The on-screen matriarch has long held a crucial place in the television family. With their on-trend blue rinse perms, bingo expertise, and controversial comments on Christmas day, these women are a potential goldmine of narrative opportunity. But the stereotypical TV Nan has regularly been dressed down in horn rimmed glasses, fluffy pink slippers and equipped with a customary cup of tea – often reduced to an aged archetype; she is regularly dismissed with an affectionate roll of the eyes, and reduced to a supporting role.
It’s a cause for concern – not just as a sign of how we treat our elders, but also for the thousands of quality actresses seeking fulfilling roles worthy of their talents. How many episodes of Eastenders saw Dot Cotton sidelined by the more youthful Queen Vic regulars? Yet when given the chance to shine, and with the camera focused in her direction, Dot, like all good Grans, delivers a tour-de-force in insight. Who can forget the 2008 episode in which June Brown produced a riveting, heart-breaking, hour-long monologue – one of British television’s truly great moments, for which she was deservedly BAFTA-nominated.
Luckily, scenes like this might be becoming increasingly common. While previous generations of mature women might be expected to settle into quiet, domestic old age, there is a new breed of grandparent that categorically breaks this predictable mould. Nanny 2.0 has officially arrived. Long gone are the days of Grandma sitting alone in her rocking chair, knitting needles at the ready because now she’s more likely to be off out at zumba.
This elite group of pensioners prefer games of tennis or racing to the office to catching mid-afternoon instalment of Agatha Christie adaptations. With an increasing number of older women jetting off, backpacking around the world on their very own ‘Pensioners Gap Year’ these women are saying no to weekly WI meetings and taking life by the horn-rimmed glasses: driving their motorized buggies straight to the fast lane.
It seems the clichéd Gran, with rosy pink cheeks and dusty grey hair is on the out as ‘Glamorous Grans’ or ‘GlamMas’ are becoming more and more prominent in the community. What the Urban Dictionary describes as an ‘older women with a sense of self and style’, these women are staring the aging process straight in the face and saying a firm no to its offer of a Werthers Original. Think Goldie Hawn, or even the latest edition to the pack, Britain’s very own Carole Middleton for ‘Glamorous Gran’ inspiration.
So with Hot In Cleveland premiering exclusively in the UK on Sony Entertainment Television (Sky 157/Virgin 193) on Sundays at 5pm, and starring the ultimate TV Gran and one time Golden Girls star Betty White (who is as busy working in her 90s as she has ever been – an inspiration to us all) we are celebrating TV’s Greatest Grans. We’ve got some of the good, the bad, and the down right evil little old ladies that grace our screens. Whether they’re an ‘Old School’ Nanna’ or a ‘Glamorous Gran’, these old birds have definitely earned their place in TV history.
1. Elka Ostrovsky – Hot In Cleveland (Betty White)
This old school granny has had it tough. Born in Poland, she escaped the Nazis before finding her way over to Cleveland where for the last 50 years she’s been scrubbing floors working as a caretaker. Don’t let her fool you though; this Gran is one tough cookie. She enjoys heavy drinking, an active sex life and smoking the occasional marijuana joint. With her late husband taking an active role in the mob Elka is no innocent little lady. But with a heart of gold she likes nothing more than whipping up her signature dish, cheese fries, for the whole of Cleveland.
2. Adele Stackhouse – True Blood (Lois Smith)
This kind hearted Nan loved a gossip and was the ‘go to’ girl when any resident of Bon Temps had a problem. Raising her granddaughter and grandson alone, she worked hard all her life. She was one of a few that sympathised with the town’s vampires, even encouraging her own grand-daughter Sookie to embark in a relationship with a 170 year old one – not your usual response to an undead suitor. It didn’t end well for Adele however, as she became a victim to notorious Bon Temps serial killer. Rene Lenier.
3. Evelyn Harper – Two and a Half Men (Holland Taylor)
Nicknamed Satan by her sons, she expresses a superficial fondness for her children and only steps in to help them when she feels obligated to. Her sons go out of their way to avoid interacting with her on most occasions. She has been married an innumerable number of times, tending to marry rich men who leave her large amounts of money when they invariably pass away. This is a lady who knows what she wants and will go to any length to get it.
4. Dot Cotton – Eastenders (Julie Brown)
Dot is known for her devout Christian faith, gossiping, chain smoking, hypochondria, and motherly attitude to those in need. She is very (overly?) forgiving, pardoning her son despite his numerous villainous crimes, including when he tried to poison her (well, this is Eastenders…). Where we see a man who has murdered and lied his way out any situation, Dot sees a black sheep who needs guiding back to the flock. Ultimately she’s the elaborately coiffed legend of the launderette, and one of UK television’s most iconic characters.
5. Marie Barone – Everyone Love Raymond (Doris Roberts)
Marie is the over-bearing, annoying, and insensitive Grandma in Everybody Loves Raymond. Even though her sons are in their forties, she still mollycoddles them as if they were kids, and makes no bones about having a favourite in Ray. An incredible cook, her rivalry and culinary criticisms of daughter in law Debbie will strike a cord with many. Not the nicest Nan you’ll see – but arguably the most well-rounded, and crucially real, character in the long-running Emmy winning comedy.
6. Celia – The Last Tango In Halifax (Anne Reid)
Celia is a contradictory character. Sharp-tongued but of a nervous disposition, she’s also clever, loyal with a fabulous sense of humour yet has a tendency to lash out when she’s feeling defensive, which often makes her seen tougher than she really is. Celia had an unfulfilled marriage to a man she grew to hate. So when she reconnects with her high school sweetheart after 50 years on Facebook, she embarks on a brand new romantic journey. They blossom together – the rekindling of their romance captivating British viewers.
7. Violet Crawley – Downtown Abbey – (Maggie Smith)
The Downton matriarch, and protector of the “old world” and order of the pre-war days. She has difficulty accepting change (and can’t quite master a swivel chair), but usually adjusts far better than her increasingly flustered son Robert. Often manipulative, acid-tongued, and not afraid to lie and cheat if it means winning a local gardening competition, she is played with relish by theatrical legend Maggie Smith. Her brilliant rivalry with Cousin Isabel went a long way top winning her an Emmy. This is one Grandmother loved on both sides of the Atlantic.
8. Bree Van De Kamp – Desperate Housewives – (Marcia Cross)
The youngest gran on our list, and possibly the most troubled. With her strong resolve and ‘proper’ demeanour, these characteristics have been both her greatest qualities and the source of nearly all her personal trouble. Coined as ‘Martha Stewart’ on steroids, she spent years trying to maintain her role as a perfect wife and mother. However widowhood, alcoholism and divorce all hinder her dream of a perfect existence.
9. Blanche Hunt – Coronation Street (Patricia Cutts / Maggie Jones)
While most Grandmothers are expected to mellow with age, this old broad seemed to get ever more brazen and outspoken. Her brutal honesty earned her enemies on the cobbles, as she delivered hurtful and insensitive comments to anyone who crossed her path. With her trademark bottle rimmed specs Blanche believed in being truthful, even when people didn’t want to hear it. Possessing a sharp tongue, and knowledge of every local going on, if you wanted the gossip then Blanche was your woman – just make sure to buy her a sherry first.
10. Mrs Brown – Mrs Brown’s Boys (Brendan O’Carroll)
We couldn’t fail to include this one – despite concealing more than knickerbockers under her long cotton dress. Mrs. Brown is the loudest, proudest matriarch in the whole of Ireland. Foul-mouthed and nosy, Agnes can’t help butting into other people’s lives. Her hobbies include drinking tea, bingo and swearing. Her days are spent deriving great pleasure in making a fool of her neighbour and best friend Winnie. Despite her insensitivity, she is wholly dedicated to her family, and makes this list’s best cup of tea.
Best known for her role as the busy-body, chain-smoking gossip Dot Cotton in the EastEnders, June Muriel Brown MBE has been a staple on British television since the late sixties.
Heading Out tells the story of Sara, a veterinarian who is given an ultimatum by her friends to tell her parents that she is gay.
Describe the character you play in Heading Out?
I play an eccentric grandmother. She speaks very loudly because her hearing isn’t particularly good, and she’s a little fond of the drink. Not only that, but she’s also unfortunately going slightly demented! It gave me freedom to be larger than life. I must say, it was great fun to do.
Was it nice playing a character that is very different from Dot Cotton? Read more