'Still acting at 77? I thought I'd be dead': the Channel 4 drama that puts youth in the shade

'It’s very satisfying to see a drama that doesn’t dismiss old people': Lindsay Duncan and Clarke Peters in Truelove
'It’s very satisfying to see a drama that doesn’t dismiss old people': Lindsay Duncan and Clarke Peters in Truelove - Channel 4

A glamorous woman, sunglasses on, climbs into her Audi convertible, lights a cigarette and floors the accelerator. The mood is bleak and edgy, as she deftly navigates country lanes to the blasting soundtrack of David Bowie’s Queen Bitch.

It could be the start of any drama – but for one crucial difference. This is Truelove, a twisty new thriller from Channel 4, with the mysterious driver played by Lindsay Duncan, aged 73. She’s en route to a funeral, where she’ll re-encounter old friends – virtuoso actors Clarke Peters, 71, Karl Johnson, 75, Peter Egan, 77, and Sue Johnston, 80 – in a depiction of old age that is all too rarely seen on screen.

“It’s so brilliant to have a script that puts all us old people together and makes it seem normal, because when you get older, you’re pigeonholed. Usually, it’s ‘Old woman in bed’, ‘Granny in the corner’,” says Johnston, best known for playing Sheila Grant in Brookside and ­Barbara in The Royle Family. “But people in their 70s, 80s, 90s are still important to society.”

Duncan, whose scores of credits include Olivier Awards for Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Private Lives, agrees: “It’s so very satisfying to see a drama where we’re the leads, that doesn’t dismiss old people as being of no interest or not having desires of any kind – desire for a more interesting life, for love, sex, whatever.  A lot of people out there watching this will be going, ‘Yeah!’”

While much has been made of the “grey pound” audience – as evinced by the success of films such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club novels – popular culture has been slow to move on from dramas set in old folks’ homes to ones showing the majority still ­living independent lives.

By contrast, Truelove portrays a gang of pensioners still behaving like teenagers: drinking, smoking, joking and indulging in illicit flings, even if death and decline are increasingly spectres at the feast, with the gang making a macabre pact to “assist” each other’s deaths when life becomes a burden.

Clarke Peters, Lindsay Duncan, Karl Johnson, Sue Johnston and Peter Egan
Clarke Peters, Lindsay Duncan, Karl Johnson, Sue Johnston and Peter Egan - James Pardon/Channel 4

For its stars, it was a chance to mingle with peers, some of whom they’d worked with decades back (“I was in something with Peter, my memory’s so bad. I was probably married to him… Oh, no, it was Downton Abbey, but not in the same scenes,” Johnston chortles), but mostly whose talent they’d long admired from afar. “Usually at this age, you find yourself rather isolated in a cast, so it was joyful to be with like-minded people who had similar experiences in life to you,” Johnston says. 

Off-screen the cast’s conversations were dominated by politics, but there was also a fair deal of ­thespian anecdote-swapping with Karl Johnson, who’s starred in sitcoms such as Mum, but also has a distinguished stage career, working with the likes of Michael Frayn, Brian Friel, David Mamet and Tennessee Williams. “I never stop boasting about it, we became friends!” he says of the last. “I visited him in South Carolina. He was charming, kind and very funny.”

I’m agog to hear more name-dropping. Peters, long London-based but best known for playing cop Lester Freamon in the US drama The Wire, hung out with John Travolta and members of the Isley Brothers when growing up in Philadelphia, and worked with Eugene O’Neill in New York and then London. Johnston puts her hand up. “I’ve got Arthur Miller! I sat opposite him during dinner at Joe Allen’s after the first night of Broken Glass at the National.”

Then there was the week she spent in Durham with The Rolling Stones. “My boyfriend was the drum­mer in The Swinging Blue Jeans, and they were on tour together. They were remarkable. But I hardly got near the Stones, they were surrounded by groupies and I was in love with my boyfriend.”

Karl Johnson, Clarke Peters and Lindsay Duncan in Channel 4 drama Truelove
Karl Johnson, Clarke Peters and Lindsay Duncan in Channel 4 drama Truelove - Channel 4

The actors crackle with energy. Coming of age in the mid-20th ­century – “I can remember the King dying, rationing, rock’n’roll,” ­Johnson exclaims – did they ever imagine they’d be acting many decades later? “No! I’d have said I’d be ­pushing up the daisies,” says Egan, best known for playing smoothie Paul Ryman in the sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles.

“I never ever, ever thought I’d be still employable. But, as it turns out, I’m approaching 80 and still learning to act. When you’re young, you infuse everything with energy and boldness, but as you get older, it becomes much more like you’re peeling an onion – much subtler and simpler. When you’re young, you try to magnify everything. When you’re older, you try to reduce it.”

Each is certain that the fact they’re still working helps slow the ageing process. “We don’t occupy the same territory as people in conventional jobs, because you’re in different situations, with different groups of people, having different demands made on us all the time, so you’re not dwindling. We’re terribly lucky,” Duncan says.

And, at the same time, they’ve discovered age has liberated them from professional envies. “If an old actor’s still got that driving ambition, it’s a bit like an old man wearing skinny jeans,” Johnson observes. “Acting isn’t as important to me as it used to be,” says Egan. “I’m delighted if I’m offered something I want, but I’m not necessarily pursuing it.” Much of his time is devoted to animal-rights activism. Peters agrees. “I like gardening, I want to do more of that. But I’ll keep going.” In fact, he has a big (still under wraps) stage role lined up: “Going through the script, I can feel my legs shaking with excitement.” Meanwhile, Duncan is about to star in Dodie Smith’s Dear Octopus at the National Theatre.

Johnston has two documentaries with former Royle Family co-star Ricky Tomlinson coming up, and will star with Robert Lindsay, 73, in Channel 4’s care-home zombie comedy, Generation Z. As for Egan and Johnson, “My availability is my greatest asset, as Freddie Jones said to his agent,” Johnson says, to laughter from both.

Yet the quintet are acutely aware that their careers can only flourish as long as their health and memory hold out. “A friend’s just had to turn down a really good television part because he couldn’t remember the lines,” Johnston says with a shudder. “Touch wood, that hasn’t happened to me yet.”

They’ve also – although they stress the show shouldn’t be considered an issue-led euthanasia drama – been forced to reflect on their characters’ “agreement”, if necessary, to put one another out of their misery. “A dear friend died last week, so I know there are times when you think, ‘I don’t want that, put a pillow over my face’. I couldn’t go to Dignitas [in Switzerland], I wouldn’t do it to my family,” Johnston says. “But if somebody’s mind was made up, I’d help them.”

Egan’s recent experiences make him the most vocal of the group. “My wife died two years ago, she had a terminal illness, she was diagnosed very late on, and the last six weeks of her life were appalling, terrible – I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. If I’d had enough notice, I would have found a way of helping her. So I’m very, very, very in favour [of assisted dying],” he says.

The actors are now at an age where they are losing more and more peers. “I was looking at my address book the other day and I thought, ‘Gosh, there’s almost a whole page of people who are no longer here’ – Bob Hoskins, that’s just one,” Peters says. “The list gets longer. I don’t know why I just don’t erase them, but I just can’t.” He sighs. “It’s an interesting experience, this journey through life.”

Yet this group’s final act may still last a considerable time. In the meantime, they laugh at the public’s shift in attitudes towards them. “When I was young, people might come up for an autograph and say, ‘My sister really fancies you’,” Egan says. “A few years passed and someone says, ‘My mother fancies you’. And now, it’s ‘my grandmother’. I don’t mind!”

Truelove begins on Channel 4 on Wednesday 3 January

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.