Sir Ian McKellen takes up the cause for actresses

Sir Ian McKellen calls for more roles for older actresses
Sir Ian McKellen calls for more roles for older actresses

If it was even possible, Ian McKellen has gone up even further in my estimation.  Not only an brilliant actor who manages to cross from blockbuster leading roles (‘Gandalf’ in “Lord Of The Rings” – a role he will soon reprise in “The Hobbit”, ‘Magneto’ in “The X Men” series, Sir Leigh Teabing in “The Da Vinci Code”) to independent films (‘James Whale’ in “Gods & Monsters”, ‘Gabriel Finch’ in “Neverwas”, ‘Emile’ in “Emile”), not to mention all his wonderful Shakespearean work on stage and screen and even an appearance on seminal UK soap “Corination Street” (in 2005) – Sir Ian has now taken up a cause very dear to my heart – calling for more roles to be written for older actresses in film, tv and theatre.

Oh yes, Sir Ian!!  I am with you there!  While I am not yet in that age group, I have far too many talented, experienced older actress friends who have either quit the biz or taken on “other” jobs to live due to the lack of roles available – particularly for actresses over 40.

It is a trend that doesn’t make sense when you think about it.  For film, according to a Roy Morgan poll taken in Australia last year, while the largest demographics for cinema attendance are Males & Females  aged between 14-34, the older age groups (35-50+) carry the highest growth rate – and are expected to continue to do so. This information is backed up by a 2008 Neisen poll (taken to discover how many Hispanics are attending US movie theatres) when you compare the total US movie-going population stats and discover the age groups between 25-65+ make up 70% of the total movie going audience! (see .pdf document here)

Theatre attendance has always been the realm of the 40+ audience and TV is now also beginning to follow this trend.  So why aren’t we seeing more TV shows, theatre productions and movies featuring this age group – particularly featuring women?

As a world, we are ageing because we are living longer.  So while there will always be a teen market for entertainment, writers, directors and producers (and studios) should also be thinking ahead and slating projects for production that also appeal to this older demographic.

As Sir Ian has pointed out in regards to the theatre world: “Look at Calendar Girls and Madame de Sade … Both are so popular – that is very telling. People might have thought ‘Who wants to see plays about older women?’ Well, the general public do. An awful lot of older women and gentleman go to the theatre, and the population is getting older.” (Indpendent, UK)

And the same can be said for TV – recent polls have shown that the growing demographic for TV viewers – worldwide – is older women.  You may scoff at “Foyle’s War” or “Midsummer Murders” (I actually quite like both and have watched them or shows like them since I was in my late teens), but they are growing in popularity, due to these older female viewers.

So, as writers (particularly as female writers – of which I am also one), we have a responsiblity to start thinking about this issue and looking at stories that involve older women roles – and not just older roles, but interesting ones.  And if you think that’s just not possible (shame on you!) there are some wonderful stories out there – just look around your local neighbourhood, or turn to previous films and TV shows that have used older women characters.  I can think of several successful films and TV shows off the top of my head – “The Chronicles of Riddick” (featured Judi Dench), “Harry Potter” series (featured several older British actresses including Dame Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Zoe Wanamaker and Julie Walters), “Gosford Park” (featured Dame Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren, to name just two), “Mother And Son” (with Ruth Cracknell), “Absolutely Fabulous” (starring Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley), “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” (featuring the fabulous Zoe Wanamaker) and of course the “Miss Marple” series (featuring the wonderful Geraldine McEwan until her retirement after the third series and now played by Julia McKenzie).

Actually, the Brits seem to have it right – well, more right than the rest of the world, when it comes to roles for older actresses.  But there is still an uneven split between older women and older men on screen particularly.

According to a current UK Equity petition on this issue: “Over half the viewing public is female, yet in TV drama for every female character, there are two male characters (35.3 per cent female roles to 63.5 per cent male roles). Whilst leading parts are frequently played by male actors over 45, women in this age group start to disappear from our screens. The message this sends to viewers is distorted and distorting. We call on all the major UK television channels to take action to correct this imbalance.”

To sign the petition, go here (and you don’t have to be in the UK to do so either, so if you watch UK television via your own local networks, voice your support!).

And while they’re calling for balance in the UK television industry – let’s call on all Australian and US TV channels, theatre producers and movie makers to do the same.

Links to articles about Sir Ian McKellen’s call to action:

Let our female stars act their age, McKellen demands
The Independent,  Saturday, 6 June 2009

Sir Ian call for more women roles
BBC News,  Friday, 5 June 2009

Sir Ian McKellen: older women should have more stage and screen roles
Daily Telegraph, Saturday, 6 June 2009

All Google News listings on this subject – here

(And if you’re really into the acting thing, check out these t-shirts & gifts here ;))

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