The film, which stars Judi Dench and Ali Fazal, tells the true story of an elderly Queen Victoria’s friendship with her Indian aide Abdul Karim. It’s gently comedic, but also an insightful look at the loneliness which can sometimes accompany old age, and the way that human connection can restore life and dignity.
We invited representatives of charities like the Samaritans, Rotary and Age
Action Alliance – as well as luminaries such as Dame Jenni Murray and former Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman – to see what they made of the film. I spoke to John Norley, CEO of Age UK Medway, about the challenges he sees in the community he works with, and how Victoria & Abdul might speak to
I’m the Chief Executive of Age UK Medway – one of 130 charities sharing the national Age UK brand. Our role is to provide care and support services to people aged fifty and over through a range of services, including home visits, befriending, and drop-in day services. It’s all about engaging older people and enabling them to remain independent in their own homes for as long as possible: also reducing social isolation and helping people enjoy later.
What’s your community like in Medway, and what are the particular challenges there?
Medway is a place with a lot of history – since the historic dockyard closed there’s been a lack of employment here for a number of years. There’s a huge older demographic who have had very traditional industrial jobs, and now don’t work or haven’t had access to work. That generation struggle to embrace the change, how different things are from the Medway they grew up in.
A lot of people find themselves socially isolated – one issue is that older people often live in very rural parts of Medway where there’s not much infrastructure, so they’re out on a limb.
Does that reflect the issues facing older people nationwide?
Very much so. People are living longer, and with complex health conditions, so there’s a huge need for care and support services. We have limited resources, and there are more older people than ever.
How did you respond to the way Victoria & Abdul portrayed later life? Anything which rung true with your experiences?
My colleagues and I thought the film was really good – hilariously funny in parts, embarrassing in parts when we were made to think about our national history – but overall very powerful and moving.
There were a few things that chimed with what Age UK does. The film is very much a portrait of Queen Victoria in later life, and that’s an instant correlation with the people we see every day, who are 75+, in their twilight years. With Queen Victoria people assume that she isn’t capable of making good decisions; her family and court conspire behind her back regarding what she should and shouldn’t do. Whereas she’s actually very clear about who she is and what she wants! She’s stubborn and bloody-minded, not senile.
That’s something we see quite a lot: older people want to be in charge of decisions and their family undermine them, or push a course of action they don’t want. Our services are are centred around older people, designed to give them full control.
What do you think the film will mean to the older people who go and see it?
I hope that there will be positive conversations about forgotten parts of history. We’ve got generations of immigrants who don’t talk about that period around partition and the mutiny. A lot of older people have hidden histories.
I think Victoria & Abdul has the potential to give a real boost – older people tend to write themselves off once they’ve finished work, unless they’re particularly affluent or have hobbies. A lot of the older people we see feel that they’ve been thrown on the scrap heap. The film shows really clearly that someone of greater age can bring a huge amount of value and wisdom.
Just look at our current monarch, she’s reigned for such a long time. I think older people feel a connection with her, as with Victoria. There are older people around who’ve been in the community for 60 years, and you can’t write that off, that experience. You can’t dismiss them. They’re a huge hidden resource.