The Age of Loneliness by Sue Bourne

— by Alyson Walsh


Photo: Holly Bourne Starecka

Sue Bourne produces searingly honest films about people. For her latest documentary, the woman behind Fabulous Fashionistas has turned her attention to loneliness ‘the epidemic affecting people of all ages’. The Age of Loneliness (BBC1 at 10.35pm, Thursday 7 January) is a profoundly moving film. It opens with Dorothy an 85-year-old widow from Blackpool, who admits that she misses her husband (of 58 years, who died six years ago) so much, at times she will, ‘Turn around and ask him, “Eric, why did you go?” Adding, ‘To describe loneliness is the hardest thing, you can’t see it, smell it or touch it – you can only feel it when you’ve got it.’ Some of the stories are utterly, heart-wrenching; it’s like 60-minutes of the bit in Fabulous Fashionistas where lovely Jean Wood talks about her late husband. I gasped, I sobbed, I thought about the prospect of loneliness in the future and cried some more; I’m in tears typing this up. Though the majority of the interviewees are older widows and widowers, The Age of Loneliness is not just about getting older, there are younger people affected by the pressures of social media, mental illness, divorce and separation. People who feel imprisoned in their own homes and don’t go out for days or weeks, at a time.

Age of Loneliness

I had the opportunity to speak to Sue Bourne about making The Age of Loneliness, here’s what she said:

TNMA: How did The Age of Loneliness come about?

SB: I wanted to make the film because I felt it was such an important subject. We need to talk about Loneliness. Admit its in our midst and remove the stigma that is attached to it. I think a lot of people are scared of loneliness and being alone, yet so many of us will be alone for much of our lives, now. We have to learn to cope better with it.

TNMA: How did filming The Age of Loneliness make you feel?

SB: After all my research, I knew what I wanted the film to say. I knew the people I wanted to give a voice to and I knew the film had to be a sum of the parts. I knew it was an important subject so I think that is what drove me to keep going till I had the right mix of different voices to tell the story properly.

TNMA: Have you ever had to cope with loneliness?

SB: I am an only child. Both my parents are now dead. My ex-partner, the father of my daughter is also dead. I have very, very few family so I think I am very aware of being “alone”. Sometimes I feel that “aloneness” and sometimes I think I am lonely. I think that I am curious about how you cope with being alone and I wanted to find out more about it.

TNMA: How easy was it to get people to open up  and admit they are lonely? How long did you have with them?

SB: We took four months researching the film. We were in contact with nearly 500 people, it took a lot of work to hone those numbers down to the 14 people who were in the film. A lot of phone calls. You can’t speak to a lonely person then, when you realise they are probably not right for the film, just hang up on them. You are honour bound to give that person time to tell their story even if you know they are never going to be in the film.

TNMA: Some of the comments are brutally honest, people really bare their souls, it must have been very difficult to leave after they’d revealed such intimate feelings…

SB: I told everyone in the film that they were being asked to be very brave. That I needed them to be honest. It’s what my films are known for and it was what I wanted them to be. They could not put on a brave face for the camera, they were I think hugely brave and hugely honest and I think that is probably what makes the film as affecting as it is. The honesty with which they all tell their stories. They have to trust me wholly to open up to that extent, which is why I feel so enormously protective of them – in return for that honesty. We were always very conscious of our obligations – duty of care – to everyone in the film so we stay in touch with everyone, to this day.

TNMA: How can we help change things? What can we do?

SB: After 18 months working on the film I feel we can all do something small and it will make a huge impact on lonely people. A tiny gesture of kindness can transform a lonely life. My resolve is to do more, to be kinder. To look out and make contact with people more than before. Its so simple, yet so few of us bother to do it.

The Age of Loneliness is on BBC1 at 10.35pm, Thursday 7 January 2016. It’s excellent, don’t miss it.

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