In ascribing a metaphor to the BBC, we are mistaken in likening the corporation to a loveable old auntie. We should not be looking to personification at all, but should turn to geography. The BBC is a vast wetland; home, naturally enough, to myriad wets and, as the country’s sole self-designated area of outstanding natural beauty, deserving of billions in public money.
The parallel does not end there. Every now and then, the passing observer’s attention will be drawn to a sudden squalling and screeching, the fluttering aloft of an affronted, squabbling covey. Moments later, they have settled back and peace is restored to the still and stagnant waters.
Who knows what explains these sudden eruptions, this ruffling of feathers, this snapping of beaks? It is easier to spot the fauna than divine its behaviour. They are the female presenters, past and present, and periodically they are apt to succumb to a hissy fit. There has been just such a spate recently. Mariella Frostrup, Anna Ford, Selina Scott, Fiona Bruce, all have pointed a tremulous finger at the television industry in general and the BBC in particular (which, as the breathing embodiment of political correctness, should surely know better), accusing it of sexism and ageism.
Fittingly, the doyenne of them all, Dame Joan Bakewell, provides the most eloquent expression of their indignation. (For a more concise and less mellifluous critique of the opposing view, I refer you to Fiona Bruce, who says “‘Bollocks’ is the word I would use”. At heart, she’s one of the boys.)
Dame Joan, who in her years of blue-stockinged pulchritude rejoiced in the title of “the thinking man’s crumpet”, an honour bestowed by the late Frank Muir, bemoans the absence of the older woman on the box. Upward soars her rhetorical cry: “Where today are the wrinkly female equivalents of Trevor McDonald and Peter Sissons, Nick Owen and Jon Snow?”Lest we miss the point, she asks another question: “Older women are missing from news and current affairs. Why do older women lose out?”She ventures an answer: ‘Television is a hideously young business. It’s run by people in their twenties and thirties answering to executives in their forties, while those in their fifties are looking over their shoulder in fear of early redundancy. The only people of 60 they know are their mothers. It is a world besotted with finding new formats and new stars to catch the attention of fickle 15-to-25-year-olds who’d rather be out getting wasted.’
There is much in what she says. Nevertheless, she manages to miss the point, or rather two points. The first is that television is not merely hideously young, it is hideously superficial. Secondly, in their physical appearance, most men age better than most women. That is not a criticism of women, it is a biological fact. Or, more precisely, it is our perception of biological change that decides the issue. Like it or not (and feminists hate it), young women are admired and prized for their beauty in a way that young men are not. Men (and women too, believe it or not) like to look at beautiful girls, which is why female television presenters are uniformly good-looking. Anna Ford, Selina Scott, Fiona Bruce and, of course, the crumpetitious Dame Joan flourished before the camera because they were all easy on the eye. Moreover, they were all drawn to careers in television because it was exciting, glamorous, sexy and young.
The people who run television, whether themselves young or old, wish the medium to remain, like Dorian Gray, forever youthful and sexy. It follows that from time to time the stock of crumpet needs to be replenished; and in with the new means, alas, out with the old. Pace Dame Joan, in the world of television it is both physically and philosophically impossible to be hideously young.
Male TV presenters, too, must be presentable, but not beautiful. In the minds of those in television who know best, what the viewer wants from a man reading the news is gravitas. The phrase ‘age before beauty’ might have been invented with the male autocue reader in mind. And so, in this unforgiving and unjust world, wrinkled men have a dignity and seriousness, wrinkled women have wrinkles.
One might wish it were otherwise. Then again, someone sufficiently wise and intelligent to see that beauty is but skin deep, to sense that behind the fluttering eyelashes of the perfectly formed newsreader there is a mind like a steel trap, and to know that the maddening phrase ‘bye for now’ is code for ‘cogito ergo sum’, would not be watching television in the first place. v