Old, Alone and Stuck at Home, Wednesday 20th May, 9pm, Channel 4
My mother and I are taking very different approaches to our TV viewing during lockdown. She is spending practically every waking moment watching the news. If my daily phone call to her arrives during the Downing Street press briefing, I get a polite but fairly monosyllabic dismissal, followed by the line going dead. She watches the news on BBC One, ITV and Channel 4, though mercifully she’s yet to gravitate to those Channel 5 bulletins which last about 15 seconds and are as informative as the notes on a tin of beans. In between times, she regularly tops up on the BBC News channel.
I myself last viewed the news sometime in mid-April. I was finding the relentless cycle of misery a little too much to cope with. My wife is pretty much the same. There is every possibility that, when lockdown finally ends, we will be entirely unaware, like those Japanese soldiers who emerged from the jungle 30 years after World War II ended, still believing the conflict was going on.
So news is out. So are hard-hitting documentaries. And gritty dramas. And anything dark or noir-ish. Basically, we sit down every night and decide to watch the televisual equivalent of Valium – something soothing and calming, with people going on dates or sewing stuff.
This week, though, I’ve had to push myself beyond my comfort zone, on behalf of you, dear reader. I have heroically thrust myself into the midst of some fairly challenging TV on your behalf. They give out medals for less. Henceforth, I expect Wednesday nights to be given over to a round of applause for me.
First up this week there is this excellent but sobering documentary, about what it’s like for the over-70s having to self-isolate at the moment. The cast of subjects is a diverse and eloquent collection of people, who have filmed video diaries and spoken to cameras by telephone whilst being filmed through their windows.
Be warned, if you are trying to navigate your way through this pandemic using cheerful telly, this probably isn’t for you. It is, at times, desperately sad. Suzanne, from Shepherds Bush, has terminal cancer. She has a limited amount of time left, and is watching it slip through her fingers from behind an elegant sash window. Pete, from Northamptonshire, is in a similar boat. He has Alzheimer’s, and the clock is, inevitably, ticking as regards his symptoms. Des has holed up with his daughter in Hendon, but is receiving calls telling him of friends who have passed away on a disturbingly regular basis. Trevor breathes through a tube in his throat, so is highly vulnerable, while his wife Sally has just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and has had her operation delayed by COVID-19. Yvonne and Chris have a profoundly-disabled 39-year-old daughter with severe health complications. Everyone’s situation is, in its own way, agony.
That said, they are all, also, extraordinarily resilient. They keep on keeping on. “Gosh it’s good to be alive,” says Pete, on a spring walk. Suzanne insists on dressing beautifully each day, in spite of being alone. Trevor looks forward to seeing his grandson once more. “I’ve got so many naughty things I’ve still to teach him.” His wife organises a tea party where all their neighbours set up a table and chairs and drink tea on their own doorsteps. There is so much beauty and courage and love on display, it is humbling.
This is not an easy watch, but it is an important one. As lockdown loosens for most of the population, it is worth remembering that for some, it has far from run its course. It might have been nice – and indeed more accurate and representative – to have had some contributors to this documentary who were cheerily sipping wine in their gardens and pruning the roses, but this film is nevertheless a valuable and informative record of what millions of people are going through right now. As we are increasingly hearing, but it is worth repeating ad nauseam, this too will pass.
Horizon: What’s the Matter with Tony Slattery, Thursday 21st May, 9pm, BBC Two
The second part of this week’s couplet of misery is another excellent, but not at all easy, one-off documentary. Many readers will remember Tony Slattery as the young, sparky improv genius made famous by Who’s Line Is It Anyway in the 1980s. He was almost impossibly talented and stupendously good-looking and charismatic. The world seemed to be at his gold-plated feet.
And then, abruptly, in the mid-90s, he disappeared. This documentary charts what happened to him, and what might happen next.
Those of you who remember the youthful Slattery will be in for a shock. I dare say none of us look quite as fresh-faced, clear-eyed and athletic as we did 25 years ago, but this is something different. This is the ravages of almost 30 years of drink, drugs and mental illness. Slattery is unrecognisable, and with a white beard and shuffling gait, he looks considerably older than his 60 years. He lives in a small terraced house in an insalubrious part of North London with his partner of 32 years, the long-suffering and angelic Mark. And Maggie, the “psychotic cat”.
Slattery had a nervous breakdown in 1996, a result of overwork, drink, drugs and mental illness. Though where one begins and another ends is difficult to ascertain. If you’re drinking two bottles of vodka every day, and snorting 10g or cocaine (enough to fell a whole herd of elephants), you’re going to have very poor mental health. But then again, you’re unlikely to start drinking that much, and taking industrial quantities of coke, if you’re entirely well to begin with.
This is the dilemma that poor Slattery is trying to unpick in this relentlessly honest and unflinching film. Both he and Mark believe that, at the root of it all, Slattery may be bipolar, and that it may all stem from a trauma he suffered as a child. The film follows him on visits to see a series of experts, from the GP who first diagnosed him with depression, to arguably the world’s foremost expert on Bipolar Disorder, to an addiction specialist. He is asked to keep a mood diary, but is erratic in doing so, because on many days he feels too low to complete it. Bearing in mind it simply involves touching a screen a few times, that must be pretty low. You don’t need a mood diary to tell you that’s not a great sign.
Perhaps the most shattering scene is when Slattery talks to a specialist in trauma at Queens University, Belfast. The discussion of a childhood incident is brutally frank, and it is testimony to Slattery’s courage and generosity that he has allowed it to be screened. “I think, to reveal oneself and one’s own experience can easily come across as self-regarding,” he says at one point. “But what, what, WHAT if it bloody helps someone else?”
The film finishes on a reasonably optimistic note, but it is hard not to feel desperately sad about Slattery, not least because he comes across as a thoroughly decent, kind, intelligent and sensitive soul. Watching him, stuttering, stumbling over words, and speaking with a slowness that belies his once characteristic quick wit, it is almost too painful to imagine him as he was in his glory years, when he shone with an effortless brightness. Get well soon, Tony.
The best… and the rest:
Saturday 16th May
Eurovision: Come Together, 6:25pm, BBC One: On the night when the Eurovision Song Contest would have taken place, viewers are instead able to vote for their all-time favourite Eurovision song, with the entries selected by a panel of experts.
Eurovision: Europe Shine a Light, 8pm, BBC One: Simulcast across Europe, this programme will feature the all 41 songs that would have featured in the competition, so if you’re hankering after those characteristically weird and awful entries from far afield, you’re in luck. There will also be a pan-European virtual singalong to What’s Another Year, Johnny Logan’s winning song from 1980. Graham Norton presents for the BBC.
The A-Z or Eurovision, 10pm, BBC Two: Round off the evening’s cheese-fest with Rylan Clark-Neal taking you through the alphabet, Eurovision-style. A is, of course, for ABBA…
Monday 18th May
Monkman and Seagull’s Genius Adventures, 9pm, BBC Two: Eric Monkman and Bobby Seagull made their names as uber-boffins on University Challenge. In this three-part series, they hit the road around the UK, in search of the inventions and innovations in the Industrial Revolution that changed the world.
Harry’s Heroes: Euro Having a Laugh 1/3, 9pm, ITV: Last year, Harry Redknapp assembled a group of chubby, unfit ex-football legends and tried to get them fit ahead of a match against Germany. This is essentially an action replay, but also combined with a European road trip. Probably rather fun, if you don’t mind the inevitable ‘bantz’. Showing on consecutive nights.
Tuesday 19th May
A Very British Hotel Chain: Inside Best Western, 9pm, Channel 4: Fly-on-the-wall doc following the hotel company with 265 outlets nationwide. Ambitious new CEO Rob Paterson wants that figure to be 500 in two years.
Thursday 21st May
The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off, 10pm, Channel 4: Another chance to see this landmark documentary following the last months in the life of 36-year-old Jonny Kennedy, who suffered from dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa. A remarkable film.