Last Tango in Halifax shows that the old deserve a starring role

I hope it will soon become the norm for the old to be part of the mainstream of daily life

Anne Reid and Derek Jacobi in 'Last Tango in Halifax'

Anne Reid and Derek Jacobi in ‘Last Tango in Halifax’

Is it something in the air of Halifax? Or is it in the air more generally? I suspect the latter. Millions of television viewers will be there tonight – Halifax that is – watching as Celia marries Alan, both in their seventies. The BBC television series Last Tango in Halifax, is a universal success, enjoyed by old and young alike. And in that sense marks something of a tipping point.

Appearing on the panel of a conference about ageing recently, I was asked what would bring about the wholesale shift in outlook that I claimed society needs in order to address seriously and continuously the issue of how so many of us are now over 60. My reply was: “When the old are as regularly seen as a part of daily life as the young and the middle aged. We want to be treated as part of the mainstream narrative of our times. Only then will the matter of including the old within our health and care arrangements, within our housing and travel considerations, within our entertainment and leisure pursuits be fully realised.” I think that moment might be upon us.

Of course there have long been television programmes featuring older people. Indeed, Yorkshire’s own Last of the Summer Wine featured three old codgers doing various silly things because they were old. New Tricks – a crime series featuring retired police officers called back to solve old crimes – surprised the BBC by its success. Six episodes were shown in 2004, eight episodes followed in 2005, 2006, 2007. Audiences rose steadily. Slowly it dawned on those who matter that the people who are regularly in each evening and available to watch television are the old. In 2007, one episode of New Tricks had 9.25 million viewers. And on it continued; series five, six, seven… with no end yet in sight. And the series is broadcast in an astonishing 25 countries.

Films, too, have been shifting their outlook: back in 2004, Anne Reid (she of Halifax fame) starred in The Mother as a 50-year-old having an affair with a young builder who went on, incidentally, to become James Bond. It was a gentle film that touched the hearts of all women over 50 – including me. Then, in 2012, came The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Quartet, both films about groups of older people resolved to make the most of their retirement. The Exotic Hotel really surprised its makers: cinemas along the south coast were suddenly packed with pensioners and the theatrical run had to be extended.

We have a truly outstanding roll call of older actors in Britain: Dench, Smith, Gambon, Connolly, Collins, Peacock, Nighy, McKellen, Wilton, Jacobi, Reid, and plenty more. All of them are currently in demand and playing at the top of their game. How exhilarating it is to see such people taking their rightful place at the centre of British life.

And how different it all is from the sad stories we read about the isolation, loneliness and neglect of old people. These seem to be two very separate worlds: one of escapist fiction and the other of grim reality. But one does have a bearing on the other. It is by the magic of the imagination that works of fiction move us and shape our view of life. Last Tango in Halifax is doing more than entertaining us: it is shaping attitudes. If we are indeed at the tipping point, then it will soon become the norm for the old to be part of the mainstream of daily life, rather than set aside as a problem that needs solving when others have a bit of time to spare.

Certainly, there are more and more of us oldies everywhere – working, acting, shopping, playing golf, studying, taking care of grandchildren, enjoying the world. We should embrace the tipping point with gusto: perhaps I should have accepted that offer to appear in Calendar Girls after all!