Keep young and beautiful

How to stay “in” in the media. Vivien Perkins offers an insider view.

Most people will be delighted that Miriam O’Reilly has won her case for discrimination on grounds of age against the BBC.

Nearly 40 years in the world of film and television leaves me in no doubt that ‘fitting in’ with the plans and visions of producers and executives is the mainspring of broadcasting. Radio requires voices which invite the audience to listen with commitment. Television presenters are expected to project their personalities so as to retain the attention and interest of that programme’s viewers.

Actors know that drama school training is not per se a qualification for a role – you need to be right for the part, work well with the cast and the director. Actors of both sexes complain that modern drama has a paucity of older parts (although costume drama and period adaptations from novels frequently open up the age range) but ‘playing younger’ is not usually well received.

Following the judicial decision in the case of Miriam O’Reilly, a BBC executive offered an apology and a commitment to drive out ageism. The executive, Alan Yentob – himself an arts programme presenter – is not young and is certainly no oil painting. But the BBC news item about the O’Reilly decision carried a clip of her falling off water skis, and – not unintentionally – illustrated perfectly their preference for more athletic, i.e. younger, figures in particular programme genres.

Some years ago I worked with several women daytime presenters – a couple were older than Miriam O’Reilly – and their success as individuals hung entirely on the ability to address the audience with wit and vivacity and interview effectively. Not a hint of self-exposure or undignified role playing – the presenter’s agent would have dealt with that.

Frankly, the fees that we hear are currently negotiated by agents are too unreal to provoke much sympathy when presenters are dropped. But there will be more fallout from this episode, not just related to age but to a sad fact of the broadcasting and entertainment industry: does the face fit?

The cult of ‘attractiveness’ occupies a dominant role in social relationships, as well in our perception of political leaders, opinion formers and generally those in the public eye. Helen Mirren satisfies our appreciation of maturity because of her exquisite presentation. And ‘presentation’ is felt to be of such importance, that classes in CV writing, job applications and interview skills are taught with great emphasis on presentation. After all, how you look and sound, as well as your choice of clothes may signal to a prospective employer that you are ‘right for the job’ or will ‘fit in with the team’. Youthful appearance may well offer an advantage.

Paradoxically, it is 16 to 24 year olds whose prospects are the most blighted in this present unemployment crisis. What kind of economic distortion allows those over 60 to claim equal employment rights, while consigning so many energetic and talented young people to a jobless future?

People who have worked in film and television production, especially in better times, are keen to pass on skills and knowledge, and this is also true of other fields. But the next generation have insufficient access to practical skills training, especially industry-led courses which offer the best route to professional competence. Young people are acutely aware that older professionals are holding onto jobs and that their own career paths may be blocked. ‘How do I get a job?’ is the question most frequently asked of professionals who also work as trainers.

Until adequate training and job opportunities are offered to them, today’s graduates and school leavers might be forgiven for believing that they, too, are the victims of age discrimination.

Vivien Perkins is an independent TV producer and writer living in London. She occasionally lectures to students of film and TV production.

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