As Time Goes By

Why is it that British television seems to serve its female characters better than its American counterpart? Is it because only the best shows get exported to America, so that filters out anything sub par? Or is there a genuine difference in attitudes on the other side of the Atlantic? Because I doubt that As Time Goes By would ever have gotten made in America.

For anyone who isn’t familiar with the show, it was a British sitcom that ran from 1995-2002 starring Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer: the two had fallen in love back in 1953 when he was in the army and she was a nurse, he was shipped to Korea and they lost touch after he sent her a letter which she never received. 38 years later Lionel (Palmer) was writing a memoir about his life in Kenya and in search of an assistant he happened to call the secretarial firm which was owned by Jean (Dench).

Both of these characters are adults and generally behave as such. They’ve had completely separate lives for decades- both married other people, Jean has an adult daughter- they don’t actually know each other anymore. The new(ish) relationship got off to a slow start- Jean’s daughter Judith originally had a bit of a crush on Lionel and did go on a date or two with him, and Lionel’s much younger publisher Alistair dated Jean for a little while. Now the older man/younger woman relationship is practically endorsed by the media, but an older woman dating a younger man? And yet not one person looked at it as unthinkable- Jean is attractive and intelligent, and everyone thought it was obvious why Alistair would be interested in her. It was played for laughs in exactly the same way the Lionel/Judith relationship was, and no one was made to look ridiculous. Even the basic premise of an older couple is fairly unimaginable in American television- and Lionel and Jean weren’t even the oldest couple! In the third season Lionel’s father remarried, and Rocky and Madge probably had more energy and fun than the entire rest of the cast put together.

Wait, so life doesn’t come to a grinding halt at 30? What a shock.


  1. slw2004 says

    I don’t remember As Time Goes By being anything special either in its portrayal or its subject matter. There was, at about the same time, another sitcom that also had a older couple at its centre although it wasn’t quite the same as the characters were in a retirement home and the show was called Waiting for God.

    I’m quite glad life doesn’t end at 30 cos I’m only a few years off the dreaded Three Oh myself.

  2. scarlett says

    I watched a few episodes, and I was really impressed with how matter-of-factly they dealt with older relationships.

    I remember one episode where they’ve got some pretty young girl’s staying with them, which makes Dench’s character feel insecure. She admits to it, saying she felt unnatractive to such pretty young girls.

    Her husband said something like ‘you’re right, they are pretty. But you’re beautiful.’ There was something perfect about the delivery that nailed home the idea that traditional idea of attractiveness run very shallow, and anyone worth their salt knows that.

    And Maggie, I don’t think it’s a case of the best stuff being weeded out – we;ve gotten a lot of their tawdry soap operas, like Miel Hile and Hotel Babylon, and even when it’s about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, their female characters are STILL better written their their American counterparts…

  3. scarlett says

    Oh, and Maggie, there’s a catagory called ‘Media UK’; I suggested it about six months ago precicely so we could compare how other country’s media treated women – it would be good to have more writers contributing to it.

  4. MaggieCat says

    slw2004– You may not have seen anything special in ATGB, but when I compare it to all of the sitcoms I was exposed to growing up and the ones that were running concurrently here in the US, it stands out a mile, at least for me. It’s gotten to the point where I can’t watch most American sitcoms (even though I believe it’s an underrated genre that’s much more difficult to do well than you’d expect) because it seems that every joke is weight/age/attractiveness related, an insult, or an insult geared to the average 5 year old. (Not that I think there is absolutely no use for any of those, ever. Just not all the time, and it helps if they’re actually funny.) It was rather a revelation to find a sitcom from the late 90s where everyone is just… nice. And being nice doesn’t mean the character gets dumped on by everyone else or plays the straight man all of the time or continually gets punished for good behavior.

    Scarlett– Whoops, I totally missed that category (can I blame my migraine medication?) Fixed now. I don’t watch soaps, but I actually find it a little depressing that it sounds like their female soap characters are better written than “serious” American characters. Unfortunately I really only have access to whatever britsitcoms end up on PBS here, since my cable provider decided to take BBC America out of the basic package. *shaking fist*

  5. scarlett says

    Well, there’s a soap called Mile High which features your Stock Soap Bitch, Janice, but she was played in such a way that you could actually empathise with why she was what she was, while still seething at the rotton things they did – something I haven’t seen in American TV. Either they turn sugary sweet as soon as you give them a reason for being mean, or they’re a 2D cariacture.

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