Actor and borderline national treasure Kathy Burke is turning 58 and so, after covering womanhood, and wealth and class in previous documentaries, it’s now time for her to look at ageing. Kathy Burke: Growing Up is a two-parter over consecutive nights. The first has her chatting to peers and older people, while in the second she meets The Young.
Burke’s trademark directness is established at the outset when the offscreen interviewer asks how she has managed to avoid getting grey hair. “No kids, no dickie, plenty of marijuana,” replies Burke in her smoker’s rasp, and we’re off.
Viewers have presumably learned by now that these things are not here to provide any real insight. They are here to let us spend a few hours in Burke’s amicable company – and sometimes with her celebrity mates – and make us wish we could go to the pub with her and enjoy the fully unleashed version.
So we go for a ramble round most of the points you would expect: facial hair, minor incontinence (“I go for a wee,” says Burke, “Wipe. Wait. Then wipe again”), intolerance of alcohol (she has gone from waking up on pool tables after a grand night out to needing two days with the blinds shut after a single vodka). Sixty-four-year-old Jennifer Saunders, backstage at the play she is doing six days a week, tells of the younger cast members who come in, in the morning, asking what she did after the show the night before. “I went to bed!” she says.
Weightier matters such as pension poverty, loneliness in old age, fear of dying and deterioration get slightly more attention but not much. University of Greenwich lecturer Rania Hafez gets a minute to discuss growing social invisibility as we age, but the brevity of her explanation (or at least the version that made it to our screens) raises more questions than answers. Why do we value youth over experience? Just how stupid a society are we? Does the youth premium attach more firmly to women and explain why they are more rapidly and completely sidelined than older men?
In fact, the whole question of how the sexes are differently affected by ageing is barely addressed, which is quite a glaring oversight. But we are nicely distracted from this by Burke’s solution, which is to carry a bicycle horn wherever she goes and hoot it up the backside of anyone she feels is ignoring her. I can see problems at scale, but do see that we could have fun with an experimental rollout.
We meet a dominatrix in her 70s who took up the job in her 60s when working as a chef became too physically demanding – and perhaps more interesting, though not followed up on, after three failed marriages had left her feeling “downtrodden” – and her pension didn’t cover the mortgage.
We meet a group of women in their 80s and 90s supporting each other in an assisted living community, but they are all essentially mentally fit and mobile and no questions are asked about what happens if that changes. Or what ageing introverts are supposed to do when they can no longer manage alone, or when well-meaning folk insist they need company in their old age.
Next there is Kathy learning about what it is like to be young in 2023. This means skim-vestigating social media pros and cons, gender fluidity, the gig economy, rebellion in an age of no rules, dealing with existential threats such as the climate crisis, managing proliferating mental health issues, not buying a home until you’re even older than Kathy, not having a pension, and Kathy musing at her kitchen table on whether young people are annoying or brilliant, have the world at their feet or a burning planet eating up their futures.
It’s a perfect example of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” television. It passes the time. It occasionally makes you almost think. Burke remains great company. If you hanker for more, you can get it elsewhere with a few clicks of the remote.
I’m too old to believe in an all-killer, no-filler televisual landscape and too tired to let it anger me. Ah, the blessings of age! Come, children, gather round and let the old crone whisper life’s truth into your ears – settle, my dears, settle for what you can get.
Kathy Burke: Growing Up aired on Channel 4 and is now on All 4.