x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The battle against old age is taking a toll on television

A plague of ageism is currently sweeping through the BBC, leaving no middle-aged viewer unscathed.

Until recently I never believed in the paranormal, but as I approach my 54th birthday, something strange is happening each morning and I'm at a loss to explain it. Every time I look in our bathroom mirror I increasingly see the face of my old dad staring back at me, including his trademark jowls, crows feet and bags under the eyes in which you could carry your shopping home.

If I seem unduly sensitive about how old I'm now looking, you must forgive me. A plague of ageism is currently sweeping through the BBC, and I'm terrified that if I don't halt the passage of time, I'll become infected.

It's difficult to ascertain exactly when being over 50 suddenly became tantamount to receiving a death warrant for broadcasters and commentators. First, it was merely the more senior newsreaders who began to be airbrushed from our screens, as one by one they were discreetly replaced by younger, hipper versions: the women by cute blondes and the men by natty dudes with perfect teeth and too much hair gel for their own good.

Next in the line of fire were long-established political reporters, then came chat-show hosts, until finally the programme makers seemed to be targeting anyone with even so much as a single grey hair. Eventually, even much-loved (and 67-year-old) ex-dancer Arlene Phillips was unceremoniously dumped as a judge on the BBC's flagship entertainment show Strictly Come Dancing despite looking better than many women half her age.

Earlier this month it seemed this cultural euthanasia might have been halted after one recent high-profile casualty sued the corporation for discrimination and won. The 53-year-old rural affairs presenter Miriam O'Reilly had been "released" from the programme Countryfile back in 2008 when the show was moved to a prime-time slot. Suspecting rampant ageism behind the warm handshakes and expressions of regret, she successfully took her employers to court. Everyone whose job involves clinging to the media bandwagon breathed a sigh of relief.

But now the debate has reignited after the corporation has confirmed that the job of fronting their coverage of the forthcoming royal wedding, normally a shoo-in for 72-year-old David Dimbleby, is also to be given over to younger hands.

For as long as anyone can recall, the task of describing events of national significance is synonymous with his family name. David's father Richard, a broadcaster whose skill in describing events with quiet, understated gravitas was forged in the crucible of war reporting, was for years, quite literally, the voice of the nation, whether describing coronations, state funerals or general elections.

So strong was Dimbleby's brand that when his eldest son David inherited his mantle in the 1980s, the corporation's rival channel, ITV, recruited his younger brother Jonathan to spearhead their own endeavours.

Yet after a family connection with royal events spanning half a century, David has lost his role to 49-year-old newsreader Huw Edwards, who will replace him as chief commentator at the forthcoming wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Dimbleby has maintained a gracious silence on his demotion, but one of his recently culled colleagues has suffered no such qualms about speaking out. Veteran newsreader Peter Sissons blasted the BBC this week for its demeaning treatment of the old brigade, describing his former employer's obsession with all things youthful as humiliating. "Call it ageism or sexism or what you like, but they treat everyone disgracefully," he fumed. And even though his former employers have rejected his accusations, it's a sad fact that anyone over 50 on our screens just now is likely to be a politician, a religious minister or a hard-pressed actor doing an advert for stair-lifts or denture fixative.

Luckily I can no longer see my own reflection, mainly because there are so many jars of face creams, hair dyes and wrinkle reducers piled high in front of the bathroom mirror. The BBC may have got the Dimblebys, but I'm not giving up without a fight, and if it also takes a wig and some Botox, rest assured I won't hesitate to use them.

Of course, there is another way to look at it all. My old dad would no doubt remind all of us waiting in the metaphorical condemned cell that growing sufficiently old to be useless is in itself a feat worthy of celebration. After all, old age isn't so bad when you consider the alternative.

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London