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TV review: Dementia and Us and Blair and Brown: The New Labour Revolution

Benjie Goodhart / 30 September 2021

A new series examines the rise and impact of New Labour in Blair and Brown: The New Labour Revolution, and a moving documentary looks at the impact of dementia on four families.

Dementia and Us
Dementia and Us, BBC Two. BBC/RDF Television

Blair and Brown: The New Labour Revolution, Monday 4th October, 9pm, BBC Two

In many ways, 1983 seems like yesterday. My life consisted of thinking about football, watching garbage on TV, and finding ever more ingenious ways of disposing of vegetables, so not that much has changed. But, heavens above, TV has changed. I’m not talking about streaming services, entertainment platforms, pausing live TV and whatnot. I just mean the look of it.

At the start of this programme, we see footage of the BBC’s 1983 election coverage, and it is mind-boggling. In a dimly lit studio, a collection of pundits in bad suits with big hair prepare to bring us all the dramatic news of the night from a set that looks as if it’s been designed by a first-year woodworking class. And David Dimbleby looks about 12.

One of the delights of this new five-part documentary series examining the rise and impact of New Labour is that it contains an absolute wealth of brilliant archive footage. In that respect, it’s a warm bath of nostalgia, looking back at the world of 40 years ago, with its bad clothes, clunky cars and even clunkier computers. And Peter Mandelson with an ill-judged moustache.

But the real delight of this series is that it tells an absolutely riveting story. Because the story of New Labour is, for better or worse (depending on your political leanings) the story of how we got from there to here. New Labour shaped Britain as dramatically as Thatcherism had done in the previous 15 years. And this story of how it came to pass is meticulously told, with a series of diverting sub-plots – not least of which is the simmering animosity between two former close friends and allies.

The other brilliant aspect of the series is that they have got everyone to speak. The roll call of talking heads includes Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Ed Balls, Neil Kinnock, Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson, Patricia Hewitt and many more Labour grandees. This is the inside track of a revolution, from the people who instigated it.

The first episode takes us from 1983 to Blair’s election as Labour leader in July 1994. The election in 1983 was a disaster for Labour. They were virtually wiped out in the South, giving the Tories a huge majority. But two of the lesser-known stories that day were the election of a couple of Labour MPs for the first time – Tony Blair in Sedgefield, and Gordon Brown in Dunfermline East.

The pair ended up sharing a small, windowless office in parliament with some other junior backbenchers, and quickly formed a strong bond. As centrist modernisers, they deduced that the party had to adapt to survive. It quickly became apparent that Blair was the junior partner, in terms of experience and political nous, and he learned a great deal from Brown.

There is a fascinating section which deals with their backgrounds: While Blair was a typical student, interested in rock music and partying, Brown was a deeply serious intellectual, who was Rector of Edinburgh University by the age of 24. They did have one thing in common: Terrible hair.

The programme charts the increasing influence of the pair through the 80s, in partnership with the Labour Party’s new director of communications, Mandelson, who refers to them as a ‘trio of musketeers’. Under Kinnock, the party was starting to change – but not fast enough for the electorate, who handed them another resounding defeat in 1987.

By 1988, both Blair and Brown were in the shadow cabinet, and both still anxious to speed up the modernisation of the party. Blair’s recollection of his first conference speech – and how Brown basically re-wrote it for him the night before he gave it – is a fascinating detail, in a programme packed full of fascinating details.

After yet another defeat in 1992, John Smith, Brown’s political mentor and friend, became leader. Brown’s devastation when Smith died in 1994 is deeply touching. And then, of course, there is the issue of who should succeed him – and the famous pact. We pretty much know what happened, but it’s riveting to hear it from the horses’ mouths.

All of this, then, and also Tony Blair in literally the worst pair of marble-wash jeans you will ever see. If that had got out, he’d never have been elected, and the world would be a very different place.

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Dementia and Us, Tuesday 5th October, 9pm, BBC Two

I want to tell you about my dad. He was the cleverest man I ever met. By and large, unless they were buddies with Stephen Hawking or Hilary Mantel, he was the cleverest person anyone ever met. He won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, then studied at Harvard Law School, before becoming a lawyer, a human rights activist, and a valued member of the House of Lords. He was also funny, kind and, rather improbably, the possessor of a pink denim suit.

And then he developed Alzheimer’s and, over a period of five years, he lost his faculties that made his mind so utterly, uniquely brilliant. He spent his last year in a (lovely) nursing home. He was always pleased to see me, even when he’d forgotten precisely who I was. And he came alive when I took my kids in.

They loved going to see him. There were pet rabbits in the garden, and enormous goldfish, and we always went to the café with grandpa. I would feed him ice cream, and he would endlessly read the Haagen Dazs label, pronouncing it differently every single time, to the kids’ unfailing amusement. And with each mouthful, his eyes would pop out of his head, because he’d forgotten how cold ice cream was since the last mouthful. The kids loved that too. But, in truth, it was a hard thing to watch, from the cleverest man I ever met.

Dementia is unique for everyone. It strikes everyone differently. This remarkable new two-part documentary series follows four people with dementia, and their families, over a two-year period, from summer 2019, as they live with the slow debilitation of their brain. As the narrator, who also has dementia, says: “We want to show you who we are. And we’ve no idea, yet, who we’ll become. This is our story.”

Allan Gilliver, 77, is a former professional footballer who played for a host of clubs including Bradford City, Brighton, Huddersfield and Blackburn. Looking back at team photos, he can remember everyone in the picture, but can’t remember what he did yesterday. Today, he lives quietly in Bradford, with his devoted wife Christie. In 2011, he was diagnosed with vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Chris, 43, was in the army for 23 years. Over ten years ago, he was diagnosed with Familial Alzheimer’s Disease, an incredibly rare inherited condition whereby offspring have a 50% chance of developing the condition. His brother is bed-ridden with it, and his father and aunt died very young from it. His daughter, who lives in Norway, has been tested for the condition, and is awaiting results.

Marion, 61, from Newcastle, has Posterior Cortical Atrophy. It effects her vision, language and spatial awareness. She has brightly coloured doorframes in her home to help her distinguish them from the walls. She casually says that she hopes she’ll be dead before she has to move into a home.

In Leeds, Clover is about to celebrate her 90th birthday. Five years ago, she was diagnosed with dementia, and lives with her daughter, Marcia, who looks after her mother with heroic devotion. She is a force of nature, who loved dancing and can still swing her hips with the best of them. She laughs a lot.

They are all funny, spirited, brave, and accepting of their condition. This sensitive and deeply moving series follows them as they navigate what are increasingly complex lives. Gilly’s behaviour is occasionally erratic, and sometimes violent. Chris has to sit his annual driving test, to see if he can continue to have the crucial lifeline that a car affords him. Marion travels to Newcastle, to take part in a study, determined that others will benefit from a cure in the future. And Marcia is increasingly concerned that she can no longer care for her mother at home.

This is not an easy watch, but it shows what life is like for those with dementia, and for those caring for them, in a frank and honest way. For better or worse it is, as the narrator says, their story.

The best… and the rest:

Saturday 2nd October

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, 8pm, BBC Two: Kirsty Wark and Brenda Emmanus look at some up-and-coming artists keen to make it into the exhibition, and examine a case of censorship dating back over 200 years.

Blankety Blank, 9pm, BBC One: Bradley Walsh hosts this reboot of the 80s TV classic gameshow. The celebrity panel this week includes Johnny Vegas, Joe Swash, Jimmy Carr and Martine McCutcheon.

Michael Caine: The Man & the Movies, 9pm, Channel 5: Feature-length documentary looking at the career of the great man, including archive interviews and film clips.

Sunday 3rd October

Big Ben: Restoring the World’s Most Famous Clock, 7pm, Channel 4: Architectural historian Anna Keay reports on what’s been going on behind the scaffolding as Big ben gets a much needed renovation.

The Mating Game 1/5, 8pm, BBC One: New series, narrated by some character called Attenborough, about the lengths animals will go to in order to impress a mate. Tonight, a polar bear turns cartwheels, which is exactly how I won over my wife.

Ridley Road, 9pm, BBC One: Based on Jo Bloom’s bestselling debut novel, this new four-part drama tells the story of Jewish hairdresser Vivien, who becomes embroiled in an underground movement battling far-right extremism in 1960s London. Starring Agnes O’Casey, Eddie Marsan and Tracy-Ann Oberman.

The Ranganation 1/6, 9pm, BBC Two: Romesh Ranganathan returns with a new series of topical comedy, wherein 20 members of the public share their thoughts on modern Britain.

Tuesday 5th October

Our Yorkshire Farm 1/7, 9pm, Channel 5: the cameras return to the wilds of Yorkshire to catch up with the (enormous) Owen family, as they navigate one of the harshest winters ion record, not to mention home-schooling for most of their nine children.

Catching a Predator, 9pm, BBC Two: Documentary telling the story of the investigation into serial rapist Reynhard Sinaga, leading to the biggest rape case in British legal history.

Murder Island 1/6, 9pm, Channel 4: This is something completely new! Four pairs of amateur detectives attempt to solve a ‘murder’ in a new reality series created by crime writer Ian Rankin. Should be worth a watch, if only for novelty’s sake.

Wednesday 6th October

Iceland with Alexander Armstrong 1/3, 9pm, Channel 5: The amiable comedian and presenter travels to the volcanic lunar landscapes of Iceland for a new four-part travel series.

Thursday 7th October

Savile: Portrait of a Predator, 9pm, ITV: Documentary telling the story of the prolific paedophile and asking how he managed to hide his crimes for so long. Features interviews with key witnesses and a senior detective.

Friday 8th October

Have I Got News for You 1/10, 9pm, BBC One: Series 62(!!) of the satirical news quiz, with Paul Merton and Ian Hislop, as ever, in the captain’s chairs. Whatever will they find to lampoon, when everything is going so well?

Susan Calman’s Grand Day Out 1/12, 9pm, Channel 5: The diminutive Scottish comedian makes a welcome return with some more Grand Days out around the nation, beginning this week in Norfolk.

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