TV blog: Our Dementia Choir

Benjie Goodhart / 01 May 2019

This week’s highlights include a moving documentary about dementia.

Our Dementia Choir with Vicky McClure 1/2, Thursday 2nd May, 8pm, BBC Two

The book The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, is an astonishing and deeply moving story of a father and his young son trying to survive in a terrible post-apocalyptic world. I read it soon after becoming a father myself, and it had a profound effect on me. I finished the last pages on a busy commuter train back from London, and it broke me. I was a pathetic, sobbing, snotty mess, which generally makes your fellow travellers think you’re having a psychotic episode. I felt deeply embarrassed, and swore to myself that it would never happen again.

And it didn’t. Until yesterday.

Yesterday, on my train home, I watched the first of this two-part show that sees actor Vicky McClure bring together a choir of dementia patients for a grand gala performance. And I broke all over again.

My dad died of Alzheimer’s just over two years ago, and I miss him every day. Dementia gradually robs people of their sense of self, and robs loved ones of their partners on a brutal, relentlessly incremental basis. McClure knows all about that, having lost her grandma (‘Nonna’) to the disease a couple of years ago. And the cruel truth is, 850,000 people in the UK have dementia.

Trying to get through to someone with dementia can be a frustrating and thankless business, as they often appear locked in their own lonely world. But it’s not always that way. There are moments of connection, of sudden lucidity, when the veil separating you from them is torn down for a few glorious moments of clarity. I can’t begin to explain what joy those moments bring. And one of the most effective ways of engineering them is through the power of music.

For some reason, music seems to cut through the confusion and greyness of dementia. I remember visiting my dad in his care home, and finding him asleep. Not wanting to wake him, I went and sat in the lounge, next to a woman who I had seen often but never heard speak before. I can’t remember how it happened, but we spent a happy 20-minutes singing songs together – old croony numbers from the era of glitz and glamour. (Her knowledge of the back catalogue of AC/DC was sadly lacking). Soon afterwards, dad died, and I never saw her again, but it was a moment I treasure.

This documentary is seizing hold of this musical connection and making the most of it. McClure is gathering together 20 people with dementia in her hometown of Nottingham and, under the stewardship of delightful choirmaster Mark, preparing them for a gala performance in front of an audience of 2,000. Along the way, a team of academics will study the effects of the process on those taking part, to help in the fight against dementia.

The singing is joyous, and what it means to the choir is plainly self-evident. That, in itself, is deeply moving. But the back stories. The back stories will take out your heart, dissect it, shove it through a mincer and feed it back to you in a burger bun: The redoubtable Betty, 82, married to hubby John for 62 years. Chris, aged 67, whose type of dementia means he can be prone to saying entirely inappropriate things, to the exasperation (and yes, amusement) of his wife. Rae, 53, a former music teacher for whom the choir has remarkable, and unexpected, results. Julie, 50, who raised three kids on her own, and became Deputy Leader of the County Council, a powerful and successful woman who now can’t remember how to have a shower.

What’s astonishing is how young so many of the choir are. We think of dementia as happening to those in their 70s and 80s, but here we have people in their 60s, 50s, even 40s. But nothing can prepare you for Dan. Dan is 31, and has a partner and twins who are two. He is handsome, cool, and unbelievably brave. He’s also dying of dementia. And, be warned, he broke me, and he will more than likely break you too.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 27th April

Inside Jaguar: A Supercar Reborn, 8pm, Channel 4: Mark Evans presents this one-off documentary about the Jaguar XKSS which is, if I have understood this programme’s title correctly, a car.

By Royal Appointment: Shops serving the Queen, 9pm, Channel 5: Channel 5 seems to be as obsessed with the royal family as ITV is with true crime documentaries. This, their 4-trillionth royal-related doc of the year so far, is about the retailers that become official suppliers to the Queen.

Tuesday 30th April

Bake Off: The Professionals, 8pm, Channel 4: Liam Charles and Tom Allen host the show that sees pairs of baking professionals try to impress fearsome judges Cherish Finden and Benoit Blin. The creations are often amazing, but the show fails to quite capture the magic of its parent show.

Wednesday 1st May

Forensics: The Real CSI 1/3, 9pm, BBC Two: Documentary series looking at forensic science and the role it plays in bringing criminals to justice.

Planet Child 1/3, 9pm, ITV: TV’s busiest people, Doctors Chris and Xand van Tulleken, compare how children grow up in different cultures around the world.

Thursday 2nd May

When I Grow Up 1/3, 8pm, Channel 4: I have absolutely no idea how this series is going to work, or even what it’s really about. A collection of primary school kids join an adult workforce to see if it’ll affect how they see their futures, whatever that means. Today, six kids go and work at Hello! magazine. How this affects their future I have no clue, but it should at least extend their knowledge of soap stars and minor royals.

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