Comic Relief 2005 launches Elder Abuse Campaign with Dad, new BBC ONE drama by Lucy Gannon
Dad stars Richard Briers, Kevin Whately, Sinead Cusack and Jean Heywood
February 2005 sees the launch of Comic Relief's campaign to raise awareness of the issue of elder abuse in the UK.
Abuse can be physical, psychological, sexual, financial or caused by neglect, and is one of the most serious social problems facing the UK today, while also being one of the least acknowledged.
It is estimated that 10% of all elderly people in the UK will suffer from some form of abuse.
To spearhead this year's campaign, Comic Relief has collaborated with the BBC and Tightrope Pictures to produce a drama designed to bring the difficult subject of elder abuse to public attention in the run up to Red Nose Day 2005.
The result is Dad, a poignant new film written by Lucy Gannon.
Richard Briers stars as Larry James, a cheery and independent man in his eighties who has been caring single-handedly for his beloved wife Jeannie (Jean Heywood), who has Alzheimer's disease.
When Larry falls and breaks an ankle, life with Jeannie changes abruptly and forever.
Jeannie is moved into residential care and Larry goes to stay with his son (Kevin Whately), daughter-in-law Sandy (Sinead Cusack) and their teenage daughter Millie (Hannah Daniel).
But love and consideration wear thin as father and son have to learn to live together all over again.
Head of Drama BBC Wales, and Dad executive producer, Julie Gardner says: "One of the purposes of drama on BBC ONE is to examine contemporary issues in an uncompromising way for as wide an audience as possible.
"Dad is a fitting centrepiece to Comic Relief's campaign: it sheds light on a little-known subject, a taboo within our society, with passion, understanding and humanity."
Kevin Cahill, Comic Relief's Chief Executive, says of Dad: "Harnessing creativity to raise awareness and promote action on social issues is our stock in trade but to able to use drama in this way is a new and exciting development for us.
"It is the first time in Comic Relief's 20-year history that the charity has used drama over documentary to convey the emotive and serious message behind its grant work, so we are delighted the best in the business were involved in the making of the film."
Hilary Bevan Jones, award-winning producer and co-founder of Tightrope Pictures, has the reputation that attracts some of the most talented names in the business, both in front of and behind the camera, and was quickly brought on board.
She immediately approached one of this country's most successful and original writers Lucy Gannon, whose credits include Peak Practice, Bramwell, Tender Loving Care and Trip Trap.
Bevan Jones says: "Lucy was the perfect choice to write a tender, emotional story. Her scripts are always filled with warmth and understanding."
Co-founder of Comic Relief Richard Curtis is also delighted with the result.
He says: "Dad is a wonderful script, both funny and sad, and it will help people understand just how the problem of elder abuse can begin, how it can creep into homes and lives.
"I'm particularly delighted at the casting of Richard Briers and Kevin Whately as the father and son - two massively sympathetic actors giving us easy access to this dark and complicated area.
"The abuse of older people is a very tough subject to deal with and we hope this film will give people the chance to really understand and think about the abuse that now strikes a huge number of older people, both in their homes and in care.
"Like child abuse, and domestic abuse before it, the taboo surrounding elder abuse has to be broken."
With this in mind how did Gannon set about writing her script?
"It's a subject I've been interested in for a long time so when Tightrope approached me I was on to it like a shot," she says.
"Like most people of my age I have elderly relatives so I know what it's like to have worries for them, although Dad is not based on my family.
"What I've tried to show is that people don't set out to be abusers.
"I've made the starting point of the drama a very ordinary accident. Larry falls down stairs and breaks his ankle.
"Now to you or me this would be a minor irritation for a few weeks but for Larry it brings about catastrophic change and pressures.
"Kevin's character Oliver loves his dad and desperately wants to do right by him but can't cope with his mum being senile.
"It's about a moment of madness that will affect Oliver's life forever, and his memory of his dad.
"What I'm saying to people is guard yourself against these moments, not just for the person abused but also because of the love that you have for them. Don't end up with a horrible legacy."
With a stellar cast and crew assembled, Bevan Jones was struck by how much the piece resonated with everyone involved in the project.
"It was noticeable and very touching to see how after committing to Dad we were all making time to ring our elderly parents to check that all was well with them," she says.
Now, in a year that sees Briers celebrate both his 71st birthday and 48th wedding anniversary with his actress wife, Ann Davies, he is characteristically enthusiastic about this latest project.
"Dad is quite simply the best script I've had my hands on for years," he says.
"It's what I call a slice-of-life drama. It's amazing how in just 90 minutes Lucy has mirrored all the problems that can face an ordinary loving family when Alzheimer's and old age set in.
"I'm one of the fortunate oldies - everyone knows who I am and because I happen to be famous everyone is nice to me, but sadly this is not the case for the vast majority of older people, who can feel unvalued and invisible.
"The fact that Lucy started writing in her forties shows in the quality and depth of her stories. She writes from the heart, with great maturity and insight.
"You have to have lived to reflect life's realities, to know what makes us laugh and cry," concludes Briers.
Over the years Kevin Whately has played many of Gannon's characters from the troubled headmaster who beat his wife in Trip Trap, to the popular Dr Jack Kurrish in the long-running hit drama, Peak Practice.
He affectionately describes Lucy Gannon as "an old pal" and was delighted to be working with her again.
"I love Lucy's work and Dad has her touch written all over it. The story jumps off the page.
"So many of the problems of old age and middle age are covered, but without haranguing the audience!
"I really relate to the material. Being at the back end of the post-World War Two baby bulge myself, it's easy to see how our generation is thinking we've a little more freedom now that our kids are grown up, but finding that is not the case at all.
"These days, young people often need financial help and support for longer, just at the moment that their grandparents need and deserve more care and attention.
"This can mean major emotional and financial pressures on those still earning."
Sinead Cusack was also moved by the script, and wanted to be part of Comic Relief's initiative.
"This is a very positive and pro-active project to be involved in," she says.
As for many, the term elder abuse was new to her but Cusack is hopeful that, as a result of this drama, public awareness will be raised.
"I have this worry that elderly people are becoming more isolated and less well cared for as the extended family has broken down.
"It's very sad to think that as some people grow older and more frail they lose their position in society."
Cusack believes that when drama is in the hands of someone like Gannon - whose tone is "delicate and does not preach" - it helps audiences see dilemmas and problems with fresh eyes and new understanding.
"Dramas like Dad can help open up a really healthy dialogue. Hopefully, once this happens then an issue like Elder Abuse can be discussed, debated and addressed."
But perhaps the last word should go to actress Jean Heywood, 83, who took on the formidable role of playing Alzheimer's sufferer Jeannie with her customary talent and conscientiousness.
Before filming began, Heywood visited local care centres and talked to professionals working with the elderly, and was particularly impressed by an inspirational doctor she met, who specialises in brain disorders and dementias.
"I hope our film and Comic Relief's campaign will ensure that the exemplary practice I saw will spread everywhere, and that one day elder abuse will be a thing of the past."
Heywood says working on the drama was immensely stimulating and has given her "a new lease of life" although in one particular scene being Jeannie was very uncomfortable.
"I could feel the adrenaline simply draining out of me," she says.
Happily this was only temporary and one evening, when the team had gathered together for an after-work drink, it was discovered that Jean writes poetry.
What follows is a poem she wrote for a friend's 90th birthday party in December 2004, equally of relevance to the role she played in Dad.
The Face in the Mirror
We are the old who used to be young,
You are the young who are.
We never thought that we could be old,
You can't think ahead so far.
We felt the same as you do now.
When did the change occur?
How and when did we become them,
Instead of the people we were?
The faces we see in the mirror aren't ours,
We don't recognise what we see.
Inside we're still us, we still feel the same,
How can that stranger be me?
Take care how you treat us!
Take heed how we are!
Consider how we used to be.
For if you live as long, you may one day,
Join the ranks of the old such as we!
Sarah Harding, whose recent credits include Beneath The Skin and Pollyanna, directed Dad.
Tightrope co-founder, the award-winning writer Paul Abbott, acted as executive producer together with Julie Gardner, Head of Drama BBC Wales.
Dad was script edited by Catriona Mackenzie.
Karen Lewis co-produced the drama with Kevin Cahill, Chief Executive of Comic Relief and co-founder Richard Curtis (Four Weddings And A Funeral, Love Actually) acting as consultants.
Dad filmed on locations in Cardiff last autumn.
Notes to Editors
Over the last few years Comic Relief has funded a range of services throughout the UK to ensure that help is available for vulnerable older people and those concerned about cases of abuse.
Working together with key organisations and charities in the sector, the Elder Abuse Campaign builds on this work and aims to increase public awareness and understanding of the issue and ensure that vulnerable older people know how to get help if they need it.
The campaign also aims to highlight the fact that older people are often treated without dignity or respect in our society, and we urgently need to change these attitudes.
Following Red Nose Day Comic Relief will be introducing a new funding programme focused around elder abuse.
Visit www.comicrelief.org.uk after Red Nose Day for more information.
The issue of elder abuse will also be featured during the seven hour live TV show on Comic Relief's Red Nose Day, 11 March 2005.
Elder abuse has been defined by Action on Elder Abuse as: "a single or repeated act or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person".
Fundamental to the prevention of elder abuse is the recognition that it exists. One of the factors in the slow rate of progress in the field of child abuse was the refusal of professional bodies and society to acknowledge the extent of the problem.
It is estimated that up to 1 in 10 older people are victims of some form of abuse. (Source: Age Concern Scotland Breaking The Silence, 2001).
Abuse can be physical, psychological, sexual, financial or caused by neglect and it can happen in care homes, nursing homes, and hospitals and also in family settings.
40% of older people suffering abuse experience more than one kind (eg physical and financial). (Source as above).
If you are an older person suffering from abuse, or if you suspect that abuse is taking place, support and information is available from Action on Elder Abuse through its helpline: 080 8808 8141 or www.elderabuse.org.uk