50 over 50: day one

Last week we listed, in reverse order of age, the 50 over-50s we feel have made their mark on the world. Later today, we’ll open the vote to you, to decide who, out of those fabulous 50-somethings, should top the list. Meet the first ten (and scroll down to links for days two, three, four and five)


LINTON KWESI JOHNSON, 24 August 1952

Poet and author Johnson is the second living – and only black – poet to be published by Penguin Classics.  The rich, rhythmic patois of his verse has been used to great effect when commemorating historical events such as the 1981 Brixton Riots (Di Great Insohreckshan). “Writing was a political act, poetry a cultural weapon,” he has said. Still the personal remains political: he performs and lectures around the world, and is a trustee of the education resource and research centre, the George Padmore Institute.

IMRAN KHAN, 25 November 1952

Imran Khan is one of only eight world cricketers to have achieved an All-Rounder’s Triple in test matches, which is the sort of thing that makes cricket fans wet themselves with joy. But even if you’re one of those people for whom cricket makes as much sense as Swahili, you can’t accuse Khan of resting on his wickets. Since hanging up his pads for good, he has set up his own political party, established Pakistan’s first cancer hospital, served as UNICEF’s Special Representative for Sports, founded the Namal Technical College and is building another cancer hospital in Karachi.

LUCINDA WILLIAMS, 26 JANUARY 1953

Those unfamiliar with the Louisiana singer might question our decision to include a woman whose immense talent has been recognised more by critics than by the masses. We direct you to her impressive back catalogue for a no-quibbles response. For Williams – the daughter of a poet – it’s not about fame or fortune. In this age of celebrity, songwriting and performing are her vocation. Williams, named America’s best songwriter by Time Magazine in 2002, is the recipient of three Grammies and a further 11 nominations. Her country folk compositions have been covered by the likes of Tom Petty, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Emmylou Harris. She has been dubbed the female Bob Dylan, possessed of a not-perfect voice that is nonetheless poignant, intense and poetic. Being perfectionist rather than prolific, each long-waited release is a gift.

PIERCE BROSNAN, 16 May 1953

You’ve got to love someone who has won worldwide adulation as an action hero and then holds himself up to be lampooned as an absolutely tuneless singer. Step forward honorary OBE Pierce Brosnan, whose warbling in the movie version of Mamma Mia! was almost ear-bleeding, with critics variously describing him as sounding like a water buffalo, a donkey and a wounded racoon. But if Pierce didn’t care, why should we? He is a vociferous supporter of Greenpeace, an ambassador for UNICEF and a fundraiser for various charities through sales of his paintings. But the thing that best amuses us about Brosnan is this: he is a trained fire-eater.

TONY PARSONS, 6 November 1953

You could say that the Romford-born writer has made a fabulously lucrative living out of writing the same book again and again. Good for him. From grammar school to gin factory, from the punk bunker of the New Musical Express to the critic’s chair of The Late Show and its successor Newsnight Review, Parsons’ ascent has been assured and steady. Reluctant to leave his career as a journalist behind, he still writes columns for glossy men’s magazine GQ and the people’s paper The Mirror. But it is as creator of the multi-million-selling novels that he has become a millionaire many times over and a good deal more successful than his ex-wife, something that must have him laughing all the way to the bank.

TINA BROWN, 21 November 1953

Brown (or Lady Evans, CBE, to you) is a publishing powerhouse, with a CV that makes media moguls weep with envy. Having rescued the ailing Tatler magazine when she took over the editorship at the age of 25, she worked the same magic Stateside on Vanity Fair. Further stints at the helm include the New Yorker, the glossy monthly Talk, which she launched, the acclaimed internet digest The Daily Beast, another Brown innovation, and now Newsweek, where she is editor in chief. She rubs shoulders with the rich and powerful: Hilary Clinton, Madonna, Salman Rushdie and Rudy Giuliani. As a talk show host she attracted Tony Blair and George Clooney. Almost as legendary as her track record is her ability to spend eye-watering budgets in an age of media austerity and penny pinching.  Here’s to you, Ms Brown!

RON HOWARD, 1 March 1954

Fifty-seven years young and he’s been working for 55 of them.  Give the man a round of applause. For many, Howard will forever be Richie Cunningham of Happy Days, although he only played that role for six years. While other child actors have struggled to forge a career as an adult thesp, Cunningham had the smarts to cross over to the other side of the camera, directing films including the Oscar-winning Cocoon, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon. As a television producer he’s been behind acclaimed series such as 24 and Arrested Development, which he also narrated. The man patently has a nose for success, though whether we love him as much for the film adaptations of The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons is debatable. Above all, though, Howard retains a sense of fun. Each of his four children bear middle names that relate to where they were conceived. His son, Reed Cross, however, is named after a London street because, says Howard, “Volvo isn’t a very good middle name.”

BARONESS AMOS, 13 March 1954

Valerie Ann Amos has the joint distinction of being the first black female cabinet minister and the third woman in history to lead the House of Lords. She is currently the eighth United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator. Previous posts include British High Commissioner to Australia, Secretary of State for International Development and chief executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission. She has sat on numerous boards ranging from the Royal College of Nursing Institute to the Hampstead Theatre. Despite being a political heavyweight, she makes time for her absolute passion, cricket, even appearing once on Test Match Special and holding her own in conversation with none other than Aggers himself.

NEIL TENNANT, 10 July 1954

Who’d ’a thunk it when Tennant was a mere pipsqueak reporter on Smash Hits that he would end up scoring a proper grown-up ballet? That’s the thing with Tennant, you never know what he’ll turn his hand to next. Even his journalistic career was far from conventional: prior to working on the pop music bible he anglicised the dialogue of Marvel’s superhero comics and edited books on home management and cookery. As well as his stratospheric pop career – anyone who has recently been to a live show will have been reminded just how many hits the Pet Shop Boys have cranked out – he has proved himself an able and enjoyable broadcaster, a knowledgeable art lover (he has been a Turner Prize judge), and a force in politics, giving substantial funding first to the Labour Party then the Liberal Democrats. Then there’s the film score for silent movie The Battleship Potemkin, and the music for the Sadlers Wells production of The Most Incredible Thing, a moniker that could well be applied to Tennant himself.

ANNIE LENNOX, 25 December 1954

Detractors might accuse the singer, humanitarian and campaigner of being rather right-on and a tad humourless and we’ll grant you there is an element of truth in that. Lennox cares so passionately about her HIV and human rights charity work that she borders on the sanctimonious. But she has put her money where her mouth is, donating profits from tours and giving a good deal of her time to raising awareness, when she could be sitting at home counting her not inconsiderable fortune instead. And look at her achievements: the most successful female British artist in UK music history, one of Rolling Stone’s 100 greatest singers of all time, one of the world’s best-selling music artists, winner of eight Brits, an Oscar, a Golden Globe, several Ivors and Grammies and five honorary degrees. Not bad at all. It would be nice if she lightened up, though.

Read day two’s ten.

Read day three’s ten.

Read day four’s ten.

Read day five’s final ten.

Picture credits: Linton Kwesi Johnson photo by akynou. Imran Khan photo by Magnus Manske. Lucinda Williams photo by 6tee-zeven. Pierce Brosnan photo by Rita Molnár. Tina Brown photo by Rick Maiman. Ron Howard photo by David Shankbone. Barnoness Amos photo by World Economic Forum. Neil Tennant photo by Beaucoupkevin. Annie Lennox photo by Manfred Werner