Life & Soul

Why doesn’t anybody look old anymore?

The prematurely aged John Thaw and Dennis Waterman in The Sweeney

Thoughts of ageing press into my mind as I approach 50. University contemporaries are starting to fall ill. High blood pressure, hernia, even a mild stroke – a shocking experience at any age. At a recent party I noticed an attractive woman of about my age whose lips seemed unnaturally pillow-like: evidence, I suspect, of collagen injections designed to mimic the plumpness of youth.

It is amazing, watching reruns of old television shows on ITV4, like the mould-breaking police series The Sweeney, how old everyone used to look.

The night Ronald Reagan was shot, I was watching The Sweeney. The programme was interrupted by a newsflash, as I recall. It was a Monday, March 30, 1981. I thought this might be a muddled memory, but I’ve checked the TV listings in the Telegraph archive and, sure enough, ITV channels were showing a repeat of the show, which had finished its four-season run three years before.

I was only 11, but it must have been school holidays because I was staying at my grandma’s house and she had let me stay up – even though she disapproved of The Sweeney’s violence and vulgarity, which seem tame now. The show depicted the rebellious (but “good coppers”) Flying Squad officers DI Regan (John Thaw) and his sergeant with the basset-hound hair style, George Carter (Dennis Waterman).

Young people wanted to look older in those days. Auberon Waugh in his columns teased students for drinking beer to give themselves pot bellies and thereby look grownup.

Now young men grow beards in case we mistake them for schoolboys. Dropping off my son at school I saw a young man (without beard) climbing out of the car in front. Is that a sixth-former? I asked. No, that’s my English teacher, Dad.

John Thaw was only 33 when he first appeared in The Sweeney, though with his grey complexion he looks 40-plus. The scripts, by Troy Kennedy Martin and others, are rich in sometimes quaint period idioms such as “you’ve got a face as long as a baker’s run”. There are reams of rhyming slang like “it’s potatoes in here” (potato mould=cold), or “he couldn’t keep his thievin’ Germans off it” (I think that’s “German band” for hand.)

Another touch that provides a pleasurable hit of nostalgia is this: when they’re setting off to chase villains round the shabby back-streets of Hammersmith in their copper-coloured Ford Granada, the driver will ask: “D’you want the two-tones?”, meaning the “neh-nah, neh-nah” police car siren of those days, before Britain got the more penetrating American-style whirling noise.

It’s no wonder Thaw looks prematurely aged. Regan puffs “snout” (traditional Players or Senior Service) like a steam engine; sometimes the younger Sergeant Carter will light up a pair of his own snazzy Dunhill Internationals and hand Regan one.

Everyone already knew smoking was bad for you. They just didn’t care. Today one of the least convincing aspects of period drama is often the smoking: healthy actors puff out the smoke without inhaling.

A similar freedom applied to booze in The Sweeney: Regan gulps Scotch from a coffee mug at any time of the day or night. (Doesn’t it give him a headache?)

When John Thaw turned in his most cherished role a decade later, as Inspector Morse, his hair was white and wispy, yet he was only 44 when the first episodes were filmed in 1986. Poor Thaw died barely a month after his 60th birthday. But what pleasure he gave to millions. He is vividly remembered in his wife Sheila Hancock’s 2004 joint memoir, The Two of Us.

One can’t help thinking of all those intensely driven actors who died in their fifties. James Gandolfini, who created the greatest television character ever in Tony Soprano, was dead of a heart attack at 51. He worked incredibly hard in that show, appearing in perhaps 90 per cent of the scenes and working 16-hour days. Others that spring to mind: Peter Cook, 57, Eric Morecambe, 58, Leonard Rossiter, 57, Vivien Leigh, 53.

For contrast, look at the ripe old age which churchmen reach – such as Cardinal Elio Sgreccia, the brilliant bioethicist, whose obituary we ran in the Telegraph recently after he died at 90. He was much loved, but there was no getting round it, he also looked a little like a benign round-faced toad.

The obituarist wrote: “In appearance, Sgreccia was a typical Italian priest of peasant stock, short, fat and ugly, though not without dignity. He was universally respected, even by his opponents, and revered as a popular and generous teacher by generations of his students.”

We wondered whether that was too frank a description, but decided that it was accurate, and that he wouldn’t have been afflicted by worldly vanity.

Andrew M Brown is obituaries editor of The Daily Telegraph