Ever since presenter Miriam O’Reilly’s victory over the BBC in an age discrimination case, all anyone has wanted to ask Angela Rippon about has been the lack of older faces on screen. Well, she says, when people watch Famous, Rich and in the Slums, a two-part documentary for Comic Relief that saw her spend a week in an African shanty town, they’ll see an older face on screen.
“All this argument about keeping a woman of a certain age off the screen because of her wrinkles? You are going to see my 66-year-old face in all its raw nakedness – no moisturiser or make-up, hair that hadn’t seen a comb for a week, scraped back… I had nothing.”
Famous, Rich and in the Slums sees Rippon, Lenny Henry, Reggie Yates (a Radio 1 DJ) and Samantha Womack (EastEnders) head to the Kenyan slum of Kibera in Nairobi – home to around 1m people in a single square mile. The idea was for them to experience slum life as it is lived. The Comic Relief men on site took all of their belongings away and gave them a 12ft-square tin-roofed shack and 250 Kenyan shillings, or about £1.60, to get through the first night.
“They took everything away from us,” says Rippon. “I was left with my bra and my pants and my boots. I had to get a job, otherwise I wouldn’t have eaten.”
The next morning she was paired up with a woman named Julianna, who combined a day job washing clothes with a night job as a prostitute. Rippon asked Julianna where to find work. Julianna pointed to her crotch.
“She said, ‘You’ve got to go and hawk this and be a prostitute for the day.’ I didn’t think it was the best career move.” Instead, Rippon worked washing clothes and then, when her fingers bled from the scrubbing, got a job at the local school.
What’s striking about Rippon’s sections of the films is that in contrast to the other three, younger celebrities, she remains composed throughout.
“The film crew kept saying, ‘Why aren’t you crying?’ As I kept telling them, I’ve been a journalist – I’ve been to refugee camps in Bosnia, I’ve been to Bangladesh in the middle of a famine and I literally did have a child die in my arms. It’s not the first time I’ve been exposed to that kind of raw emotional situation. I suppose my natural tendency is just to get on with it.”
But why submit to the ordeal?
“It may sound like a morbid thing to say but I’m 66 – I don’t know how many years I have left. My father, who was a Royal Marine, was a huge influence on me. He always said, ‘I never want to die with the words “if only” on my lips.’”
This is the up-and-at-them attitude that made Rippon the first regular female newsreader in 1972. Her views on what works on screen are simple.
“The British public doesn’t give a toss about the age or sex of a presenter as long as that presenter is doing a good job. In fact since the start of Rip Off Britain [her BBC One consumer series, which she presents with Jennie Bond and Gloria Hunniford], several people have said, ‘We like the fact that the three of you are 60-plus because you know what you’re talking about.’”
She thinks that the progress of female presenters across the board will soon render the ageism debate irrelevant.
“Now, in every aspect of television, there are young women who are absolutely justifying their career positions against their male colleagues. Some of them are actually a lot better than the men – somebody should make Laura Kuenssberg [the BBC’s] Political Editor because she is outstanding. By the time they get to 50 and 60 there’ll be too many of them who are good at what they do. Who in their right minds is going to say, ‘Well actually, because you’ve got a few wrinkles, darling, we don’t want you any more’?”
In the meantime, Rippon’s concerns remain in Kibera. Next week, under her own steam and without cameras, she is returning to take textbooks to the school she taught at.
“I was very worried about going in to Kibera as the patronising Westerner. I know what it is like now: I had to go out and do it myself. That’s when you start to get a genuine understanding of the human condition of those people.”
Article from The Telegraph