‘Enjoy your bodies!’: Writing the History of Sexuality in Later Life through 1980s British Television

At 15:45 on 11 February 1986, Channel 4’s programme for the elderly Years Ahead turned to sex. This special Valentine’s Day edition conceded that society was oblivious to intimate desire in later life. And yet, change was on the horizon. Marjorie Proops, co-host of that episode, stated that ‘attitudes are changing’, and so Years Ahead set out to guide even more seniors towards ‘sexual freedom’.

TV programmes dealing with sex and intimacy in later life were anything but commonplace at that time on the British small screen, yet Years Ahead was not the first show of this sort. In the summer of 1977, ITV broadcast an episode on the same topic in their seven-part series Man and Woman. Similar productions followed. While these programmes were aired on late-night slots and aimed at a general audience, Years Ahead’s Valentine’s Day episode was different.

To my knowledge, that episode was the first afternoon TV programme about sexuality specifically targeted at a British retiree audience. I found it by chance during a visit to the BFI Mediatheque, containing files from the BFI National Archives, which was made possible by a GHIL scholarship running from October to December 2021. To the historian, the programme reveals the often-invoked transformations of the private and the public spheres on and via TV since the 1970s. It also raises questions about changing ideas of the (sexual) life course in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the popular (visual) cultures of later life more broadly.

First broadcast in 1982 on Channel 4 and running for six years, Years Ahead emerged from and into a contemporary British television landscape of ‘expanded choice’, which followed the ITV–BBC duopoly of previous decades and signalled a move towards more competition and greater audience focus in the broadcasting sector.1 Channel 4 itself had gone on air only a week before the first Years Ahead broadcast with the mission to cater for audience interests that were so far under-represented.

Comprising one-sixth of the entire British population, British retirees made up one such ‘minority’ audience. Retirement had in the post-war years become a near-universal experience. Britons at this time were on average—depending on class—in better health, enjoyed greater material security, and had more leisure time at their disposal than previous generations. Studies show that they were a dedicated TV audience. Filling a good thirty hours a week, watching TV as a leisure activity came second only to sleeping. Other studies found that the elderly sought information from TV as well as a reinforcement of their sense of identity. Paying greater attention to the elderly and their televisual needs, a range of diverse serial programming formats targeted at the elderly sprang up on the fringes of British daytime schedules.

Years Ahead was one such ‘seniors’ programme’. It hosted discussions with political figures and informed viewers about benefits, health, and consumers’ rights. Featuring various portraits of ‘remarkable’ or ‘ordinary’ older Britons, the series aimed to create a ‘community’ by reflecting what it was like to be old in Britain. On its launch, Years Ahead had declared an intent to place ‘a strong emphasis on the opportunities presented by retirement’.2 In this vein, it generally featured balanced images of the ageing experience, yet privileged a decidedly positive outlook on later life. The post-retirement years could (and should) be a time of continued activity and civic engagement, or even offer an opportunity to get involved in new projects. And as the February 1986 episode made clear, contrary to common belief and stereotypes, romance and sex were not to be excluded.

In Years Ahead, agony aunt Marjorie Proops served as guest host. She was an authoritative, experienced and trusted voice in talking about sexuality in later life. Photograph from 1974 by Allan Warren, licensed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

For the Valentine’s Day episode, journalist Marjorie Proops was the guest host. By the mid 1980s she had gained a wide reputation as the ‘nation’s confidante’ in her role as agony aunt for the Daily Mirror since 1976. She now guided the February programme which, typically for the grammar of Years Ahead, featured a report on a dating agency and a help slot on issues concerning remarriage and pension rights with the series’ benefits specialist before turning to the studio interview on sexual matters with therapists Pat Lloyd and Paul Brown.

As far as sex was concerned, the entire episode struck a certain liberationist tone. Proops’s introductory words that ‘more and more people, particularly gold-ridden women, accept their right to mature love’ pointed in this direction. The use of the term ‘right’ with regard to the elderly, and women especially, echoed the rhetoric of the civil rights movements, particularly that of second wave feminism, which in the 1970s began to permeate the textual fabric of British television.3 Moreover, throughout its life, Years Ahead’s rhetoric had increasingly aligned itself with the US elderly rights movement, especially the Gray Panthers, and their fight against ‘ageism’.4 Just two weeks later, Years Ahead’s studio guest would be the Panther’s leader, Maggie Kuhn who, inspired by the women’s liberation movement, had made the fight against ‘the myth of sexless old age’ central to her agenda.

Years Ahead further borrowed from this stance in the interview in which Proops and the therapists made clear that the elderly themselves could profit from the value change of recent decades. The therapists contended that older people, particularly women who had grown up before the contraceptive pill, had been socialized with restrictive ideas about sex and their bodies which had often loaded sexual expression with guilt and shame. But hope was on the horizon. The interviewed stated that younger generations themselves had also only recently come to terms with the idea that ‘Maybe our bodies are also for pleasure and for recreation!’ They suggested older people should also benefit from this change soon.

Proops’s, Lloyd’s, and Brown’s authoritative voices positively sanctioned and encouraged the elderly’s pursuit of sexual expression and sought to create greater recognition of their intimate needs within their own community of viewers. Retirement, according to the interviewed, was the ideal life stage in which to realize this. Retirees, literally, had time to explore their sexual desires and bodies, or as therapist Lloyd explained, ‘they have time to love each other’. The programme also presented the ageing body as a site of continued sexual expression. Regardless of age-related changes—in arousal, erectile function, or appearance—the programme repeatedly stressed that ‘people should enjoy their bodies and enjoy sex’. Years Ahead communicated that the alleged social changes of the ‘sexual revolution’ were equally valid for the elderly.5 With more leisure time at their disposal, older people could make use of this ‘new’ life in order to explore their bodies and (hetero-)‘sexual freedom’ in later life.

The reach of the episode is difficult to estimate. For serial programming like Years Ahead, viewing figures are difficult to come by. A Listener article from 1988, however, classified the series as of good quality though ‘by definition . . . low audience’, which suggests that not many people watched the Valentine’s Day episode.6

We should not forget, however, that talking about sex to an elderly audience was a delicate undertaking. Though certainly not true for everyone, audience research found that Years Ahead’s core audience was on average more sensitive to what they perceived as offensive television including sex, violence, and ‘bad language’, and more outspoken against it. Fortunately, Years Ahead shared some of the letters viewers wrote to the editors at the end of each episode, so I could extract audience reactions to the Valentine’s Day episode. Viewers’ letters to the editors are highly instructive. With their contributions, audiences attempted to intervene in the organization of the public sphere, and they complicate our understanding of TV audiences as a merely ‘passive’ mass. The curated selection of letters read out by host Robert Dougall in subsequent episodes contained some praise for the editors’ courage in addressing such matters. Yet, they also showed that not all the elderly condoned the ‘fuss’ around sex. One female viewer claimed that attempting to cut ‘standing charges on gas and electricity’ would have been more helpful than ‘wasting’ all that time on discussing sex.

Looking at these representations through the lens of public service television offers an insight into contemporary popular cultures of later life, and the role of sexuality within them. The episode navigated the diverse opinions of its audiences. It adopted the common grammars of the series and was derived from an ideological framework in which notions of ‘sexual liberation’ were to be ‘passed up’ the generations. Especially as the contemporarily raging HIV/AIDS epidemic had just raked up long-standing notions of allegedly causal links between the ‘permissive society’ and infection in 1980s Britain, Years Ahead’s recourse to the rhetoric of the 1970s is intriguing. Perhaps because of that as well as the general focus on the (hetero-)normative sexuality that representations of later life sex were (and remain) rooted in, Years Ahead was silent on HIV/AIDS. At the same time, however, a number of scholars have argued that HIV/AIDS ‘liberalized’ debate about sexual practices on TV. This dynamic might even have made the explicit discussion of sex in later life on an afternoon TV slot possible in the first place.

In any case, the very existence of such stories about bodies and sexual desire in later life on TV complicate our ideas of the audio-visual cultures of ageing and sexuality in the past and, indeed, well into the present. Rendered invisible time and time again, people over the age of 60 are mostly confined to the margins of today’s sexual cultures.

The featured image reuses public domain material provided by Max Pixel.

Cite this blog post
Lukas Herde (2022, July 14). ‘Enjoy your bodies!’: Writing the History of Sexuality in Later Life through 1980s British Television. German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/p1qu

  1. I borrow the term ‘expanded choice’ from Jane Arthurs, Television and Sexuality: Regulation and the Politics of Taste (Maidenhead, 2004), who herself took inspiration from John Ellis’s periodization of television history in Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty (London, 2000; first pub. 1996). []
  2. BFI Reuben Library, London, Years Ahead, Press Material, 1982–3. []
  3. Jilly Boyce Kay, ‘Speaking Bitterness: Second Wave Feminism, Television Talk, and the Case of No Man’s Land’, Feminist Media Histories, 1.2 (1973), 64–89. []
  4. Borrowing from ‘sexism’ and ‘racism’, gerontologist Robert N. Butler coined the term ‘ageism’ in 1968 to indicate the various forms of age-related discrimination. []
  5. I am here referring to the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s and 1970s, commonly associated with the contraceptive pill and the cultural repercussions of the liberalization of legislation related to sexuality in Britain in the late 1960s. I am aware that the periodization of the ‘sexual revolution’ usually requires greater nuance, and I here refer to Matt Cook, ‘Sexual Revolution(s) in Britain’, in Gert Hekma and Alain Giami (eds.), Sexual Revolutions: Genders and Sexualities in History (London, 2014), 121–40. []
  6. Malcolm Johnson, ‘Never Say Die’, The Listener, 23 June 1988, 21. []

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Lukas Herde

After an undergraduate degree in Cultural Studies at the European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder) and a Masters in Global History at FU Berlin and HU Berlin with study visits at Université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV) and University College London, Lukas Herde is now part of the ERC BodyCapital project at the University of Strasbourg.

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