terrifies us so much that we cannot bear to see anyone out of their twenties on our television screens? Modern visual culture has long been obsessed with youth and the conception of beauty as airbrushed, glamorous perfection – the main enemy of which is time as it stamps its lines and crow’s feet on faces once smooth and unmarred or dares to introduce shades of grey into hair once defiantly colourful. There is an enormous and incredibly profitable industry dedicated to waging war with time in an ongoing battle whose object seems to be immortality. But who really wants to be twenty-something for ever? And shouldn’t television celebrate the diversity of its audience a little more?
Two programmes currently running in the UK brought this home to me this week. The first is The Voice UK, aka X Factor’s younger and nicer sister who lacks bite and claims to be something other than what she is. I watched one of the first “blind” audition shows with mounting interest, because it appealed to me that finally, perhaps, the industry might be recognising that there is more to music than a boyband haircut and a polished (circa 1997) Britney smile; that maybe looks aren’t all that important when your record’s being pumped out on the radio. The Voice UK claims to be a cut above, because it searches the land for people who can actually sing. “Good lord,” I hear you cry, “a talent show that showcases talent? What is the world coming to?”
The format of the blind auditions, where hopefuls have 90 seconds to belt out the best their vocal cords can offer in the hope that one of the four judges – who, being singers themselves are supposed to be qualified for this – will hit a button to turn their chair around thereby declaring they “Want” the singer, was in itself an amusing concept. Similarly amusing was watching the judges struggle to conceal any industry-derived prejudices as their pneumatic chair swung around to confront them with the sometimes frankly bizarre appearance of the auditionees. OK, I thought, this has potential. When I watched the “battle” rounds a week later – a format so ludicrous it was funny (singers are put in a boxing ring and have to sing the same song at the same time, pitting their most ridiculous riffs and warbles against one another) – I realised there seemed to be a certain trend emerging and there wasn’t even any attempt to disguise it. The judges routinely picked the younger singer – who also conformed more to the stereotypical beauty standards; one singer was picked, in the judge’s own words “just because she was seventeen”, even though her opponent was without doubt the better singer. Admittedly, perhaps, the judges feel they can mould the younger ones more effectively but still, the Voice UK now seems to have lost much of the character (and characters) it might otherwise have had to distinguish it from the plethora of other talent shows.
The other show that has attracted attention for, in my opinion, the wrong reasons, is Mary Beard’s “Meet The Romans”. Following a savage attack on her appearance from Sunday Times critic A.A. Gill, Beard felt it only right to retaliate, drawing attention to the gaping absence of older women presenters on television. OK, there are the Jeremy Paxmans and the Michael Parkinsons – somehow age adds venerability and authority when it is male – but there is a dearth of older women presenters on UK screens. Which, given that viewers aged 65+ watch twice as many hours of TV as the 18-24s*, is unfortunate. Channels consistently seek to appeal to the young, but this desire doesn’t accurately reflect their audience demographic. (Incidentally, out of the top 10 shows watched in 2011, 6 were “talent” shows of some description and the X factor results were beaten only by the Royal Wedding*. It would appear that the older generations love watching pop/dance/celebrity-wannabes too…)
Professor Mary Beard, on the other hand, is an intelligent, engaging scholar who has successfully straddled the academic world and the fickle universe of television, and is using the medium to bring classical antiquity into the homes of families all over the UK who might otherwise never have encountered it. Surely she deserves respect for this, or at any rate if you’re going to criticise, critics (yes, Gill, I’m looking at you), at least make some show of professionalism and target the content of the show, rather than the presenter’s choice of clothing or the fact that she hasn’t succumbed to the raging botox brigade, or that, horror of horrors, she doesn’t dye her hair. She’s not, after all, on The Voice.
*data from TV Licensing report “TeleScope”