Getting old can be a bit of a drama

THE OLD. They walk among us like shambling portents of the grisly fate that awaits us all, unattractive, limping, gummy reminders that everything will end in humiliation, disappointment and decay.

Perhaps it’s hardly surprising that TV executives steer clear of them. The commercial channels long ago decided that it was futile to address any of their programming at anyone over the age of 45 (or in Channel 4’s case recently, anyone with a mental age of above 17).

After all, how many Stannah stairlifts and walk-in baths can you sell a consumer with at best ten years of lucid life ahead of them? The BBC, though, occasionally remembers it has a public service remit, and that the elderly are most likely to be those conscientious and fearful enough to collect the stamps for their licence fee.

Hence their current season of programmes aimed at the mature audience, going out in the quiet doldrums of summer when the younger viewers have all swanned off to the Costas to cop off with each other and regurgitate sangria.

They will miss a delicate and sensitive drama penned by Tony Grounds, one of the few original and thought-provoking dramatists still working in British television. When I’m Sixty-Four is a peculiar love story focusing on two men who have just turned 65 (blame Paul McCartney for the illogical title).

It’s about fanning the fading embers of life, seizing a last day, struggling for a little elderly independence amidst the demands of grasping children and ancient parents who refuse to die.

It helps that it features two of the most intelligent performances we are likely to see in any British television production this year.

Alun Armstrong is Jim Bryant, a man who has spent all his life in a boy’s school, slipping effortlessly from being a pupil to joining the faculty, without ever having a chance to see life at the end of the long, elegant driveway.

Armstrong is always the first point of call whenever a casting director needs elegiac regret. Armstrong also usually walks away with all the acting laurels from any work he graces.

Not this time. Paul Freeman chisels his name onto any BAFTAs going with his portrayal of the disgruntled Cockney cabbie Ray. It’s a brilliant piece of characterisation, perfectly realised by the actor’s expressive wearing of the role.

Grounds opens with a comic/pathetic scene where Ray and his lifetime pal Billy are attempting to run with a pack of super-annuated football hooligans. It’s a concise glimpse of a generation of Jack-the-lads clinging to a memory of their hoodlum heydays of the sixties and seventies, rheumy-eyed nostalgics for an era when they were noticed rather than disappeared into the half-life of the elderly. "What are we doing here, Billy?" Ray asks, exasperated and gasping for breath, after a rheumatic scuffle. "We’re faces, Ray," says Billy, without conviction.

Jim meanwhile, after a life of being called "Beaky", gets a nose-job and writes down his ambitions in his notebook: "See the world. Fall in love."

Ray asks him pretty soon after they meet whether Jim is a "noofter" (a new piece of London vernacular to me, although presumably Grounds has authoritative sources). Jim thinks he rather might be, but the writer’s deft plot spine concentrates on Ray gradually coming around to the idea that he might be as well.

A homosexual affair between a couple of geriatrics across the class barrier isn’t entirely easy territory for any dramatist. Grounds treats the subject with a grace and wit that is remarkable.

Nothing needs to be too overt. Indeed, the best lines are the most oblique. Ray makes himself a sandwich for breakfast, while on the phone to Jim: "Cheese and jam sound like they shouldn’t go together, but they do," he says.

Tamzin Outhwaite turns up as Ray’s pushy daughter, but that’s the only concession to TV drama’s current obsession with casting soap stars.

Grounds’s writing delves into areas where popular drama rarely has the courage to venture. It’s about love, identity and courage, but in the end, like any story about people over 60, one of the leading characters is death.

"Short little life really," moans Billy, contemplating the unappetising prospect of having his prostate carved out. You can understand how a line like that might have been difficult to follow with a cheery ad break.

• When I’m Sixty-Four, BBC2, Wednesday

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