TV blog: A Time To Live

Benjie Goodhart / 10 May 2017

This week’s TV highlights include an inspirational documentary, plus the best of the rest of the week on TV.

A Time to Live, Wednesday 17th May, 9pm, BBC One

Ladies and gentlemen: We’re all going to die one day. The proximity of that occasion may depend upon many factors, but whatever happens, the shrugging off of this mortal coil is inevitable. Hopefully, this isn’t the first you’ve heard of this, or I’d have broken it more gently.

I suspect I’m not the only person who has spent time wondering how I would react to news that contained the words ‘incurable’ or ‘terminal’. I have very little doubt I’d fall to pieces. But then what? How do you prepare for death? This is the premise of Sue Bourne’s extraordinary one-off documentary.

Actually, that’s wrong. This isn’t a documentary about death. It’s about life, and how glorious, vivid and remarkable it is. Bourne has spoken to 12 people who are dying, to learn what they have discovered about life, and about themselves, since their diagnosis, and to find out how they’re spending the precious, fleeting time they have left. The subjects themselves range in age from their 70s right the way down to the pitifully young early 20s.

This documentary works absolutely beautifully, and is given astonishing power, by its simplicity. It is simply Bourne talking to her subjects. We don’t hear from family members, or friends, or medical experts. We just hear the testimony from the individuals in question. The structure, too, is refreshingly straightforward: Each person’s story is told in around five minutes, one after the other. There’s no ostentatious editing or fooling around with narrative or timelines, it’s just people talking. And when the people talking are as astonishing as this, and the subject as fundamental and universal, you don’t need bells and whistles.

I don’t know whether Bourne searched far and wide for the 12 most astonishingly courageous and inspirational people to be facing death, or whether this is just a random sample. I can’t believe we all find such depth and lion-hearted obstinacy when faced with the end, but it’s nice to think so. “It allows you to do things, instead of talking about them… The colours are brighter, the trees are greener,” says one. Another has been given new insight into her life by her ovarian cancer. “Cancer has been a gift, and if the exchange for that is time, then I’m willing to accept that gift.” Another still reports that, since his diagnosis, he and his wife have had “some of the best times of our lives. The gift of life is somehow reinforced when you know it’s finite.”

It’s difficult to pay sufficient tribute to those interviewed, for the courage to speak about their condition, and even more for the courage to face it with such fortitude. But credit, too, must go to Bourne, who has clearly built a rapport with her subjects (no easy thing to do, emotionally, one imagines) and who has the nous and chutzpah to ask the difficult questions.

This film isn’t an easy watch. But it’s not as hard as you might imagine. This isn’t desperate people raging against the dying of the light. Indeed, watching this programme, you don’t feel their light is dying in the slightest. If anything, it’s burning with renewed incandescence.

Shut-Ins: Britain’s Fattest Woman, Tuesday 18th May, 9pm, Channel 4

Yesterday, my daughter went to a party. There, she overdid it somewhat, had a little bit too much, came home, and was sick everywhere. No, I’m not talking about booze – while I have no doubt those days are ahead of us, she is only six, so I reckon we’ve got a bit of time yet.

It was sugar. When I arrived to collect her, she proudly informed me that she’d had two cupcakes, a packet of sweets, and ‘hundreds and hundreds of biscuits’. And I don’t think they were oat cakes. Meanwhile, the lovingly cut-and-crafted plate of crudités remained resolutely untouched. (It is the first rule of kids’ parties that there is always, always, a plate of cut carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes that remains unsullied by infant hands.)

The point is, she had too much sugar, and her body very firmly rejected it. While I don’t necessarily subscribe to the modern assertion that sugar is a poison akin to a particularly virulent strain of sarin (indeed, I consider a nice slice of Victoria Sponge to be a human right), it is reasonably clear that too much of it isn’t great. Which brings me on to Sharon Hill.

Two years ago, Sharon Hill was filmed for a Channel 4 documentary. At 46 stone, she was Britain’s fattest woman. Aged only 33, hers was a miserable existence – she couldn’t shower, and could barely move off the sofa. She never left the house, lived in perpetual pain, and consumed 12,000 calories every day, mostly in the form of sweets, biscuits and cake. Her husband, Andrew (who had weight issues of his own) was rendered almost housebound himself by the need to look after her.

The original film showed her undergoing bariatric surgery to remove three quarters of her stomach, and the aftermath. This updated film catches up with Sharon in 2016, as she prepares for her next surgery, to remove a third of her intestine.

Watching Sharon and Andrew go about their complex, messy daily life, a few thoughts spring to mind. Foremost is Sharon’s extraordinary courage to agree to be filmed. Sharon knows better than most how hurtful people can be towards the overweight. She went on her first diet aged eight, has struggled with her weight all her life, and weeps as she recalls schoolyard bullying where her peers wished her dead. All because she was fatter than them. The cruelty beggars belief. Fortunately, this is a sensitive, well-made programme rather than a voyeuristic freak-show, but the bravery involved in opening yourself up to public ridicule is to be commended.

It’s far from plain sailing, though. The challenges are as much psychological as physical. And they are as much Andrew’s as Sharon’s. Theirs is a loving relationship, but also one based on addiction, and fraught with insecurities, pitfalls and recrimination. And, as Sharon’s situation starts to improve, it quickly becomes apparent that Andrew isn’t entirely pleased with the way things are going.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 13th May

Women’s FA Cup Final, 5pm, BBC Two: Manchester City Women take on Birmingham City Ladies. Women v Ladies is an interesting distinction. Expect the Birmingham team to play with great diffidence and politeness, stopping every now and again to pick wildflowers and take tea in the local vicarage.

Walks with My Dog, 8pm, Channel 4: Welcome return of this gentle delight, in which celebs and their trusty hounds go for walks, exploring local history, wildlife and culture. Tonight, Robert Lindsay (Cornish coast) Phil Spencer (Kent marshes) and Angela Griffin (Yorkshire) go for a potter with their four-legged friends.

Eurovision Song Contest 2017, 8pm, BBC One: Graham Norton presents an evening of high camp, confusing choreography and unnecessary key changes from Kiev, in the ultimate love-it-or-loathe-it musical extravaganza.

Sunday 14th May

British Academy Television Awards, 8pm, BBC One: The excellent Sue Perkins introduces a night of TV-backslapping in the industry’s biggest night of the year. If Lonely Planet 2 doesn’t win something, I quit.

Monday 15th May

The Fake News Show, 8:30pm, Channel 4: After a successful pilot show last year, the broadcaster brings us a series designed to separate truth from tabloid. Stephen Mangan hosts, and Katherine Ryan and Richard Osman are team captains.

Ivanka Trump: America’s Real First Lady, 9pm, Channel 4: Matt Frei looks at the high-profile role played by President Trump’s daughter, and examines her relationship with her father.

Tuesday 16th May

Three Girls, 9pm, BBC One: Harrowing three-part drama starring Maxine Peake, looking at the real life case of the unspeakable child grooming and trafficking ring uncovered in Rochdale in 2012. Made with the co-operation of the families involved, this stark and sobering drama is on over the next three nights.

Wednesday 17th May

ISIS: The Origins of Violence, 9pm, Channel 4: Historian Tom Holland’s film, looking at the theological basis for ISIS’ extreme actions, is a brave, cerebral and slightly confusing look at the continuing tragedy in Iraq and Syria.

Thursday 18th May

The ITV Leaders’ Debate, 8pm, um, ITV (obviously…): With both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn potentially sitting this one out, the biggest losers this evening look set to be the viewers, democracy, and ITV’s advertising revenues. A shame, as the corresponding debates in the past have been riveting.

Kat and Alifie: Redwater, 8pm, BBC One: Kat and Alfie Moon, two of EastEnders’ most beloved characters, return to screens in this new spin-off series. Each to their own. Personally, I’d rather boil and eat my own toes.

Friday 19th May

River Monsters, 8pm, ITV: Return of the hilariously melodramatic and overblown series in which an angler tries to impart a sense of mortal danger into one of life’s more sedate pastimes. Next month, Death Knitting Uncovered.

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